I didn’t know there was a novel for the 1933 screen classic King Kong. As much research time as I put in when I prepared for that original post, and as deep as I love to explore those rabbit holes, the idea of the novel never once came up. Apparently this isn’t common knowledge unless you’re really, really interested in all things Kong. As ever, I tip my bonnet to the ubergeeks among us. From them, I continue to learn.
First things first, notice the credits. The novel is based on the film, not the other way around. This is why the screenwriters / creators of King Kong get top billing on the book. The novel was designed as advertising for the film, to generate interest (especially in the early Depression era) where the studio perception was that a market maybe didn’t exist, but the filmmakers knew better. It’s a model that has been successfully copied for science fiction and fantasy films for decades after, the most notable example being George Lucas’ Star Wars. But if the novel is based on the film, why read it? There are three reasons, aside from my love of the film. First, the novelizations are usually based on earlier drafts of the screenplay. Changes are made for a variety of reasons, but when used as advertising, the novel has to get out there to the public ahead of those changes. Being in love with the creative process, I like to see that “original intent,” and see how it evolved into what we know so well. Second, there’s the obvious point that it’s a novel. There are things that film can do that prose cannot, but that also works in reverse. A good novelist can do wonders sometimes, even when the film lacks something, not that King Kong has to worry about that.
For me, the ultimate selling point, especially of this particular audio version, is the bonus commentary. Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen, Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven, Catherine Asaro, Harlan Ellison, Jack Williamson, and Marc Scott Zicree lend their thoughts to this to complete the package. I don’t know about you, but I’m typically interested in such. I can tell you that Card’s commentary wasn’t even remotely intelligent, consisting of “I didn’t watch it or the remake because it looked fake, and I don’t sympathize with giant apes who steal women.” Way to completely miss the point there, Card. *shrug* But it does counterpoint very well with the incredible insight offered by the other voices. I’m especially enamored with those comments from Ellison and Asaro. I feel like their thoughts on this are better than any review I could put forth. Truly marvelous.
The story’s plot is pretty much the same as the film. Filmmaker Carl Denham recruits starving actress Ann Darrow at the last minute to join him and his crew on a journey to Skull Island, where rumors of a lost world and the mighty Kong have drawn Denham for his next great film. After rescuing Darrow from Kong, the crew subdue to great ape and bring him to New York for exhibition… where the inevitable happens, leading to the showdown atop the newly-constructed Empire State Building.
There are differences between the screen version and the print, most notably in terms of details: which dinosaurs face off against Kong, for example, or the name of the ship that takes our “protagonists” to him (it’s the Wanderer this time instead of the Venture, in case you’re curious). The thing is, as any reader knows, the real reason to read the book is to get more character, to go deeper into who they are, thus making the journey with them more real and exciting. The film does a great job of this as it is, but the novel takes it a step further. And it wasn’t even a case of telling where film shows us. Credit where it’s due, Lovelace uses a deft hand to write this one. I went into this fully expecting a standard pulp novel and all that implies, at least a notch or two somewhere below the power of the film. I’m surprised and rather proud to admit this novel stands on its own while doing exactly what it sets out to do. It makes you want to see the film. Putting myself in the place of the original readers, divorced of the visuals, my first thought for a filmgoer of that era would be “How are they ever going to pull that off?” Of course, we know that answer very well 85 years later as King Kong is an acknowledged classic for all the right reasons, more than just for technical skill. Divorced of the 1933 visual effects, the story itself shines through. One might expect that in a book of this age and pulp adventure subject matter that a reader might expect overdoses of misogyny or racism. Aside from the primal overtures of Kong towards Ann, or the sentiments of the crew looking to save her from him, this novel is written with a surprisingly modern tone, circumventing such aged awkwardness. We’re reminded of what Ann brings to the story, of how Kong is bent to her will… of how beauty kills the beast.
Maybe it’s the heavy lenses of my nostalgia goggles, or maybe the novel really is as worthy as I think it is. You can decide for yourself where you stand. I only know I thoroughly enjoyed this, as someone who grew up differently from those around me and has a natural empathy towards the great monsters of printed and/or filmed literature. As quick a read as this is, it’s a reminder of the old adage that dynamite comes in small packages.