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Ape and essence

New and classic books about King Kong plumb his place in culture, myth, and the collective consciousness

I didn't become a Kong-head as a boy, when I first viewed the 1933 film ''King Kong" on television, but 40 years later, when I was enjoying the video with my 5-year-old son, and my wife, a progressive educator, asked me to fast-forward past Kong's gnashing and stomping of natives. She objected to the film's blatant racism, sexism, and violence. Of course, fast-forwarding roused our son's curiosity and lent the film an aura of forbidden pleasure. Afterward we sat down together and attempted to rewrite the tale from the ape's point of view, emphasizing Kong's childlike innocence as he fondles the squeaking girl who reminds him of his mother, and as he proves his power against dinosaurs. This issue of framing a culturally offensive classic was a troubling one.

Later, when my son grew to be a teenager fond of blaring gangster hip-hop, I discovered X. J. Kennedy's 1960 essay, ''Who Killed King Kong?," where he argues: ''It is not for us to bring to a momentary standstill the civilization in which we move. King Kong does this for us. And so we kill him again and again, in much-spliced celluloid, while the ape in us expires from day to day, obscure, in desperation." I was teaching postmodern American fiction by then and, by intellectualizing an icon, I felt that I was reading and commenting on our collective unconscious. This led to my discovering the film script in my college library, and my reading works by academic film buffs and cultural critics who regarded the movie (created by Merian C. Cooper, with Edgar Wallace, Ernest B. Shoedsack, and Ruth Rose, along with the special-effects genius of Willis O'Brien) as seriously as literary scholars did ''Hamlet." In addition to Kennedy's Freudian reading, Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial interpretations abounded.

Now, in anticipation of Peter Jackson's remake, which opens Wednesday, there is a boom of new Kong books, both for the thoughtful reader and for cultists of all ages who want to perpetuate and enjoy the fantasy in whole-hearted innocence.

A novelization by Delos W. Lovelace, authorized by Cooper, was released in 1932, just before the original film. Lovelace's ''King Kong" was recently reissued by Modern Library Classics (paperback, $10.95), Underwood Books (paperback, $9.95), and Grosset and Dunlap (illustrated, $7.99). Primarily a young-adult adventure story, Lovelace's version is a well-written substitute for the film, closely following the script. Using omniscient narration, Lovelace switches point of view at will, focusing primarily on the characters Jack Driscoll and Ann Darrow but also glancing into the minds of ''bring 'em back alive" Carl Denham, Captain Englehorn, the Witchdoctor, and even mighty Kong himself. In so doing, Lovelace invents some helpful exposition and inwardness; however, most of his novel is devoted to the adventure on Skull Island, and Kong's tragic demise back in Manhattan is compressed to synopsis. As in the film, the big question of how Denham transported Kong from Malaysia back to Manhattan is begged, as is the even bigger question of how Denham taught Kong fear.

In 1976, Dino de Laurentis's camp remake revived attention to the original, then shown to a new generation on TV, and coincided with such literary spin-offs as ''The Making of King Kong," by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner (Ballantine, 1975), which detailed the 1933 film's backstage realities and techniques, and ''The Girl in the Hairy Paw: King Kong as Myth, Movie, and Monster," edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld (Avon, 1976), the first collection of cultural essays. The latter is long out of print, but an expanded version of the Turner book is available, renamed ''Spawn of Skull Island" (Luminary, $40). In turn, Jackson has authorized a novelization of his screenplay (written with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), ''King Kong," by Christopher Golden (Pocket, paperback, $7.99). While Jackson wisely keeps the story in the Depression era, his Kong is a battle-scarred recluse; his Denham recalls a young Orson Welles; Driscoll becomes Denham's idealistic scriptwriter, modeled on Arthur Miller; Darrow evokes Marilyn Monroe; and we're in the mode of meta-film.

The ''official prequel novel," ''King Kong: The Island of the Skull," by Matthew Costello (Pocket, paperback, $7.99), further codifies Jackson's changes. The primary story concerns Sam, the sole survivor of the diving crew that discovers Skull Island, signs of its ancient civilization, and its giant predators. Sam draws a map and passes it to a skipper who finds him adrift, then dies with the word ''Kong" on his lips (the skipper later sells the map to Denham). If this isn't enough, Pocket Books also has an art book, ''The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island" (Pocket, $35), by Jackson's Weta Workshop, detailing in pseudoscientific manner the fantastic flora, fauna, anthropology, and geography of the island.

In imitation of Turner's book, Pocket Books is also offering a backstage look at Jackson's art, ''The Making of King Kong," by Jenny Wake, in December (paperback, $19.95). For film buffs, we also have ''King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon From Fay Wray to Peter Jackson," by Ray Morton (Applause, paperback, illustrated, $19.95), which chronicles ''the making of all seven feature films in which the character of Kong has appeared," as does ''King Kong Cometh," edited by Paul A. Woods (Plexus, paperback, illustrated, $19.95). My favorite, however, is the savvy collection of essays by fantasy writers, ''King Kong Is Back!: An Unauthorized Look at One Humongous Ape" (BenBella, 240 pp., paperback, $17.95). These writers eulogize Cooper, ridicule de Laurentis, explore Godzilla, and pay homage to Jackson and his computer graphic imaging effects. They also rehearse ''various symbolic, sociological and psychological readings" of the Cooper film, all previously considered in Cynthia Erb's superb scholarly study, ''Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture" (Wayne State University, 1998).

Illustrator Joe DeVito and fantasy writer Brad Strickland have concocted a prequel/sequel to Cooper's ''Kong" that is convoluted and seemingly oblivious to the film's cultural issues. Their ''Kong: King of Skull Island" (DH, illustrated, $24.95) begins with a return to Skull Island in 1957 by Denham's son and an aging Driscoll, in search of Denham Sr., who had taken Kong's remains there in 1933. From the Storyteller, an aged priestess, they learn of an ancient race, the Tagu, that had colonized the island, brought Kong's ancestors along as servants, built the wall for protection against smart dinosaurs, and then, having developed an herbal monster repellent, built an inland citadel. In addition, DeVito and Strickland have lightly rewritten Lovelace's novel: ''King Kong" (St. Martin's, paperback, $12.95).

May Kong fever boost sales for William Trowbridge's delightful poetry collection, ''The Complete Book of Kong" (Southeast Missouri State University, paperback, $14). His Kong gets the last word over his critics (and reinventors): ''The woman said, 'No, / he looks too much like a stuffed toy /. . . ludicrous when he tries for tragedy.' / The man shook his hair and made smoke, / insisting, 'Verisimilitude is irrelevant, / As in any Gothic melodrama.' I marveled / at these mammoth words, wondering / how they were folded into such / little brains. I ate the man / first, then the woman, both stringy, / but then what's not these days?"

DeWitt Henry, a novelist and founding editor of Ploughshares, teaches at Emerson College. His version of ''King Kong" may be found at http://teach.itg.emerson.edu/fap/.

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