New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
  2. Radio & Podcasts
29 October 2015

Rumble in the jungle: how Heart of Darkness brought Orson Welles to the airwaves

James McAvoy brings a hardness that could shatter walnuts to Orson Welles’s Heart of Darkness on BBC Radio 4.

By Antonia Quirke

An audacious radio adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella (24 October, 2.30pm) used Orson Welles’s super-cinematic but abandoned 1939 film screenplay and starred James McAvoy as the steamer captain Marlow, charged to travel up the Congo in search of the uncontrolled, native-mulching ivory agent Kurtz. After RKO Pictures rejected it on the grounds of budget and over-strangeness, Welles was forced to ditch the project (with its ambitious camera ideas) and move on to his back-up plan, Citizen Kane (which had a few ideas of its own).

Welles’s attachment to the Conrad story had been intense. He had gone so far as to shoot some test footage, complete with model jungle and boat (lit so noir that you can scarcely make them out), and recorded an atmos-dripping radio narration in 1938 with his Mercury Productions. One suspects that he might have been attracted to Heart of Darkness for the voice-over opportunity alone, so tremendous are Conrad’s lines.

McAvoy, a 36-year-old Scotsman, has worked so often in Hollywood that his US accent is seamless. But where the part reads as relatively moderate on the page, McAvoy gave it a limitless, lonely intensity: “All that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest . . . the abomination . . . the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate . . .”

The scale of the cost and legend, and the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – which in 1979 updated the action to the Vietnam War – might eternally put movie studios off any further adaptations of Heart of Darkness (Nicolas Roeg made a TV version in 1993 that looked only half committed to the idea of it as a film). And so it is that rare thing: an important book that remains largely ungrabbed: something that nobody has quite got a handle on, sitting there waiting to be brilliant.

Where Coppola’s script is ever moving towards the head-lolling hulk of Colonel Kurtz and Brando, Welles is dedicated to a more sly, anti-fascist subtext and places Marlow to the fore. It is his journey of discovery, which suited radio utterly. The rest of the cast did well enough but it was Mc­Avoy who sounded like the one grown-up, the pulse. He brought a hardness that could have shattered walnuts. 

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

This article appears in the 28 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?