The 90-Year Reign of Kong

Over at The Everyman, I mark the 90th anniversary of King Kong with a retrospective:

The first thing stands out, comparing King Kong to its modern progeny, is that the story is, in style at least, considerably simpler and more artificial than that of films today. There is little effort at verisimilitude in either the dialogue or the setup (best shown in Denham’s laughably under-staffed film). The story is stripped down to its essential elements, not unlike a stage play, and anything that would clutter up or distract from the main point is simply left out as unimportant.

Likewise the dialogue is designed to convey information and sound dramatically pleasing, not to imitate the way people talk in real life (“Neither beast nor man. Something monstrous; all-powerful. Still living, still holding that island in a grip of deadly fear”).

The favored style of today’s movies, developed chiefly in the 60s and 70s, aims more at imitating life; trying to make the dialogue sound something like what real people would use and to account for as many details as possible in order to seem ‘realistic’. As an obvious example, Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake was obliged to give Denham a whole film crew and leading actor to try to make the setup seem more believable to modern audiences, and it self-consciously tweaks the stagey dialogue of the original.

I’m noting this simply as an observation, as the two styles are ultimately a matter of taste (though I will say that Jackson runs into exactly the problem the original avoided by having too many extraneous and irrelevant characters cluttering up the plot, and that I think the original’s dialogue is much better than that in the remake. But I digress).

At the same time, though, beneath the stylistic simplicity of the original there is a moral and emotional maturity that is rare to find in modern movies for all their self-conscious “ambiguity”. This can be shown, among other things, by the simple fact that neither of the two driving figures of the plot – Denham and Kong – are portrayed as either wholly good or wholly bad. Denham is an ambitious, fanatical filmmaker who makes movies in dangerous places, but is a dependable friend who does his best to look after his people, is decent enough to stand up for strangers, and willingly shares the credit of his accomplishments. Kong is a savage monster who kills any number of people in brutal ways, but he’s an animal who can’t be expected to know better, has a playful and charming personality in his calmer moments, and in any case invites sympathy from being taken from his home and thrust into a world he can’t possibly understand and which intends to exploit him for its own gain.

Again, Jackson’s remake falls short here by explicitly championing Kong and vilifying Denham, not to the extent it might have, but enough to make the latter contemptible and to reduce the moral vision of the original to a simplistic and banal “good nature, bad civilization” narrative.

The original has no illusions about Kong or, by extension, nature itself. It’s story is of a savage, but magnificent creature that is mostly the enemy for the bulk of the film (though with layers), until an otherwise decent man lets his ambition run away with him and takes it back to civilization, where it becomes both menace and victim. You’re expected to feel both horror at what Kong does and sympathy for his plight, sorrow at his death and relief that he can’t threaten anyone else.

Read the rest here.

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