Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Kongs

I have faded memories of watching Dino De Laurentiis’ “King Kong” on television. That was an unfortunate moment in my cinematic upbringing. It skewed my appreciation for the story in an unfavorable way. I had a hard time understanding the way filmmakers held it in such high regard; they way they held the original film experience to be such a formative moment.

The fact is that the 1933 film by Cooper and Shoedsack truly is a masterpiece. It deserves a place in film history alongside the likes of “Star Wars,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Snow White,” and “The Jazz Singer.” Nearly eighty years on, it still has the ability to capture the imagination and entertain.

Putting this statement to the test, I had my children watch the 1933 film the other night. They are film savvy for their age. They have seen a lot and they appreciate some good stuff, not just flashy pop-corn fare. The result was that they really enjoyed it. It helps that they had not seen the 1976 version—or the 2005 one for that matter. They were able to appreciate the story as well as overlook the dated effects.

That is not all that we overlook with these older films, however. “King Kong” is mostly a story about adventure and the drive to discover, but it also has a darker side. There is a subtext that is based in cultural fear. Fear of “the other.” In 1933 that fear was heightened by dangerous revolutionary ideas, and laced with sexism, and racism. If you don’t believe that just look at the way all the leading cultures of the day were embracing the “science” of eugenics.

In 2005, Peter Jackson managed to do what he does so well. He adapted a story just about perfectly to the screen. Sure, he was adapting one that actually came from film this time, but he stayed true to the source. Beat for beat, he re-filmed the original but where the original felt theatrical and plastic, Jackson’s feels real. The changes he made were done in part to accomplish things the original wanted but couldn’t pull-off—or to take out some of those embarrassing subtexts.

In a way, that is where the problem lies. In an effort to not have the story feel racist or sexist he has the “relationship” between the beast and the woman become one of mutual understanding and affection. That wouldn’t be terrible, but in this case it drags a long film into an interminable one. It is a very great film, but it could have been masterful.

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