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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

Jan. 8, 2006

Kong vs. Kong:
So Now the Critics Want a Remake

Kong! Kong!! KONG!!! they chant -- not the natives, but the critics. Peter Jackson’s remake of the cinematic classic has, it seems, caused many a critic to go “ape” with praise (yeah, as if I’d resist using that one). Though the current King Kong isn’t quite proving to be the box office monster that was expected. Oh, it’s doing very well. But it’s not breaking any records. And given how much it cost (I think, though I might be wrong, in the $200 million range) it was expected to break records. Admittedly, clocking in at over three hours (Peter Jackson never having met an editing machine he knew how to use, apparently) its nightly showings are limited and producers are hoping it will make up the short fall by having legs.

Anyway, the Supreme Plasmate, the proprietor of all things pulp at Pulp and Dagger, Jeffrey Blair Latta, is a huge King Kong fan. And as many of you know, he is gravely ill at the moment, leaving me to fill, however inadequately, his editorial shoes. And so today I will try to write an editorial that I think he’d write were he able.

You see, when I say he is a King Kong fan, I mean he’s a fan -- a major, proselytizing, dyed-in-the-wool fan -- of the earlier, 1976 remake of King Kong (and if you don’t believe me, check out his webpage, Kingdom Kong) or his earlier editorial Kritisizing King Kong. To be sure, Blair really likes the original, 1933 movie, too (and has often said the novelization of the original, written in the 1930s by Delos W. Lovelace, is one of the great, unsung, pulp era adventure novels). But he absolutely loves the 1976 version starring Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin and Rick Baker.

And for a long time, he thought he was practically alone in such passion. Because as much as he loved it -- just about every critic who put pen to paper hated it -- hated it the way Cain hated Able, that’s how much (to borrow one of Blair‘s similes). Critics often talked about it as though it vied with Plan 9 From Outer Space for the title of worst movie ever made.

It wasn’t till Blair set up Kingdom Kong, and started getting e-mails from fellow fans, that he truly realized how not alone he was -- that the 1976 Kong had a lot of fans like him, fans who loved it, and not just as a gee whiz movie spectacle, but as a profound film that actually touched them emotionally.

And so he began to look back at the critical assault with a more cynical eye. Why were the critics sooooo critical? It wasn’t just that they didn’t like the movie, or found it boring, or were unimpressed by the, admittedly, outlandish premise of a giant gorilla being smitten by a human woman -- all perfectly reasonable, acceptable responses in a world of differing people and perspectives. No -- they HATED it! So where’d all the hate come from?

First let’s consider the two earlier versions.

The 1933 King Kong is a grand action movie -- a rollicking movie serial shoe horned into 90 minutes, full of running about and dangerous escapes as a movie crew lands on a tropical island full of dinosaurs, and a giant ape -- said ape instantly becoming smitten with Anne Darrow (Fay Ray). Set in then contemporary times, it deliciously reflects its period and sensibilities -- the producer scours Depression-era bread lines looking for his new face, and the dialogue crackles with 1930s hard boiled wit; and, of course, it’s cheekily self-reflective, as it’s a movie about a giant ape meeting a movie crew making a movie about a giant ape! And the movie used then state-of-the-art stop motion animation.

The 1976 version follows the same structure: ship’s crew lands on island, meet ape, drag ape back to New York, where it dies atop big building after wrecking half the city. But in tone it’s quite different. It’s a bit slower, more a romantic, epic adventure than a movie serial-like roller coaster (for one thing, the dinosaurs were dropped). And it was updated to modern times -- which isn’t that strange. After all, the 1933 version was set in modern times, too! And this change allowed for contemporary concerns to be reflected (just as some argued the 1933 version resonated with its contemporary milieu). Jeff Bridges’ hero is a long-haired hippie-esque university professor raising ecological and social issues; the roguish-but-heroic movie producer of the first film becomes a comic but villainous oil executive in the 1976 version. And when Kong dies in the end, it’s not just a grand climax, but a heartbreaking sequence of western imperialism run amok (as the attacking helicopters might have been intended to deliberately evoke the then recent images on the TV news of US choppers in Vietnam). Eschewing stop motion, this movie used equally state-of-the-art optical effects and an animatronic costume that kind of anticipated the next few decades of special effects technology.

Despite the 1976 version doing well at the box office, critics generally hated it, and hated everything about it that made it different from the original. They hated the contemporary setting and references, the perceived Left Wing bias and metaphors about corporate greed and environmentalism. They hated it for the occasional tongue-in-cheek humour…but they also hated it for the heart-on-its-sleeve seriousness. They hated Jeff Bridges’ long hair! They hated the cast (Lange went on to win two Oscars, but at the time she was unknown and the critics hated that). They especially hated the producer’s decision not to use venerable stop motion. They hated the movie’s obscene budget ($25 million -- yeah, that was considered excessive!) and felt the whole thing smacked of hubris, to remake such a beloved classic. There was a bit of a paradox, as critics knocked it for remaking the original, saying, “what’s the point?”…then knocked it for re-interpreting the story (updating, changing characters), saying, “why not be faithful to the original?” There was even a hint of xenophobia, as some people seemed to take umbrage at the fact that it was an Italian-born producer, Dino DeLaurentiis, who was remaking this all-American icon, even though DeLaurentiis had been a fixture of Hollywood for years.

And the thing was, it wasn’t just that critics saw the movie and hated it -- they hated it before they saw it. The knives were out and being sharpened while the movie was still in production. As mentioned above, many considered the very idea of a remake, and a remake that didn’t use stop motion, to be an egregious insult to the very fabric of existence.

But you can read about all this on Blair’s Kingdom Kong site (and I encourage you to do so, ‘cause some of his essays are fascinating as they dissect the frenzy, pro and con, around the film).

And now Peter Jackson has done a remake -- and, man, has the world changed in 30 years. No longer is it an act of hubris and arrogance, but a much anticipated event. Where once $25 million was seen as obscene to waste on a movie, now $200 million is seen as perfectly logical. Where once it was an insult to forego stop-motion for modern f/x technology, now critics can’t get enough of Jackson’s computer graphic cartoon Kong.

The one thing Jackson did that was different from the 1976 version, apparently, was stay more faithful to the original story. It’s set in the 1930s, about a maverick movie mogul heading an expedition to a lost island where they encounter dinosaurs and, of course, a giant ape. So it’s closer to the original…but is that more respectful? After all, the 1933 and 1976 versions can be watched back-to-back, as there are just enough differences to make them separate movies. But surely Jackson’s 2005 version, if successful, is intended to supplant the original (I can’t say for sure, as I haven’t seen it yet), to be THE definitive King Kong. As well, is making a period King Kong really faithful to the story…since the original wasn’t a period film, but a contemporary story? That’s a tough one. Really tough. We at Pulp and Dagger have pondered that many a time with our own serials. After all, we all read and enjoy old stories in a way they weren’t meant to be read originally -- as nostalgia. Blair himself has pointed out in previous essays how something like Dracula, which we now see as nostalgic in its evocation of Victorian England was, at the time, intend to be a radical shake up of the horror genre, by re-imagining rural European folk superstitions as a “modern” thriller set in the teaming metropolis of London, England.

There’s no right or wrong answer, of course. Just looking through stories here at Pulp & Dagger you can see that we have as much fondness for stories set in the historical past of 1930s pulp era, as in transposing those type of stories to modern times. But if Jackson’s period-set Kong is more faithful to the letter of the 1933 original, the 1976 one could be argued was equally faithful to the intent of the original…which was to tell a tale about modern day people encountering a mammalian anomaly, with no safe, protective veil of nostalgia in which to cocoon the story.

But why are critics so embracing of the 2005 version…when they were so vicious to the 1976 version? And it can’t be entirely attributed to the movies themselves. As mentioned, people were gunning for the 1976 movie even before they had a chance to see it, and they objected to things about it that are equally true of the new version (the absurd budget, the hubris of a filmmaker thinking he can remake a classic, the use of modern special effects to usurp the old style ones).

Well, for one, Peter Jackson is beloved by critics. As the man behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he can, almost literally, do no wrong in the eyes of critics -- even before that, in fact, Jackson was a bit of a darling. His movie The Frighteners did poorly at the box office but, as I recall, was generally embraced by critics. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, which were obviously hugely popular: I liked the movies. I did. Really. But I liked the books more (not to mention a wonderful BBC Radio adaptation). Someone recently asked me if I owned copies of The Lord of the Rings, meaning the videos/DVDs, to which I cheekily replied, “Yes…on my book shelf, under T for Tolkien.” (Okay, I didn’t quite say it so cleverly, but you get the idea).

Secondly, times have changed. The idea of a remake has now become, not the exception, but the rule in Hollywood. Every time you turn around some old movie or, indeed, TV series is being remade, so that it no longer smacks of hubris, but inevitability. Often remakes don’t hold a candle to originals (the recent Flight of the Phoenix is but a pale echo of the superb 1960s movie), but critics no longer seem to react with outrage. Remakes are a fact of life, and are done, and done often.

The generations change, too. When the 1976 version was made, it was remaking a beloved film that many critics remembered seeing in their childhood, either when it came out, or years later in revivals. Now? One infers a lot of the critics reviewing Jackson’s film only know the original by reputation, or from having seen it when they were less impressionable, say in some college film class. It’s just not as sacrosanct.

And finally, if Jackson is avoiding a critically drubbing for his hubris, perhaps he owes a little thanks to DeLaurentiis’ version. After all, once a remake is made, it’s made -- the barn door is open, you can’t turn back the clock (uh, horsie clocks, if you want the metaphor to connect). Jackson isn’t remaking a sacred, untouchable original the way the 1976 version was -- he’s now just adding to the canon. I’m sure when Sean Connery quit being James Bond, a lot of fans were outraged, wondering how anyone could have the temerity to replace him. But now, half the fun and mystique around the Bond franchise is endless speculation about who will be the next Bond, and who’s waiting in the wings after him.

So if Peter Jackson’s King Kong does well, well, good for him. But remember -- his wasn’t the first and despite $200 million dollars of CGI effects, his isn’t necessarily the best. There’s still a Saturday matinee serial charm to the 1933 version, and there’s still an epic, tragic grandeur to the 1976 version, though both have been ill-served by TV at times. Beware the colourized version of the 1933 version that makes Kong look like a Bumble stomping around cardboard sets, and beware some edited TV prints of the 1976 version.

As for me, I’ll always wonder what a modern Kong would’ve been like if instead of just a Classics Illustrated remake of the 1930s original, Jackson had followed the lead of the 1976 version and updated the story, adding to the mythos, not just regurgitating it. What new metaphors could be pinned on the big guy if rooted in the modern world of computerization, ozone holes, and the War on Terror? Perhaps instead of movie makers landing on the island looking for a story, or oil drillers looking for oil, a modern version could be about, say, US military types looking for a terrorist training camp or something. What would a giant ape dragged to the big city symbolize today? Who would be the hero, and who the villain of such an interpretation? Ah, yes, now that’d be a Kong worth seeing.

Well, maybe in another thirty years.

D.K. Latta (sitting in for Jeffrey Blair Latta, editor and Supreme Plasmate)

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