King Kong by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, novelization by Delos W. Lovelace, 1932

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.

10 thoughts on “King Kong by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, novelization by Delos W. Lovelace, 1932

  1. Is it weird I never thought of Kong as Horror? I’ve always seen him as fantasy/sci-fi.

    I love that the book was created to help sell movie tickets – although at that time, buying a reading a book, and re-reading said novelization would have been cheaper than a trip to the movies. It’s a gutsy line to take. It’s also refreshing that the topic of race and misogyny are on the slim side.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It crosses all those lines. It’s technically fantasy adventure, but giant monsters always get lumped into horror for some reason. He’s still a movie monster, after all.

      Weird, right? Almost none of this lines up with what we’d expect, but it all works out. I was truly surprised at how modern it seems by comparison of how it could have been written. It’s still “white explorers pillage native lands,” but that’s about where the line is drawn. And even that makes sense when you know the creators of Kong were really people who did that sort of adventuring. They were documentary filmmakers first.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think of him as a monster. Yes, he’s a giant, with the strength and such that comes with it (good lord, can you imagine trying to FEED that!) but he’s kind of pure in who he is. He’s not bound by rules as we see them, he’s just a very large ape. Who digs a screaming blonde chick. Could be worse.

        I wouldn’t expect there to be a lack of colonialism/pillaging of tribal lands. That WAS the way things were done then. Horrifically so, in our eyes. It just boggles my mind what was done in the name of “science”.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Exactly! And that’s what I love about him. He’s a monster by expected standards of civilization, but he’s more a force of nature, and far more human than most people we can name. That’s what makes him work so well.

          Discovery was done in the name of science, but anything that got science there was done in the name of profit motive. It’s the grease of the world’s engine, sadly enough.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, … I thought you knew… otherwise I would have delighted in telling you about the fabulous Edgar Wallace. His mystery thrillers were serialised by German TV in the 1960s/70s – they’re all classics, often spoofed, so corny that you just have to love them. Anyway, yeah, he did write King Kong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d heard of Edgar Wallace and his serial pulps. I’m not sure why I never put it together before though. Blind spot, I suppose. Had no idea about his stories being turned into German TV. That sounds like it could be all kinds of weird fun!

      Liked by 1 person

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