Novel Review: King Kong

A brand new novelization of King Kong exists to support Peter Jackson’s epic remake, which will be hitting theatres soon. The original novelization has lapsed into public domain, however, and should be easy to find in the coming months. Delos W. Lovelace adapted it from Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper’s screenplay, and it hit the stores in 1932, before the finished film appeared. The book can hardly be called great literature, but it nicely captures the spirit of the original film.

General Information

Title: King Kong

Author: Delos Lovelace et al

Original Publication Date: 1932

ISBN: 0-448-12788-1

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Maverick filmmaker Carl Denham sails off to a mysterious island with his crew, including adventurous Jack Driscoll and beautiful Ann Darrow. They encounter cliché island natives, prehistoric animals, and a gigantic ape.

High Points

Despite appearing before the final cut of the film, this novel captures the world of the original Kong beautifully. The movie and this novel reflect a late Victorian/early twentieth-century view of the exotic, the primitive, and the prehistoric. A noble tramp steamer can sail from New York and somehow find a lost island with dinosaurs, giant lizards, and outsized spiders. “Dinosaur” in this novel means anything resembling a brontosaurus; the triceratops are described as “something like a dinosaur.” Prehistoric creatures get called “mistakes” of nature, and behave like the savage, maladapted disasters they were popularly imagined to be. The island, covered in huge trees and overgrown undergrowth is the forest primeval on a vast scale. Kong is both an ancestral ape and something akin to a missing link, with a touch of humanity. Not all of this seems terribly enlightened today. Racism runs through the depiction of the Skull Islanders—- though it’s less severe than one might expect. We can regret aspects of this imaginary world and we should certainly note the flaws, but part of Kong’s success is that it recreates a pop-culture dream of a bygone age, a world glimpsed in old Hollywood movies, in Boy’s Own annuals, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Charles R. Knight‘s dinosaur paintings, in H. Rider Haggard yarns and missionary slide shows in the church basement and Disney’s original Adventureland.

Low Point:

It’s difficult to find fault with a novel that understands entirely what it is—- and that isn’t literature. King Kong features many clichés, and they often work. They become excessive, even for this novel, in the descriptions of the crowds at Kong’s New York debut.

The Scores

Originality: 2/6 It’s a close adaptation of a screenplay, though the screenplay was original for its time. As it was written from an earlier draft of the screenplay, it contains some discrepancies with the film. The famous lost spider sequence appears, but the late-addition subway train attack does not. Denham and crew sail on the Wanderer, which the film later renamed the Venture.

Story: 5/6.

Characterization: 2/6. The novel features very little depth of characterization. Darrow and Driscoll behave with remarkable calm in the face of harrowing circumstances. No one much mourns their lost comrades, but that’s hardly surprising; those lost comrades have as much personality as Trek’s Red Shirts.

Imagery: 4/6. Lovelace relies on clichés in New York as much as he does in the jungle, but he evokes the story’s stylized world memorably. The descriptions of Ann contain flashes of cheesy eroticism.

Emotional Response: 3/6. Gee Whiz!

Editing: 4/6. Lovelace was a competent pulp writer of an era, good enough that he remains readable. If he had not been hired to write the Kong novel, however, I doubt he would be remembered today.

Overall Score: 4/6. If you enjoy the film or any of its remakes, this may prove a fun read.

In total, King Kong receives 24/42

Additional Comments

In addition to making his three-hour version of the classic film, Peter Jackson has also been overseeing features connected with its eventual DVD release and the DVD rerelease of the original film. This includes a recreation of the lost “spider” scene (cut and presumed destroyed, but present in the novelization), using 1933 techniques.

Information on print adaptations of King Kong appears here.