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.

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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. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?