EVEN before seeing the results, sometimes you have to thank TV simply for trying. I felt that way the minute I learned that TNT would dramatize Joseph Conrad's great novella ``Heart of Darkness,'' probably his best-known work, and also the one hardest to pin down.
Attempting to capture the elusive and often undefinable feelings inherent in this tale is a worthy undertaking in itself. But the program, airing Sunday from 8-10 p.m., turns out to be more than a nice try. It's a haunting personal vision of Conrad's story about the British colonist Marlow, who is hired by a Belgian company to captain a steamboat up the Congo River. His assignment is to find out what's going on at the company's ``inner station,'' where a rogue station chief named Kurtz is suspected of collecting ivory in some illicit way.
In Conrad's hands, the expedition is also a mental trip into the murky recesses of Marlow's soul, and into the greed and savagery lurking in ``civilized'' man. That journey has been a lure - usually just a tantalizing one - to certain serious-minded filmmakers over the years. Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 ``Apocalypse Now,'' of course, put the story in Vietnam and turned Marlow into a United States Army captain.
In 1939 Orson Welles was supposed to make a version of ``Heart of Darkness'' for RKO, but he ran over budget, and his effort, already well along, was canceled. John Huston talked about doing a film treatment - he loved the tale - but ``The African Queen'' (1951) is as close as he ever got, and that's not very close.
So the arrival of the TNT version - the first major film adaptation with Conrad's own title - is welcome, especially since it is by the noted director Nicolas Roeg, who made ``The Man Who Fell to Earth'' and other experimental films. His task here is to recreate Conrad's claustrophobic mental arena in outward visual terms without destroying the work's dense inward character.
That kind of filmmaking is always a treacherous business, and Roeg manages mostly by letting the jungle setting and the characters - both black and white - serve as a means to a shadowy end. The cinematic images are carefully naturalistic - jungle vistas, period costume, historical detail - in all, a credible exterior. Yet the ghastly impact is not entirely explainable in what you see, though that is bad enough at times, but in the cumulative psychological effect as the journey progresses. The viewer's impressions are often fleeting, undefined, and subject to half a dozen or so interpretations. Chained slaves go by. Maimed natives are visible at white-run work sites. A brutal beating is dimly perceived. The sights all serve to heighten the horror of the journey.
The image of Kurtz is especially furtive - built of hearsay and foggy reports. Marlow (played by Tim Roth) hides in a damaged boat at one point and overhears tales about the apparent madman. The company's chief accountant says, ``There are rumors about him ... that he is guarding a mountain of ivory.... I have even heard ... but no....'' When the boat is attacked as they near the inner station, ambiguity reigns. Is it Kurtz's forces, someone asks. But no one knows if Kurtz is alive or dead. What in another context might have been simply an action-adventure scene becomes moral chaos. Men urge Marlow to turn back. Another says the company's ``honor'' must be defended.
When Kurtz (John Malkovich) is finally seen - wrapped in a gauzy mantle, speaking in distracted phrases - he is a ghostly figure obsessed with a portrait of his intended wife. His confrontation with Marlow in a gloomy room has a dreamlike feel, as if Marlow were talking to himself in a newly discovered part of his own mind - half-lit and full of darting thoughts, as suggested by the pouncing monkey Kurtz keeps as a pet.
At one point Kurtz says, ``The jungle ... is an immeasurable assault on ordinary human understanding. It invites you to dig down into yourself. But it is dangerous to tear away the layers....'' To capture on film even some of the ideas suggested in those words is a true accomplishment, one you won't soon forget.