written by Delos W. Lovelace
conceived by Edgar Wallace and Marian C. Cooper
originally published in December 1932
reviewed copy published by Tempo Books,
a subsidiary of Grosset and Dunlap, in 1976
with illustrations by Richard Powers
the novelization of King Kong is available in innumerable editions through Amazon and other booksellers.
King Kong is here reviewed as part of MOSS’ May-long Hairy Beasts celebration. Be sure to check out our contribution from earlier in the month – the El Santo saga Santo vs. Las Lobas courtesy of Denis’ weekly The Horror!? column.
Something of an anomaly from a time in which the movie tie-in wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous a phenomena (a difficult past to imagine now that even hollow Hollywood extravaganzas like Battleship are granted novelizations), Delos W. Lovelace’s brisk prose adaptation of the quintessential monster fantasy is, if nothing else, proof positive of the great lengths to which producers Cooper, Schoedsack and Selznick went to familiarize the public with their epic Depression-era production. Lovelace’s King Kong, originally published in late 1932 (well in advance of the film’s March ’33 premiere), wasn’t the great ape’s only contemporary foray into print media either, but while the abbreviated two-part adaptation serialized by Mystery Magazine in February-March of 1933 is now all but forgotten Lovelace’s Kong lives on, having been reprinted time and again, typically in timely association with the latest big screen Kong adventure. Case in point is the copy reviewed here, a mass-market paperback scale-down of the hardcover The Illustrated King Kong from Grosset and Dunlap, originally published to coincide with mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis’ unsatisfying 1976 iteration.
While I picked up my copy of the Lovelace Kong longer ago than I can remember, to the best of my knowledge this marks the first time I’ve actually read the thing. That’s not to say I haven’t been tempted, but having never been without a copy of the film on video (be it VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, or Blu-ray) that temptation was always tempered by the fact that it was just darned easier to watch Kong than read him, even with the big-print of the paperback scarcely filling two hundred pages. And then there was the persistent question – just how much can a Kong book possibly have to offer when the film is so indelible, so familiar?
And indeed, the narrative of Lovelace’s Kong is as familiar as one might expect, deviating little from the screenplay that serves as its foundation. The tale begins with adventurer and filmmaker Carl Denham stalking about downtown Manhattan on a desperate hunt for a pretty (and unrepresented) face for his latest production, a mysterious bit of documentary-fiction whose South Seas subject Denham keeps a closely guarded secret. He finds that face in the beautiful Ann Darrow, a down-on-her-luck performer he rescues from hunger (and certain arrest) after he sees her snatching an apple from a street vendor’s stand. After feeding her, clothing her, and assuring her of his honest intentions (“No funny business!”), Denham whisks Ann off to the tramp freighter Wanderer and sets off, with dependable Captain Englehorn, handsome first mate Jack Driscoll, and three times the ship’s usual crew, for an uncharted speck of land far west of Sumatra…
With rare exception Lovelace’s Kong emulates its cinematic equivalent to a prosaic T in so far as its human drama is concerned. Sure, Ann and Jack’s “I guess I love you” romance is moved ahead in the schedule (and up from the deck to the crow’s nest for good measure) and ethnic stereotype Charlie (the Wanderer‘s Chinese cook in the film) is now a more politically correct old codger named Lumpy*, but substantive differences are few and far between. Ann Darrow makes screaming screen tests while Denham rattles on about Beauties and Beasts (“I’m going right into a theme song here!”) until the Wanderer encroaches upon a mysterious fog bank and Denham’s elusive shooting location is finally revealed – Skull Mountain Island**, a rocky outcrop covered in dense tropical foliage and whose only populated area is cut off from the rest by an immense and ancient wall. The fair-haired Ann inevitably catches the eye of the Island’s native populace, who were in the midst of an ancient sacrificial rite at the time of the Wanderer‘s arrival. They eventually kidnap the unsuspecting beauty with the intention of making her the latest offering to their prehistoric god – a new bride for the mighty Kong.
It is in the story’s comparatively dull buildup to its fantastic adventure across Skull Mountain Island that Lovelace’s Kong shows its weaknesses most. Part of the trouble obviously lies in the familiarity of the drama, but the greater problem rests with Lovelace’s prose itself – this is where the briskness of the novel becomes a bit of a distraction. Technically speaking there is nothing at all wrong with Lovelace’s writing, but all the grammatical proficiency in the world can’t make up for the fact that it’s such slight, barren stuff. The film relies (and beautifully so) on the artifices of its medium, the performances, the photography, the score, the fantastical set and effects design, to build atmosphere and evoke emotion in the viewer. Lovelace finds no literary substitutes for the same, and the novel Kong, bereft of all but the sparest of descriptions and characterizations, suffers greatly for it.
That said, Lovelace’s word-pinching ways aren’t enough keep the story’s most attractive element – its lengthy diversion into the prehistoric jungles of Skull Mountain Island – from being anything less than enjoyable. Indeed, this is where those already familiar with the film (are any of you not?) will find the most to love.
As with the earlier drama, the majority of the Wanderer crew’s death-defying trek through the hostile territory beyond the wall is by the book (or film, as it were), with the sailors menaced not just by the furious Kong, but by the uncharacteristically aggressive advances of two of the Island’s herbivores – a Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus respectively. The major difference arrives at the end of the Brontosaurus attack, after one unfortunate straggler is chased up a tree by the brute, at which point the crew reaches the edges of a tar pit and catches sight of a trio of Triceratops, themselves in pursuit of Kong. The great ape holds his own, bashing in one of the beasts’ heads with a massive slab of slate, but the Wanderer‘s intrepid adventurers don’t fare so well when the remaining pair turn their frustrations towards more defenseless prey. Only a single sailor falls victim to the expected violence – being crushed beneath one of the monsters and eventually gored. The rest are chased towards an enormous ravine-spanning log, and lost cinema history.
Produced, but cut from the film prior to release for whatever reason, the long lost Spider Pit Sequence has become the Holy Grail for fans of monster cinema – and it’s alive and well, if a bit dulled by the paucity of verbiage, in Lovelace’s Kong. With a charging Triceratops at one end of the log and the enraged Kong at the other, the crew of the Wanderer find themselves with no escape but into the dark recesses of a primordial hell below:
“Two of the men lost their holds. One grasped madly at the face of a prone comrade and left bloody finger marks as he went whirling down into the decaying silt at the bottom. He had no more than struck when the lizard flashed upon him. [...] The second man did not die in the fall. He was not even unconscious. He landed feet first, sinking immediately to his waistline in the mud, and screamed horribly as not one but half a dozen of the great spiders swarmed over him.”
The horror of the spiders over and done with, Lovelace’s Kong returns once more to the familiar. Driscoll and Denham survive the onslaught, though on opposite sides of the ravine. While Denham heads back to the wall for help from the Wanderer‘s surviving crew Driscoll silently stalks Kong, witnessing his battles against various Jurassic-age monstrosities on the way to his lair high on Skull Mountain. Aside from a particularly romantic retelling of Driscoll and Ann’s harrowing escape from Kong’s clutches (arguably the most successful part of Lovelace’s novelization, and in welcome possession of the sort of emotional hooks that are in such scant supply elsewhere) the rest of the novel Kong plays in the predicted fashion, albeit less the tragic undertones that make the film’s final moments so unforgettable.
If it sounds as though I’m being too harsh towards Lovelace, I really don’t intend to be. I have no qualms with his style of writing in and of itself, and there are plenty of bloated modern efforts that would do well to take his frugal sense to heart. It just never works well enough with the material in question to make it anything but ordinary, and as such Lovelace’s Kong never excels beyond the low expectations these film-to-book adaptations typically command. Ultimately this is far more interesting as an artifact of early tie-in marketing than as literature, and unless you’re one of those obsessed with all things Kong (I’ll admit I’m guilty, at least so far as the ’33 film is concerned) there’s very little to recommend here.