King Kong: the Novel
A year before King Kong hit the silver screen in 1933, the novelization of the screenplay appeared, written by Delos W. Lovelace. It tells the same tale: maverick filmmaker Carl Denham sails off to a mysterious island with his crew, including adventurous Jack Driscoll and beautiful Ann Darrow. They encounter cliché island natives, prehistoric animals, and a gigantic ape.
Despite appearing before the final cut of the film, this novel captures the world of the original Kong beautifully. The movie and this novel reflect a late Victorian/early twentieth-century view of the exotic, the primitive, and the prehistoric. A noble tramp steamer can sail from New York and somehow find a lost island with dinosaurs, giant lizards, and outsized spiders. "Dinosaur" in this novel means something resembling a brontosaurus; the triceratops are described as "something like a dinosaur." Prehistoric creatures get called "mistakes" of nature, and behave like the savage, evolutionary disasters they were popularly imagined to be (after all, they’re extinct, right?). The island, covered in huge trees and overgrown undergrowth is the forest primeval on a vast scale. Kong is both an ancestral ape and something akin to a missing link, with a touch of humanity. Not all of this, of course, seems terribly enlightened today.
Racism runs through the depiction of the Skull Islanders—though it’s not as bad as one might expect. We can regret aspects of this imaginary world and we should certainly note the flaws, but part of Kong’s success is that it recreates a pop-culture dream of a bygone age, a world glimpsed in old Hollywood movies, in Boy’s Own annuals, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Charles R. Knight‘s dinosaur paintings, in H. Rider Haggard and missionary slide shows in the church basement and Disney’s original Adventureland.
As it was written from an earlier draft of the screenplay, it contains some discrepancies with the film. The famous lost spider sequence appears, but the late-addition subway train attack does not. Denham and crew sail on the Wanderer, which the film renamed the Venture. In place of the Chinese cook, we have a grizzled character called "Lumpy."
The novel features very little depth of characterization. Darrow and Driscoll behave with remarkable calm in the face of harrowing circumstances. No one much mourns their lost comrades, but that’s hardly surprising; those lost comrades have as much personality as Star Trek’s Red Shirts
It’s difficult to find fault with a novel that understands entirely what it is—and that isn’t literature. King Kong features many clichés, and they often work. They become excessive, even for this novel, in the descriptions of the crowds at Kong’s New York debut.
If you can overlook its flaws, and if you enjoy King Kong, the novel makes for an easy, fun read.
After Kong Fell
King Kong became a film classic, and the giant ape took on a life of his own. A sequel, The Son of Kong, was rushed into theaters by the end of the year. An upsized version of the character appeared in a couple of Toho kaiju films (King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes). He suffered imitators, such as Konga (1961) and Queen Kong (1976). An animated series appeared, and many an animated and comic book hero has faced a Kong wannabee. The original film has been remade twice, the first time in 1976.
King Kong (1976)
Directed by John Guillermin.
Written by Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Charles Grodin as Fred Wilson
Jeff Bridges as Jack Prescott
Jessica Lange as Dwan
John Randolph as Captain Ross
Rick Baker as King Kong
In this version, an ecologically-insensitive executive takes a ship out to a mysterious island in search of oil. The film even offers an explanation—albeit a stupid one—for how an island large enough to sustain a giant simian has gone unnoticed until the late twentieth century. En route to that island, the ship picks up a stowaway hippie primatologist and a castaway supermodel.
The island lacks dinosaurs, but it features Hollywood Savages and a really big snake. Eventually, Kong is captured and taken to New York City, where he escapes and climbs the old World Trade Center. The movie made money, but was savaged in reviews. It did, however, provide the debut for Jessica Lange, who takes on Fay Wray's role.
Dwan’s character is entirely ridiculous—-she survives a shipwreck with a glass still in her hand and not one hair out of place—-and her apparent I.Q. makes her a suitable Bride for a gorilla. Jessica Lange, however, makes the most of the campy role. While her notorious debut doubtless embarrasses her now, she manages to make the part entertaining and managed to put together a distinguished career after putting King Kong behind her. She also provides a glimpse of her acting ability in the movie’s final sequence, when we see that she, you know, cares for the big guy.
Many cite Lange’s ludicrous dialogue as a low point. However, having dippy Dwan scream things like, "You goddamn chauvinist pig ape!" and ask Kong about his astrological sign is actually pretty funny, given that this film can really only be enjoyed as mediocre camp comedy.
The film's publicity devoted much press to the giant robotic Kong built by Carlo Rambaldi, which supposedly plays Kong in this movie. In fact, while robo-Kong toured to promote the film, it only appears briefly in the film. Rick Baker plays Kong, dressed in a gorilla suit. What is more, Kong is obviously a man in a gorilla suit. The MechaKong cameo doesn’t match the beast we see at other times in the movie, and the beast we see at other times looks like he’s wandered out of a Halloween party.
A far superior remake appeared in 2005.
King Kong (2005)
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace.
Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow
Jack Black as Carl Denham
Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll
Andy Serkis as King Kong/Lumpy
Evan Parker as Hayes
Jamie Bell as Jimmy
Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter
Thomas Kretschman as Captain Englehorn
Colin Hanks as Preston
Lobo Chan as Choy
Peter Jackson, reveling in the success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, was permitted free rein and a huge budget to recreate his favorite childhood film. He has developed backstories for the characters. In particular, Ann Darrow becomes more than just a glamour girl who can scream; she’s an acrobatic, dancing vaudeville performer with a sensitive soul, and a perfect match for Kong.
The settings stun, creating neural fireworks in the visual cortex. Jackson has recreated 1933 New York as marvelously as he did Middle-Earth. From Depression-era squatter cities to Times Square to the famous vertiginous climax atop the Empire State Building, it looks as though Jackson and crew received permits to film 72 years earlier. Skull Island has become a spectacular, stylized lost world, home to dinosaurs and outsized animals. It’s far scarier than any previous home Kong has had. Dinosaurs attack in large numbers. Giant insects, python-sized centipedes, and Lovecraftian slugs crawl in its lowest ravines.
This Kong, modeled on an actor’s performance and computer-animated, is a fully-realized movie monster, on par with Lord of the Rings’ Gollum and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster.
The film is spectacular, but it is not perfect. The extraordinary special effects, flawless in places, do not quite work in some scenes. The human/dinosaur interactions, while exciting, don’t always look right, and instances of CGI humans look like CGI humans.
The racism of the original film has been addressed, though not always convincingly.
Jackson also needs to find a good editor. Oh, they've done a beautiful job on individual sequences. However, this film didn’t need three hours to tell its story; at least a half-hour easily could have been chopped. The opening backstory sequence could have been shortened, I might have been just as happy with one fewer creepy-crawly Skull Island scene, and the "Kong on Ice" scene definitely should have been reduced in length.
It can never have the purity of concept of the original, made in an era when the public could believe that a Skull Island existed just off the map, but it is a superior work of film.
Several models of various sizes were used in the original King Kong, including a large-sized bust. But even in the world of the film, Kong's size varied. The publicity claimed King Kong was fifty feet high, and RKO Radio Pictures released a list of official vital statistics:
Height: 50 feet
Face: 7 feet from hairline to chin
Nose: 2 feet
Lips: 6 feet from corner to corner
Brows: 4 feet 3 inches
Mouth: 6 feet when stretched as in a smile
Eyes: each 10 inches long
Ears: 1 foot long
Eye-teeth: 10 inches high, 7 inches at base
Molars: 14 inches round, 4 inches high
Chest: 60 feet
Legs: 15 feet
Arms: 23 feet
Reach: 75 feet
All of these numbers were largely the product of some publicist's imagination. In fact, Kong was shot to appear eighteen feet high when on Skull Island. A lot of the island scenes involve interaction with Fay Wray and various dinosaurs, and the filmmakers wanted a creature sized with these encounters in mind. In New York, the great ape suddenly appears twenty-four feet high, to better interact with the skyscrapers of the New York environment. These shifts generally go unnoticed, unlike the jarringly abrupt changes of size experienced by the ape in Son of Kong.
Willis O'Brien created another set of official statistics when trying to market (unsuccessfully) King Kong vs Frankenstein, including:
Height: 19 feet, 8 inches.
Weight: 38 tons
Reach: 27 feet.
The novelization by Delos Lovelace puts Kong's height at twenty feet.
Some of the pre-publicity for the 1976 Dino de Laurentis remake stated that Kong was forty feet high.
Peter Jackson's version makes Kong twenty-five feet high, and future spin-offs will likely add new dimensions to the lore.
So, what is the appeal of Kong?
1. Giant apes are inherently cool.
As Zaphod Beeblebrox once said, "shrewd, but dull."
2. Sex appeal.
Showing all the curiosity of an adolescent boy, the original Kong peels off Ann Darrow's clothes, strokes her and then sniffs his finger. While Jackon's Kong lacks quite so sexualized a scene, he has arguably developed the sexual politics, and Kong/Darrow can be read as an embodiment of a very traditional, horribly stereotypical, but not altogether irrelevant concept of gender relationships. Kong is big, bestial, and primal, but he has a heart. He can and does fight monsters on Ann's behalf, but can't remember to control his temper. Pseudo-heroic poseurs like Baxter pale beside him; tricky guys in suits like Denham screw him over. Civilization constrains him; eventually, it kills him. Ann, initially frightened by the more powerful Kong, asserts herself, shows her entertaining side, and they form a bond which no one else truly understands, but which we all recognize. They are simplified and primal essentialist male and female.
Either that, or he’s a big smelly monster and she has a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome.
3. Power Appeal
Forget gender; Kong is a stand in for anyone who has felt strong feelings. The character holds a particular appeal for little kids and nerds and anyone who would like, just once, to have that kind of power.
4. Humanity’s love-hate relationship with nature.
Kong and the island he inhabits are nature personified. The island draws us and seems like a wonderful mystery, but must there be so many bugs and hidden dangers, and gee, I can't wait to get home and take a shower.... Kong is primal, big, and dangerous. We love him, and yet we know him dangerous, deadly, and our attempts to tame the savage lead to disaster, and reveal humanity the true monster.
The remade Kongs really push this last point. The original Carl Denham had more than a little P. T. Barnum in him, but he seemed heroic. His ’76 counterpart, Fred Wilson, is callous and exploitative, and the 2005 Denham, an outright huckster. While he has likable qualities, he also shows our impulse to explore mysterious nature, to capture and display the exotic, as dark and potentially destructive things.
5. It's a fun adventure.
C’mon! We all want to sail off the map and have cool adventures. King Kong provides us with the opportunity.
Campbell, Boyd. The King Kong FAQ.
Gifford, Denis. A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. London: Hamlyn, 1973.
Portions of this writeup appeared first in reviews written by this author for Bureau42.