For a film that remains a beloved cultural touchstone more than 80 years after its release, KING KONG has proven remarkably difficult to update for modern audiences. The first such attempt came from Japan’s legendary Toho Studios, in the form of 1962’s monster mash-up KING KONG VS. GODZILLA; the result, while winningly goofy, is a pretty far cry from the original (Toho’s 1967 follow-up, KING KONG ESCAPES, is even weirder, pitting Kong against a giant robotic version of himself). 1970s power-producer Dino De Laurentiis tried his hand at a straight remake in 1976, which, despite game performances from Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange, serves as a working example of ’70s blockbuster bloat (It too was followed by a forgotten sequel, KING KONG LIVES, which sees the ape on life support as he awaits a heart transplant from a second giant ape – I am not making that up). The most recent attempt was in 2009, when Peter Jackson fulfilled his lifelong dream of making a Kong film as his post-LORD OF THE RINGS victory lap. Jackson’s version is actually pretty great, but it failed to connect with audiences and was deemed a failure. (To the best of my knowledge, Jackson’s KONG was not followed by a bizarre semi-sequel, unless there’s an alternate reading of THE LOVELY BONES I’m not aware of).
The reason for this perhaps lies in the movie’s cultural specificity. While the original film holds up remarkably well, and the basic story is a tale as old as time (to quote another movie with similar themes), the meat of the story could only really come out of the 1930s. The ’30s were a sort of transitional period from the “explorer” days of old, and the seeds of globalization planted by the burgeoning mass media. The characters in KING KONG act like Great White Hunters, but they are, significantly, filmmakers, who have come to Skull Island to augment their feature with Ripley-style documentary footage. When they bring Kong back to Manhattan, their presentation occupies the same space between vaudeville and Hollywood as Orson Welles; if it were set today, Kong would more likely be the star of a viral video than a stage show (“Please, stop commenting! You’re enraging the beast!”). But this was long before the age of information, when motion pictures were still a novelty, and the world at large – especially foreign cultures and zoology – was still a mystery to most Americans.
It is the latter that serves the basis for KING KONG’s inclusion in the Coolidge Corner Theater’s SCIENCE ON SCREEN series, as the film will be introduced by veterinarian and gorilla researcher Chris Whittier, of Tufts University. Given the fact that the first gorillas studied by western science were not discovered until 1861 – barely 70 years before the film’s release – it’s probably safe to say that the filmmakers may not have had all their facts straight. But despite changing cultural attitudes and scientific advances, the relationship between that giant ape and that New York ingenue remains movie magic. Oh, and the part where King Kong snaps a T. Rex’s jaw? Awesome.
KING KONG (1933)
Part of the SCIENCE ON SCREEN Series
Monday, Janurary 27, 7:00 PM
Coolidge Corner Theater (290 Harvard St, Brookline, MA 02446)
$10.25 (free for Coolidge members)