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Teaching Guide

Teaching Heart of Darkness

Good things come in small packages.


There are plenty of bad activities you could do while teaching Heart of Darkness. Like…take your students into the jungle or decorate your room with shrunken heads on sticks. Bad idea. Put the stakes away and check out our teaching guide instead.

In this guide you won't find any cannibals, but you will find

  • discussion questions asking students to explore the characterization of the African natives vs. krazy Kurtz.
  • reading quizzes to check if students make it all the way to the heart of darkness or if they stop at the outskirts.
  • related literary resources linking Heart of Darkness to works by Chinua Achebe and Barbara Kingsolver.

With this teaching guide, you can teach Heart of Darkness without losing your head.

What's Inside Shmoop's Literature Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring literature to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: Though Francis Ford Coppola took a few liberties with the narrative from Heart of Darkness (such as changing the time period and the setting), much remains the same in his film Apocalypse Now, which is an adaptation of Conrad's classic tale. 

  • Both stories include a main character who is head upstream in search of a man named Kurtz;
  • Both include an imposing character named Kurtz who has gone a bit bonkers and committed some brutal acts (ears on a necklace, heads on spikes—these guys definitely have issues); and of course ...
  • Both stories suggest that the chaotic and violent environments in which these Kurtzes lose their respective marbles—and the imperial forces who are ultimately behind all the madness—are at least partly to blame for their actions.

There are more similarities and more characters from the book with counterparts in the film, and your students—with your guidance—will surely find them. They will also compare the use of different aesthetic media (film, book) in the creation of a story and examine the historical and social contexts of both the text and the film. Ultimately, the lesson will compel the students to use technology (video, computers) to create their own adaptations of scenes from the book.

Length of Lesson: 4-5 class periods over the course of two weeks. (On the front end, you'll need 153 minutes to watch the film in its entirety, and 30-45 minutes to discuss the film and introduce the assignment. After students have completed their short films, you'll need one more class period for students to present their work.) 

Materials Needed:

NOTE: This movie is rated "R," so you may need to get permission slips or some form of parental or administrative approval before you show it to your students. 

Also, the following resources could be helpful you in terms of providing background information for your students or doing a little advance scouting on the similarities/differences between Conrad's novel and Coppola's film.

Step 1: Give your students a little background on Coppola's film adaptation (Roger Ebert's review is a good source of info for this), and, if you like, a little background on the Vietnam War. You don't need to go into great detail on either of these subjects—just enough so that students understand AN was inspired by HoD, and that Coppola set his film during the Vietnam War instead of the colonial period in the Congo.  

Step 2: Cue up the film and start rolling. This could take up to four class periods if yours are on the short end (45 minutes or so). If you don't have that many classes to give, you could show key scenes instead. Use the DVD scene/chapter titles to help you choose. 

In either case, while students are watching the film, they should be taking notes on the similarities and differences they notice between Coppola's film and Conrad's novel. 

Step 3: After viewing the film, give your students time to share their reactions and observations. Here are a few suggested questions:

  1. How does Apocalypse Now resemble Heart of Darkness?
  2. How does the Vietnam War as a historical event contrast with the period of European imperialism in the Congo? How are these two historical events similar?
  3. Does Coppola's film version of the book add or take anything away from the novella? Explain. 
  4. In Heart of Darkness, the narrator says that "all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz." Who contributed to the making of Coppola's Kurtz? 

Step 4: Phew. That's an intense movie, eh? Time to shake it off and outline the scope and guidelines of this film project for your students. Here's what's going to happen: 

Your students will divide into small groups and work together to create a film adaptation of a scene from the book. Encourage them to take whatever creative license they need to complete the task as long as their creative choices are grounded in the text. To that end, they will need to turn in both a script of their scene adaptation as well as a written analysis that compares their adaptations to the original text. The written analysis must explain why they made their artistic choices and how those choices are based on the text. 

This portion of the lesson may take a week or two to complete, but don't give your students too long to work on their films or they'll procrastinate. We know it, you know it, they know it. One week is doable, especially if you limit their films to 5 minutes. 

Step 5: Allow each group to share its short film and explain: 

  • why they chose to adapt that particular scene; and
  • the creative choices they made in omitting or adding material.  

Each group can also spend 3-5 minutes answering any questions from you or their classmates.

(Lesson aligned with CA English Language Arts 9th & 10th grade reading standards 3.5, 3.10, 3.11, 3.12; writing 2.2, 2.3; speaking & listening 1.7, 1.14, 2.2, 2.4, 2.6; 11th & 12th grade reading standards 3.3, 3.5; writing 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.6; listening & speaking 1.1, 1.3, 1.14, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4)

Instructions for Your Students

Who says that watching the movie is cheating? Watching film versions of novels is not only fun, but it can also help you understand and analyze the book even better. Heart of Darkness gives you a great excuse to watch the famous Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. Take note of the way the movie adapts the story of Heart of Darkness, because you'll be making your own video adaptation of a scene from the book.

Step 1: Watch Coppola's Apocalypse Now (or scenes from the movie) in class. While watching the movie, fill out a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts the film and the book.

Step 2: Gear up for a discussion of the film and how it compares to the book. Some questions to think about:

  1. How does Apocalypse Now resemble Heart of Darkness?
  2. How does the Vietnam War as a historical event contrast with the period of European imperialism in the Congo? How are these two historical events similar?
  3. Does Coppola's film version of the book add or take anything away from the novella? Explain. 
  4. In Heart of Darkness, the narrator says that "all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz." Who contributed to the making of Coppola's Kurtz? 

Step 3: Now it's time to create your own film adaptation of a scene from Heart of Darkness. In a small group, pick a scene from the book that you'll adapt to film. Write a script and create a short film (5 minutes maximum). Be as creative as you like, as long as your creative choices are grounded in the text.

Step 4: Write an analysis that compares your adaptation to the original scene. This analysis must explain why you made the artistic choices you made and how those choices are based on the text. Remember: quotes from the book are your friends. Use them. 

Step 5: Present your scene to the class. Turn in the script of the scene adaptation and the analysis that compares your adaptation to the original text.

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