REVIEW SUMMARY: A fun book for fans, both casual and diehard.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 20 essays exploring the mythology of King Kong.
PROS: Often humorous; almost always entertaining.
CONS: Some material valuable only to diehard fans.
BOTTOM LINE: Fun, thoughtful, educational and humorous looks at Hollywood’s most famous ape.
A book like King Kong is Back, a media tie-in whose release understandably coincides with that of the big-budget 2005 Peter Jackson remake, is targeted towards fans of King Kong. I thus had to consider: am I fan?
The answer is yes and the exact reason is stated in the very first essay “Over the River and a World Away,” by Nick Mamatas. Between 1976 and 1985, WOR-TV in New York used to air the original 1933 King Kong every Thanksgiving day. (It was, in fact, a two-day reason for sitting indoors and watching movies that also included Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, various Godzilla movies [some with singing, twelve-inch tall Oriental twins!] and March of the Wooden Soldiers starring Laurel and Hardy.) Watching King Kong on Thanksgiving became as much a tradition as turkey during my formative years. It was, in fact, watching King Kong that occupied my time while waiting for turkey. Soon, Thanksgiving simply meant King Kong and turkey, even when we celebrated the holiday elsewhere.
If it sounds like I slipped into nostalgia mode, blame Mamatas’ wonderful essay. And, while you’re at it, blame the other four essays grouped into the “nostalgia/technology” section of King Kong is Back. SF author Paul Levinson’s “The Big Ape on the Small Screen” also reminisces about childhood memories – some of which comes dangerously close to sounding like recycled memories if only because of unfortunate story ordering. Steven Rubio’s “Not the Movie: King Kong ’76” explores the problems people have with the Dino DeLaurentis remake starring Jessica Lange and, since it’s not as nostalgic, comes off a better read. In “King Kong 2005,” sf author Bruce Bethke explains why Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake must be set in the same era as the original, a theory he attempts to prove with a mock Kong script enacted by…sock puppets. Strangely, this humorous piece works well. The final piece in this section, the interesting and emotional “Three Acts of the Beast,” by Don DeBrandt applies the beauty-killed-the-beast theme to world events, from WWII to the events of 9/11.
Seven more essays are grouped together in a “science/art” section. Rick Klaw is a devout fan of King Kong, as evidenced by his previous Geeks with Books columns, so it is fitting to include him in this collection with his essay “Thirty-Three”. Although his passion is commendable, his biography of the film’s creators leading up to the making of the film is of interest only to true diehard fans. SF author James Gunn’s “King Kong and 1930s Science Fiction” is much more suited to my personal sf-loving tastes. As Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, Gunn uses his knowledge and experience to put King Kong in its proper literary and celluloid place. “The Making of King Kong” by artist Bob Eggleton (who also contributes some sadly uninspired pencil sketches to the book) discusses, of course, the artistic aspects of the film with a focus on the special effects. It’s like a written version of a DVD bonus extra. The author of the educational “Improbable Antics” is Dario Maestripieri, holder of a doctorate in psychobiology and someone who specializes in primate behavior. From a purely realistic scientific view, it turns out the gorilla is a poor choice for a monster; better would be the more violent chimpanzee. Also, file under “You Learn Something New Every Day”: Orangutans and bonobos would be better suited for a triple-X rated version of King Kong. Another educational piece, “Darwin, Freud and King Kong” by Joseph P. Miller, PhD., filters King Kong, The Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young through the triple spectacles of Freudian psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Early on, Miller’s dry but fascinating essay makes an absorbing and sturdy analogy between Freudian psychology and Skull Island and implies (to me, anyway) that King Kong succeeds on a psychological level. Robert A. Metzger’s tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theory piece, “Dragon’s Teeth and Hobbits,” posits the existence some real life creatures of legend to decent effect. Funnier is David Gerrold’s faux on-the-set diary “King Kong Behind the Scenes” in which we see Mr. Kong, actor, rattling the nerves of the producers with his penchant for eating the acting extras. There’s even a “scene” where Kong makes funny faces at Fay Wray to make her laugh. (“He used to try to break me up during shots,” says Wray.)
If the previous essays provide entertainment from the metaphorical living room couch, most of the final eight essays in the book’s “philosophical” section are to be read from the Thinking Chair. “Of Gorillas and Gods” by Charlie W. Starr rigorously examines religious themes in the movie. The title of Adam Roberts’ “Why Does My Daughter Love King Kong So Much?” delivers on its promise to show why King Kong might appeal to the young ‘uns – it’s all that delicious food! “‘Twas Stupidity Killed the Beast” by Keith R. A. DeCandido unmasks the film’s famous last line as hogwash. In “Ann, Abandoned,” Adam Troy Castro takes humorous but thorough look – thorough to the point of tastefully twisted – at what might have happened if heroes Denham and Driscoll went back to New York instead of setting out to rescue Ann Darrow after Kong abducts her. James Lowder’s “Scream for your Life” looks at Kong as horror movie and shows us why the movie succeeds on that level as well. In “Divided Kingdom,” horror writer Robert Hood confesses that his loyalty is equally divided between King Kong and Godzilla. (This is the closest the book comes to containing an essay by someone who does not gush over Kong.) “Queer Eye for the Ape Guy?” by Natasha Giardina, lecturer of children’s literature. States that, in modern times, Kong wouldn’t be able to get a date. The essay explains why by exploring how masculinity in our culture has changed over the intervening years. In “‘Twas Beauty Killed the Beast,” sf author John C. Wright, in his usual inimitable style, examines why we don’t cheer upon Kong’s demise and provides several entertaining and logical reasons to prove his point. (Sample insight: In referring to the outdated special effects and wooden acting of the 1933 film, as well as Star Wars, he writes: “A myth has power because of its basic idea, not because of the elegance of the telling.”)
In summary, editor David Brin has collected an entertaining collection of essays, as well as providing one of his own by means of his introduction. While some of the material is only of marginal value to casual fans, even they cannot help but enjoy the fun, thoughtful, educational and humorous looks at Hollywood’s most famous ape.
One final note: Although the annual Thanksgiving King Kong viewings of my youth have been replaced by Planes, Trains and Automobiles (“Those aren’t pillows!”), this reading of King Kong is Back so close to the holiday in which I discovered it is a nice walk down memory lane…with apes!