December 30, 2005

King Kong Died for Your Sins

Hatched by Dafydd

That phrase is the ironic, iconic, and sacrilegious refrain that runs through Illuminatus!, the trilogy by the two Bobs, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. But whether they knew it or not (I'm inclined to think not, at least in the case of Bob Wilson), "King Kong died for your sins" perfectly encapsulates the whole point of the King Kong story... and it also illuminates exactly what is wrong with the disappointing Peter Jackson remake that was released a few weeks ago.

Even before viewing the new King Kong, I was puzzled by the lack of blockbuster ticket sales. Mind, it's not that the movie is doing badly at all; worldwide, as of this writing, it has earned a box office of $289,232,875, according to Box Office Mojo. Since the movie cost only $207 million to make (figure another $75-$100 million to market), it has either already earned out or is pretty close... and this is only the first run. It will likely make at least another $100 million worldwide, then more from cable showings, video sales and rentals, a broadcast TV deal, and of course as much as everything else combined in merchandising (games, t-shirts, soundtrack CD, novelization, action figures, jewelry, etc).

But those are the figures of a profitable movie -- not a blockbuster movie. By contrast, the Lord of the Rings trilogy fared much better: the Fellowship of the Ring cost $93 million and earned $870 worldwide (9.4 times cost); the Two Towers cost about the same ($94 million) and earned $926 million (9.9 times cost); while the Return of the King cost $94 million and earned $1.1 billion worldwide gross -- the second-highest grossing movie of all time, after Titanic -- 11.7 times cost. Even if King Kong gets that extra $100 million I anticipate, it will only have earned 1.9 times cost (and I suspect the rentals and merchandising will be correspondingly lower as well).

So I was already scratching my head. Then I finally went to see it -- and I think I now understand why.

Let me start by saying I'm a big Peter Jackson fan. Besides the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I consider to be the greatest fantasy movie ever made (it's really one 11-hour movie split into three parts, grossing a staggering $2.9 billion worldwide), I also saw (and enjoyed) Heavenly Creatures when it first came out eleven years ago. And while I'm not the world's greatest fan of the original King Kong, I liked it -- and I detested the Dino de Laurentiis version, so my qualifications are quite in order.

When I watched the movie, I liked it; it was good. But it just didn't grab me the way the Lord of the Rings had... or even as Heavenly Creatures had. At first I couldn't articulate why not; but words are my stock in trade, and I think I can explain it now.

Jackson is a first-rate director of black comedy (Heavenly Creatures)... and he is one of the greatest directors of epics who has ever lived, right up there with Michael Curtiz, David Lean, and the Korda Klan (Alexander, Zoltan, and Vincent). But the problem is that King Kong is not an epic.

An epic must contain the following elements:

  • A vast, sweeping story arc
  • A great hero who controls his own destiny, but with tragic flaws that might possibly bring about his downfall
  • A clear delineation of good and evil, right and wrong
  • And the fate of worlds in the balance

The Lord of the Rings is a perfect example, as is the Mark of Zorro, Captain Blood, and even biblical epics like Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 the Ten Commandments.

But King Kong belongs to another class of movie entirely: King Kong is a morality play. To understand the dynamics of this sort of movie, let's look at the prototype of the movie morality play -- which has the same title as one of the movies above and is even directed by the same fellow, but is a completely different creature: I'm talking about DeMille's 1923 silent classic, the Ten Commandments.

That earlier movie has a prologue about the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage; but the real story is about two modern (1920s) brothers: one is religious, the other irreligious. The latter argues that his atheism is liberating and more suited to the real world; and to prove it, he brags that he will break every single one of the Ten Commandments from Exodus, yet still prosper beyond the wildest dreams of his faithful brother.

He does so, and at first he seems to be right; but then everything collapses around him (literally). In the end, he is broken and repentant, having caused great and irreversible harm to those he loved by his arrogant blasphemy.

Here are all the elements of a morality play: the hubris of the Arrogant Man who flouts traditional morality; and the Steadfast Voice of Conscience, a secondary character who remains faithful, even when it appears that his rigid moral code is cutting into his material success. The Arrogant Man flies too close to the sun and crashes like Icarus; he ends the story lying in ruins of his own making, brought to his knees by the divine consequences of his wickedness. At that point, one of two paths open: either the Arrogant Man truly repents and may perhaps put his shattered life back together with the help of the forgiving Steadfast Voice of Conscience; or else he remains obstinant... and is dragged down to Hell like Don Juan at the end of that opera.

I think it quite clear that this structure perfectly fits the Kong story. Carl Denham (Jack Black) is, of course, the Arrogant Man; he comes to Skull Island, sees the giant ape, and decides to haul it back to New York City and put it on display for his own profit. The Steadfast Voice of Conscience is Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts): she is the leader of the "Keep King Kong on Skull Island" faction. At first -- look, I'm assuming y'all know the basic story, even if you haven't seen this version; if you don't and want to remain a spoiler-virgin, click to the next or previous post now! -- at first, it appears as though Denham has pulled it off; he is making money hand over fist displaying Kong for a Broadway audience. But then the flashbulbs go off, Kong goes ape, and he pulls the world down atop Denham and everyone else.

Denham is incapable of true repentance, so in the end, he too is shattered. Or at least, he should be.

Alas, Peter Jackson evidently did not understand this distinction, because he appears to have story-boarded Kong as an epic, not a morality play... and it just plain doesn't work that way, leading to cinematic catastrophe. (Jackson is a great filmic workman, so he salvages enough to make a profit; but it's a wonderful opportunity lost.)

In an epic, the struggle is the important part: in the Lord of the Rings, we cross all of Middle Earth with Frodo and Sam, as well as taking side excursions with Gandalf, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and we weep for poor, weak Boromir. Along the way various characters slide in and out of focus, either helping (Treebeard, Faramir, Smeagol) or hindering (Shelob, Saruman, Gollum) the great quest. The journey is the thing, personalized by Sam's statement at the very beginning, deeper in meaning than he imagines, that "if I take one more step, I'll be farther than I've ever been from home." The whole epic is about all of them going farther than ever from home, in a dreadful effort to save home.

But when Jackson misunderstands Kong to be an epic, he spends far too much time on the struggle on the dadburned Skull Island. We see endless sequences of giant "hellish creatures" menacing the cast, from dinosaurs to insects to carnivorous worms to giant bats to the Mighty Monkey himself. Sympathetic characters die, even after they have survived two or three dangers -- because that's what happens in an epic: heroic death is the rule, not the exception. (Say, why aren't the dinosaurs bigger than they were in real life too -- like Godzilla-sized, hm?)

But in a morality play, this whole section is pro-forma. We want to see the fight between Kong and the dinosaurs... but we only need a taste of it. The real story is Jack Black hauling the ape back to civilization, against the stentorian, prophetic, voice-of-doom objections of everybody else, because he knows better (the Arrogant Man); the dangers of Skull Island itself are window dressing and should never threaten Denham.

And the entire sequence that should be the focus of the story, the hubristic display of the ape-god as if he were an exhibit in a museum (not even a living zoo!), is almost glossed over in Jackson's mad rush to get to the top of the Empire State Building and the Playful Primate battle sequence with the biplanes.

We never even see the beginnings of doubt, the crisis of conscience that must play out in Denham's mind as the warnings of Ann Darrow start to get to him... a critical part of all morality plays. The Arrogant Man must begin to think, what if I'm wrong? What if there really is a God? Then he must force himself forward anyway -- because it is vital that he understand his wickedness and make the conscious decision to continue in sin regardless, to justify the gods bringing so low later. If the Arrogant Man is really only blind, stupid, or ignorant, the morality play has no impact whatsoever.

Finally, in the end, the last line of the Jackson version of King Kong is played utterly wrong... and there is no one to blame for that but Jackson himself. It is completely out of character -- and worse, completely outside the structure of a morality play -- for the Arrogant Man to wax philosophical, shake his head, and opine, "no... 'twas beauty killed the beast." Carl Denham would never have delivered such a line... not sincerely.

It would have made much more sense if Denham ran to Kong's body, obviously feeling terrible guilt and remorse but being unable to internalize his own responsibility for the death not only of the ape but of all those ordinary people that King Kong slew in his madness. Somebody recognizes him, and soon the whole crowd is pointing and accusing Denham of being to blame for everything that has happened.

Suddenly, Ann Darrow appears, having come down from the top of the Empire State Building. She screams in anguish and runs to Kong. And at that point, Denham can use the line -- but just as a means to try to shift the crowd's attention away from him and towards her. "No! No, don't you understand? It wasn't me -- it was Beauty killed the beast!" He repeats it a couple of times, a little more shrill and desperate.

Then Denham turns to his longtime cinematographer (I honestly don't remember the character's name or whether he lives, but he should, if only for this scene), and oblivious to the crowd around him, says "yeah, we can work with that: 'twas Beauty killed the beast. It's perfect! Write that down." But his only friend turns away and walks into the crowd and out of Denham's life. The Arrogant Man looks back at the crowd... but one by one, they turn their backs in disgust, until finally Denham is left alone inside his own manufactured world.

Fade to black: but Jack Black still repeats the line one last time in the pitch-dark theater... almost with a sob. Who is he trying to convince now?

It's always a temptation for a writer to rewrite another writer's failed fable; but in this case, I'm only doing it to illustrate my thesis: Peter Jackson completely misunderstood the point of the story, and he was probably the wrong director to film it in the first place. He would have done far better directing a remake of Prince of Foxes, the Three Musketeers, or Scaramouche, and just leave the poor primate alone.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, December 30, 2005, at the time of 1:41 AM

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The following hissed in response by: hunter

It is interesting as to how Narnia, a clear morality play, has done in comparison.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2005 4:05 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


It is interesting as to how Narnia, a clear morality play, has done in comparison.

Well, the Chronicles of Narnia has been out longer but earned less money than King Kong. More money domestically, but Kong is killing Narnia in the international market.

I'm not sure I would call Narnia a "morality play," at least as I'm using the term; it doesn't have the hallmarks I identified.

I think I would call it a YA fantasy adventure with strong religious overtones... a religious version of something like the Harry Potter stories (which are, contrariwise, the secular version of something like Narnia!)


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2005 5:38 AM

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