Sunday, October 20, 2013

Consideration of Works Past: King Kong

King Kong has been a staple in media for a long time. I'm not sure what sort of genre to put something like King Kong. SF? Fantasy? Paranormal romance? It's certainly the first of the Kaiju sort of films but it's not, really. Kaijus are monsters. They look either robotic, reptilian or alien. Kong is striking precisely because he's nearly human.

The original Kong was an invention by Merian C. Cooper in his film, King Kong (1933). It was remade by Dino De Laurentis in 1976. And remade again in 2005 by none other than Peter Jackson. Toho Films got into the act pitting him against Godzilla. Call him Kaiju Kong.

There's also been a musical.

Son of Kong was released the same year as King Kong. It's a sequel where Skull Island where Kong was originally found is revisited. They find a baby Kong and it saves them when the island sinks beneath the waves. Cooper apparently didn't have much to do with the sequel.

Mighty Joe Young came out in 1949. This one was written and directed by Merian Cooper.

Pretty much everyone knows the story: Carl Denham decides to go on a dangerous expedition for a new and exciting subject matter for a film-- he's famous for making animal pictures. He finds Ann Darrow in New York to be his leading lady. They board a ship looking for parts unknown. Jack Driscoll, first mate on the ship, becomes Ann Darrow's love interest.

Eventually, they reach Skull Island where they find African derived natives that lose no time sacrificing Darrow to appease the creature Kong, a ten story tall gorilla. Kong takes her off into the jungle and the crew go off to rescue her. Kong's not the only big thing on the island. Dinosaurs, giant insects and lots of other things are there but, eventually they manage to capture Kong alive and take him back to New York. They're able to do this largely because Kong has developed an attachment to Darrow.

In New York, Denham puts Kong on display. He gets loose and looks for Darrow, finds her. Can't really escape but climbs the Empire State Building, is shot by airplanes and falls to his death. Darrow survives and Denham utters his famous line: it was beauty that slew the beast.

I came back to this film by way of the Jackson remake. I took my son to it when he was probably too young to see it-- eight. Jackson, I think, really went to the heart of the original film. The plot is essentially the same. Driscoll is now the screen writer. Darrow is a plucky tough girl and not the swooning screamer she was in Cooper's film. Kong is really the star, though. He's smart, lonely, scarred and incredibly ancient. Jackson took on the natives as terrifying and strong so that when we see dancers in New York imitating them, it's clearly tamed down. It underlies what Denham is trying to do to Kong. He's trying to reduce him in stature to fit within the civilized world.

But Kong still dies.

This disturbed Ben no end. He asked that I write a story where Kong lived. I did so and that made him feel better.

It got me to thinking. King Kong, in all it's remakes, is essentially a romance. Kong dies as a romantic event in the same way the Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play. Death in a romantic film is the fulfillment of the romantic arc. Kong meets girl. Kong loses girl. Kong dies.

I have a lot of trouble with romances. As far as I'm concerned the story stops when it's just getting interesting. Romeo and Juliet essentially stops with the death of the lovers. But I want to know how the two families adjust to the lost.

Similarly, in Kong, the relationships forged in the film are fulfilled by the death of Kong. Driscoll and Darrow are together (or seem to be) united in grief over Kong. Denham has had some sort of epiphany but it's not clear what it is. And there's about fifty tons of raw, steaming meat at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street.

Heck. Things are just getting interesting.

I think Cooper was getting at this when he wrote Mighty Joe Young. The original MJY has some real problems, though not as many as the remake in 1998. In this film, again a filmmaker goes into the bush to find subject matter and meets Jill Young and her adopted "brother", Joe: a twenty foot tall gorilla. She is persuaded to bring Joe to New York but they are miserable and ultimately escape back to Africa. The point here is that Joe lives. He goes on to fulfill his relationships with Jill and her new husband Gregg. The implication is that life is a continuing process. It doesn't stop just because the main character dies or gets married or divorced. It goes on.

This is the tack I took on the story I wrote for Ben.

Taking a non-romantic view of Kong opened up a bunch of interesting possibilities. Kong lived on Skull Island, populated with dangerous, wonderful creatures. The very instant Kong is made public there are about forty scientific expeditions shipping east. The discoveries found there would shake the world. What would the discovery and fascination with giant gorillas do to the image of gorillas world wide? Would poaching become ubiquitous and gorillas shortly become extinct and then viewed only as dismembered curios? Or would the there be love for Kong? Enough to protect gorillas forever?

Or who is in that audience on that fateful night? Margaret Meade? Kermit Roosevelt? What would Kong mean to gorilla researchers and conservationists in the future? To Dianne Fossey? To Jane Goodall?

If Kong wasn't going to die, what would happen to him? He was the last of his kind-- I took his attachment to Darrow not as a last gasp of his life but a late reaching out for hope. Kong knew he was the last of his kind. Bonding with Darrow was an act of acceptance that his life would go on anyway. He wasn't going to commit a noble sacrifice or seek an honorable death. He wanted to live. Death was inevitable but Kong would meet it on his terms and in his own time.

I read the story to Ben and it seemed to alleviate many of the issues the film and dropped the story in a drawer for a while.

But it wasn't quite realized and to me leaving an unrealized story in a drawer is like eating only one peanut. After all, they sit in their bowl and just glow at you. Eat me. Come one. It'll be good.

So after a couple of years I rewrote the story as a real story-- probably a thankless task since I can't publish it because of copyright restrictions. But I still wanted to:

It's told as extracts of books and articles by the principle characters looking back on everything that happened to them because of Kong. After all, this was the most important encounter in their lives. The principle characterss were changed but the world is, too. Dianne Fossey was not killed by poachers but runs the Karisoke Research Center and Preserve, funded in part by Carl Denham. Poaching is anathema all over Africa.

Kong died of old age in 1966, living on a large farm in Iowa with Jack and Ann Driscoll. The Kong Room in the American Museum of Natural History is dedicated to his memory.

1 comment:

  1. Northrop Frye makes the point that all stories are ripped from the Seamless Web of Story, and that they have to stop somewhere, even if it's at an artificial point. The best place to stop is when the protagonist has been transformed forever. Three obvious and traditional such points are death, marriage, and the moment of self-knowledge. The story goes on after that — of course! — but the storyteller gets to take a break and pass the hat.

    Evidently you like death stops better than marriage stops. Both are valid.