Today Eric and I saw Peter Jackson's "King Kong" with some of our friends. At Eric's insistence, we borrowed a copy of the original 1933 movie, with Fay Wray as the blonde actress Kong takes up the side of the Empire State Building, and watched it before seeing Peter Jackson's version.
I can't say that I loved, or hated, Jackson's movie. Nor can I say that it was God-awful. I can say that, as everyone who saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy would expect, that the special effects were impressive and brilliant, and some of the acting was superb. I can also say that there were at least a dozen times during the movie that I wanted to hit Jackson over the head with a big shovel for making the decisions that he did, and that even if you loved his revisions of the original plot the film badly needed many scenes to be cut way down in length.
To say more than that I have to make comparisons to the original movie that will necessarily contain spoilers, so I will put them under an lj-cut.
The 1933 original is, in most ways, a simple, straightforward horror movie. It begins with a successful but wildly eccentric producer named Carl Denham who has just lost the actress he has tagged for the adventure-flick-with-romance-subplot that he wants to film out on a mysterious South Sea island. He spots an attractive blonde, Ann Darrow, who happened to have done some acting work in the past but is now broke and starving (remember, the story is set during the Great Depression, which was the present day as of when the original movie was made). Denham proceeds to buy her dinner, and as she wolfs it down talks her into replacing his original actress. They sail that night because to make the producer's shooting schedule they need to be at the island location, (later called Skull Island), which we're given to understand is somewhere southwest of Indonesia, before the monsoon season starts.
Jackson's movie is also set in 1933, but since it's now 2005, that means it's a "period piece." He gives us a meticulously recreated 1930's New York and throws in a bunch of poverty and crime scenes to remind us that we're in the middle of the Great Depression. Unlike the original movie's Denham, Jackson's producer character is a failure who is about to have his funding cut and who needs to set sail quickly because the studio executives, tired of blowing money on what they see as his silly whims, are about to sic the local police on him. Jackson's Ann Darrow is a vaudeville performer whose troop has just been put out of business; Denham runs into her outside a burlesque house where a busy impressario, sympathetic to her need for work but unwilling to hire her, has sent her. Because Ann does not wish to descend to performing in a burlesque show, and because Denham claims (with only partial truth) to be using a script for his movie that was written by a playwright she deeply admires, she agrees to go on the voyage. Though a mildly amusing but somewhat baffling chain of circumstances, Denham bamboozles the playwright Ann admires, Jack Driscoll, into lingering on the ship until it has left the dock, forcing him to come along on the voyage and finish the script he originally promised, but had not managed to deliver, to Denham.
While the original version gave us just enough script and stage business to get us to the island, get Ann captured by Kong, and get Kong captured and shipped to New York to be displayed in public as Denham's triumph, only to break free and terrorize the populace until he is shot down by military airplanes, Jackson imports tons of back and front stories on the major characters and a fair number of the minor ones. The main theme in the 1933 movie is the beast--Kong--being brought low by Beauty (because the beast might have escaped except for his insistence on recovering Ann). Jackson's Kong is laid low by Beauty in much the same way, but he throws in--of all things--a kind of warped love story. Ann develops strong feelings for Kong and fights fiercely, but unsuccessfully, to prevent Denham from shipping him to the States and, later on, with equal lack of success, tries to keep the military from killing the big ape. It's far from clear (to me, at least) why Jackson did this.
Nor is it clear why Jackson changed the character of Jack Driscoll. In the original movie, Driscoll is the first mate of the ship that takes Denham's movie people to Skull Island. He falls in love with Ann early in the movie and is instrumental in rescuing her from Kong. Ann reciprocates his feeling and shows no feeling other than fear toward Kong. Jackson's Driscoll also falls in love with Ann, but Jackson's Ann is more ambivalent toward Driscoll even before she is captured by Kong, and she treats Driscoll almost with revulsion after he "rescues" her from Kong. Only after Kong is dead does she embrace Driscoll with emphatic but ill-explained relief.
To make matters worse, Jackson in some sense returns to his horror flick roots in this movie. He lovingly recreates some jungle scenes (and invents many others) in which extremely realistic prehistoric monsters on Skull Island chase, attack, and kill, most of the movie crew. In other scenes, Jackson has even more monsters chase and attack both Kong and Ann. Although I understand that Jackson wanted to give Kong plenty of opportunity to rescue Ann from violent death so that she would come to love him, he overdid it by a long country mile. I'd bet that by shortening some of "chase, slice and dice" scenes and eliminating others you could shave at least an hour off of the movie's whopping 187-minute running time while tightening the plot. Where was Jackson's script editor? Or did he even have one? (Jackson is one of three people credited with writing the screenplay.)
Jackson has said in public that the original King Kong was his favorite movie of all time, and the fact that his movie contains many lines, and minor scenes, that are either taken straight from the original movie or are updated variations of original lines and scenes attests to the sincerity of his statement. Why, then, has he turned out such an incredible hodge-podge of great moments and excessive bombast?
As near as I can figure, it's because Jackson loves the original movie way too much. He's taken a simple, 100-minute horror film from the 1930s and attempted to give it epic sweep, the way he did with Lord of the Rings. (One of my viewing companions claimed that the native tribespeople on Skull Island looked a lot like orcs, and I'm inclined to agree, except for the fact that most of them were as skinny and skanky as Gollum.) However, Lord of the Rings *was* an epic, and naturally had epic sweep before Jackson ever started filming a single scene. King Kong did not. Call me hidebound, but I think it's wrong, somehow, to force epic sweep upon a B-grade horror flick--even more wrong, perhaps, than for a woman to fall in love with a 25-foot-tall gorilla.
As the denouement of Jackson's movie begins, Denham's assistant says to Driscoll the playwright, "He [Denham] always kills the things he loves." Although people have already disagreed with me on this one, I think the same is true of Jackson and "King Kong." He took a B-movie he admired and warped it into something it should never have been, and although the results are impressive in a horrific sort of way, I cannot find it in myself to praise him for what he's done.
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- Kong the Epic