King Kong by Delos W Lovelace


King Kong by Delos W Lovelace
Original cover, 1932
King Kong by Delos W Lovelace
King Kong
Delos W. Lovelace

conceived by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose

  • Category:Adventure Fiction, Now a Major Motion Film
  • Date Read:1 June 2023
  • Year Published:1932
  • Pages:156
  • 3 stars

I first watched King Kong (this is before Dino de Laurentis’s 1976 remake) as a young child. My first memory of the film is the scene where Ann Darrow is placed on the altar outside the village wall and Kong comes to take her. Kong’s eyes roll and he seems to emerge from the very foliage. The scene had me hooked.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch the film. The 1933 original by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack is an amazing piece of film making, despite whatever criticisms may be levelled at it according to modern standards. Cooper chose to use stop-motion animation for the film to bring the various dinosaurs and other over-sized monsters to life, along with his giant ape. Models were shot frame by frame in studio sets, with overlayed footage of actors, or rear screen projection used to achieve the look of the film. For me, while Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake is a better film with more sophisticated special effects, I still prefer the otherworldly aesthetic achieved by the effects team lead by Willis O’Brien in 1933.

The copyright for the novel has now lapsed, although at the time of writing you will be pressed to find a free copy of the novel available on the internet. There was a musical produced in Broadway in 2019 and there has been several films apart from the originals made by Merian C Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, which can now be said to be based on the novel and its ideas to avoid copyright infringement. There have been two remakes that roughly follow the same story, and other movie adaptations using Kong as a character. There have also been animated versions for children. This review only refers to the originals and the remakes by Dino De Laurentiis in 1976 and Peter Jackson in 2005.

The novel, written by Delos W. Lovelace, is an interesting accompaniment to the original film. Cooper, who had developed the story for King Kong, asked Lovelace to write the novel while the film was still in production. In fact, the novel was published in 1932, the year before the release of the movie. Other films like Les Vampires (1915–16) and London after Midnight (1927) had previously received novelizations, but King Kong is possibly the earliest novelization for a picture with sound. This means King Kong is not a traditional novel, but is an amalgamation of efforts by various people, with a story that evolved as it was being created. I’ve included a picture of an early cover of the novel to the left to make the point. There is not just one author, in reality.

Merian C. Cooper first developed a storyline between 1929 to 1930, but its adaptation for the screen was to undergo four major drafts. Cooper had Edgar Wallace produce a screenplay which he called The Beast. Wallace was a famous novelist at the time, so attaching his name to the project was good for publicity. In Wallace’s draft there is no sacrificial scene on the island and Kong is electrocuted by a bolt of lightning when he climbs the Empire State Building. But Wallace never got past his first draft as he died a month after completing it. Cooper was disappointed with Wallace’s work, especially since he hadn’t added any original ideas of his own to the script. Nevertheless, Cooper wanted to retain Wallace’s name on a novelization of the story to help it sell, even though the final product would bear little of Wallace’s influence. Even now, my modern copy of the novel features Cooper’s and Wallace’s names more prominently on the cover over Lovelace’s, who actually wrote it. Lovelace’s name does not appear on the spine.

After Wallace’s death a new draft of the script was developed by James Creelman, whose name also appears on the older version of the novel’s cover. He was to develop two versions of the script, The Eighth Wonder and Kong. It was during this time that Cooper had the idea of turning Kong into a god, worshipped by the villages of Skull Mountain Island (as the island is known in the novel) who is offered human sacrifices by the villagers to appease him. The script received its final treatment at the hands of Ruth Rose, the wife of Ernest Schoedsack, who shared production and directing credit with Cooper in the film. Ruth Rose worked on the script’s dialogue and atmosphere. It might be noted, that she receives the writing credit for King Kong’s sequel, Son of Kong, which appeared less than a year after the original, with her husband directing. The dialogue and acting in the film seem wooden by today’s standards, but they were of a standard for the time.

What all this means is that King Kong, the novel, is the result of a collaborative process and reading it, like reading many movie tie-ins, is like reading a retelling of the film. There are superficial differences in detail, while some scenes in the novel expand upon what we see in the film. The island’s name has already been noted. Also, the ship in the novel is called the Wanderer rather than the Venture. The spider scene in the ravine is given some detail in the novel, while it was removed and the footage subsequently lost, for the film. Peter Jackson was to restore the scene in his 2005 remake.

The novel, itself, is competently written. It is neither excellent, nor bad, and the action unfolds at a clip. It is primarily an adventure novel, which I think is the best way to approach it, because it would be easy to find fault with its ideologies on race, culture, colonialism and sex. Cooper was one of those people who are often called “larger than life” and his experience’s in life are a clue to his attitudes and the frame in which he expected this novel and his film to be enjoyed.

Both Cooper and Schoedsack had experience in the First World War. Schoedsack had recorded the war on film for the US Signal Corps, while Cooper had been a bomber pilot who had survived being shot down. He later fought against the Bolsheviks in Poland, and was imprisoned in a Soviet camp after being shot down a second time. He managed to escape. Later, Cooper and Shoedsack also travelled the world on a ship to record adventures on film – much like Carl Denham in King Kong – and they produced a series of films for Paramount. Cooper led an adventurous life, and that’s what his story of King Kong essentially captures.

The novel and film are of their time, but it is interesting to consider aspects of the novel in comparison to the film. In the film, Carl Denham is looking for a beautiful woman to appear in his next feature. His agent has had no luck finding one and Denham is against the wall: he has to leave New York the following morning or he may be detained for carrying explosives. When he first meets Ann Darrow she is trying to steal an apple from a stand because she is hungry and without money. The stall keeper who is understandably upset, is given a foreign accent – “Where is-a da cop?”. Denham calls him ‘Socrates’ – presumably he is Greek or at least Mediterranean – and the narrative describes him as “swarthy”, meaning of a dark complexion. Engelhorn, Denham’s ship captain, calls the head of the ceremony on Skull Mountain Island a “witch doctor” and Lumpy, the ship’s cook later refers to him as, “that dirty little witch doctor.” It’s probably not the language an author would choose now, but it expresses the attitudes of the characters. Denham, after all, is a character who has travelled the world and had adventures, like Cooper, and has inherited the attitudes of several centuries of white colonialism. Are we surprised that we are told Denham speaks “with all the white explorer’s confidence in his racial superiority.”?

One might make something of the sexism in the book and its eroticism. The film mostly avoids the idea that Kong may be inspired by anything other than curiosity, novelty, or latent sexual urges. Ann Darrow is gorgeous and her clothes seem to peel away, either at Kong’s fumbling touch, or they are almost washed away in her escape. The publicity photos of Faye Wray as Ann emphasise her sexuality and vulnerability. Denham chooses her for her looks. I think it is here that the novel suggests possibilities: what the film might have done except for the values of the time. Faye Wray gets about as naked as the filmmakers could have gotten away with. King Kong is not just an adventure story, but it is a feast for the eyes, so to speak. How much further the filmmakers might have gone is suggested by Lovelace’s text, which fetishizes Ann’s nakedness in several moments, like in the scene where Kong strips her clothes:

Ann screamed again. Kong snatched at her. His hand caught in her dress and the dress tore in his huge fingers. More whiteness was revealed. Kong touched the smooth revelation.

The sensuality of Ann’s nakedness is also suggested when she swims:

She had her teeth set against the stinging chill. But the water was, actually, warm, and marvellously soothing against her unclothed flesh. It was a soft unguent, laving every bruise and long tormented muscle. Her slim body, a wavering white shadow in the black stillness, yielded to it gratefully.

As Ann and Driscoll make their escape in the river we see that “with every movement her few torn remnants of clothing drifted slowly alongside stroking arms and legs.” And when Driscoll is injured, Ann finally throws all modesty aside:

“I haven’t got enough clothes left to dress a penny doll, let alone a grown girl of my height and weight. But I certainly owe you a bandage. And if you’ll just nip ashore I’ll find you one, and let my maidenly modesty go hang.”

I can only imagine what the 1933 film might have attempted had it been possible. The sensual details of the novel suggest what the film was meant to be: an entertainment with mass audience appeal. And what Denham says at the beginning of King Kong is true, even now, for box office success:

I go out and sweat blood to make a swell picture, and then the exhibitors and critics all say, “if this picture had a love interest, it would gross twice as much.” All right, the public wants a girl, and this time I'll give ‘em what they want.

But apart from this kind of titillation, there are other scenes that seem discordant to modern audiences. The scenes with Ann Darrow and Driscoll on the boat at the beginning of the movie are terribly awkward and reflect a level of antipathy towards women, even though Driscoll is meant to fall in love with Ann. This is an aspect of the story that the novel fleshes out better than the movie. At least in the novel we have a chance to see their relationship develop as they tell each other stories of their pasts and draw closer together. Yet Driscoll still expresses concern about having a woman on board the ship – this is a traditional superstition, of course. But the problem is that much of the premise of the story is that women are dangerous to men. Denham is eager to frame Ann and Kong as a beauty and beast story. And when he suspects Driscoll’s interest in Ann he tells him, “I’ve always figured you for a good tough guy, Jack. But if beauty gets you . . .” Waxing upon his favourite theme Denham elaborates:

“The Beast was the tough guy, tougher than you or anybody ever written about. He could lick the world. But when Beauty came along, she got him. When he saw her, he went soft. He forgot his code. And the little ham-and-egg fighters slapped him down.”

Women, Denham’s story strongly suggests, are emasculating. It’s a theme we see played out upon a larger scale with the capture of Kong and his later death in New York, still obsessed with Ann.

These are the broad strokes that the 1933 movie paints with. And this is where I would argue that the original King Kong, despite its brilliant achievement, falls short of its successors. Jack Prescott (Driscoll’s equivalent in the 1976 remake) rails against the implicit racism of Fred Wilson (the oil executive in the 1976 remake who replaces Denham) who, like a colonialist of old, intends to displace the indigenous population to get at their oil. In both the 1976 remake by de Laurentiis and the 2005 remake by Jackson, there are determined attempts to create a bond between Kong and Ann (Dwan in the 1976 version), although Kong’s characterisation in 1976 was closer to a lascivious teenage boy able to use his size to sexually molest Dwan. In fact, De Laurentiis’s Kong dies like Romeo with a hard-on. Jackson’s remake tries to be more sensitive of racial and sexual mores. The ape suits worn by the village priests in the ceremony for Kong in the 1933 original are also used by Jackson, but only as a part of the stage show Denham puts on for New Yorkers when he presents Kong. And Ann’s relationship, along with Kong, himself, has also been refined. Kong remains curious about Ann, but he is a much older ape: world weary and tired. They develop a close relationship in which Kong is more grandfatherly than adolescent: in which Ann is a panacea for Kong against a world he has had to fight against for too long; a fight that has left him lonely and old; the last of his kind.

While I prefer the aesthetics of the original film, and I still think it’s a better film than the 1976 remake, I think it isn’t as successful in developing a relationship between Ann and Kong. And Denham’s exploitation of both Kong and Ann, while evident in the film, are contextualised by Denham’s white Western assumptions about race, and the wider world that is a mere curiosity and blank slate upon which his own story will be written. As the last scene rolls, we have nothing except Denham’s summation, which is an outcome he has anticipated from the start: “T’was beauty killed the beast.”

These issues are evident in the book as well, although I would argue that Lovelace has gone beyond the story offered on screen. For a start, if the story is to mean anything other than what Denham tells us, we have to acknowledge that Ann has inspired something in Kong beyond curiosity or sexual desire, and that she is capable of seeing this. Lovelace refers to Kong repeatedly throughout the narrative as a ‘beast-god’, suggesting his importance to the villagers. As their god Kong represents the island and the people who worship him. Lovelace allows us to read against Denham’s belief in the danger that beauty represents, by offering an alternative reading: that Kong has been destroyed not by beauty, but his contact with civilisation:

For a breath then, high above the civilization which had destroyed him, he hung in the same regal loneliness that had been his upon Skull Mountain Island.

Lovelace’s text inserts a reading not explicit in the film which confounds Denham’s final words: a thought that makes Denham look clueless.

It is a subtle re-imagining that plays out in other scenes of the novel. In the 1933 film, it is hard to see that Ann Darrow forms any relationship with Kong at all. She mostly screams in terror and when she has the opportunity to escape him, she does. In the 1976 and 2005 remakes, it is significant that Dwan and Ann both return to Kong willingly and grieve his death. But Ann Darrow, as played by Faye Wray, does not suggest this in her performance, nor is it borne by the script. And it is mostly the same in Lovelace’s version of the story. When Kong fights a “huge meat-eater” – presumably the Tyrannosaurus from the film – Ann wants Kong to win, but only because the “horror of captivity” with Kong is preferable to “the open mouth which briefly swung her way.” Mostly, Ann is antipathetic to Kong. She calls him a “brute”, her “captor” and recalls her experience with him in horror. She states “I don’t like to look at him. Even if he is chained.” Her response to Kong is overwhelmingly revulsion.

Yet Lovelace suggests Ann may feel something more – something beyond what we see in the film – even if she cannot fully articulate this feeling. When Driscoll calls Kong a ‘beast’, Ann qualifies his remark: “If he is really a beast.” She tries to explain this feeling:

And sometimes, from the way he looked at me . . . from the way he carried me carefully up in the crook of his arm instead of dragging me along, as he did at the start . . . I wondered . . . I thought . . .”

Ann is not capable of completely expressing the implication of her feelings. In the film we see her carried in Kong’s hand like an object or possession. But Ann’s description sounds more like the maternal cradling of a mother. She is trying to explain this thought to Driscoll while he attempts to anticipate what Kong will do next: what would motivate a wild animal: “He ought to want to stop to eat. He must be as hungry as we are, and in a beast hunger comes ahead of everything.” This is where Lovelace’s text differs from the film. Despite Denham’s insistence that it is “Beauty that killed the Beast”, it is not Ann’s beauty, or the lascivious needs of de Laurentiis’s 1976 Kong, that endangers him, but acting outside the imperatives of survival: that Kong becomes ‘civilised’. His mind has been altered by the implications of what Ann means. She is beautiful, but it is not an aesthetic beauty that is driving him to act, but the implication of something beyond mere need. This is a profound thought, because if this is true, Kong has demonstrated human qualities that neither Denham nor Driscoll attribute to him: that our humanity allows us to act beyond mere need, even when it may lead to our destruction. It is a notion attached to words like ‘bravery’, ‘selflessness’ and ‘altruism’. It speaks to the purposes and goals that may drive us on, though they remain numinous or elusive.

I guess Lovelace’s novel is a curiosity, itself, now. With so many iterations of Kong on film, Lovelace’s novel is most likely going to appeal to fans of the movie, especially the original, rather than general readers. While there are many scenes lifted straight from the film, including dialogue, it is interesting to read scenes that are slightly different or where details or insights into characters’ minds have been added. It’s interesting for the light it sheds on the film and the speculation it encourages about why the film is as it is, or how it might have been different. The writing is satisfactory, the book short, the action quick and the story good.

A still from the 2005 remake of King Kong by Peter Jackson

King Kong Trailer for the 1938 re-release of the original movie
Son on Kong Trailer for 1933 film. This trailer gives most of the plot points away
King Kong Trailer for the 1976 remake
King Kong Trailer for the 2005 remake

The ‘Authors’ of Kong

Merian C. Cooper
Merian C. Cooper
Merian C. Cooper was an aviator, filmmaker and actor who served in the American air force in World War I and as a pilot in Poland against the Bolsheviks in 1920. Apart from King Kong, his most well-known work, Cooper is also responsible for the development of the Cinerama film projection process.
Edgar Wallace
Edgar Wallace
Edgar Wallace was a war correspondent in the Boer War. When he returned to England he started to write thrillers to make money. He was a prolific writer, to the extent that his publishers once claimed he had written a quarter of all the books in England. He stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in England, before becoming a script writer for RKO. He died of undiagnosed diabetes in 1932.
Delos W. Lovelace
Delos W. Lovelace
Delos Lovelace was a reporter for the New York Daily News and New York Sun in the 1920s. He became a lifelong friend of Merian C Cooper after they met in 1916 as newspaper reporters for The Minneapolis Daily News. Cooper asked Lovelace to write the novelization of the film because he had no time, given that the production of King Kong was underway.
Ruth Rose
Ruth Rose
Ruth Rose met her husband, Ernest Schoedsack, while working as the official historian on a New York Zoological Society expedition to the Galapagos Islands. Schoedsack was working as a cinematographer. Rose was a naturalist had a wide experience of travel and adventure. Her experience was thought to make her suitable for working on the script of King Kong although she had no experience in scriptwriting.
Willis O'Brien
Willis O'Brien
O'Brien was a groundbreaking visual effects director who did the stop-motion animation for King Kong. He had previously worked on The Lost World (1925), and would eventually win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1949 for his work on Mighty Joe Young.

Four Movie Versions

Click on the movie poster images below to read more about each movie

King Kong poster, 1933
King Kong, 1933
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Earnest Schoedsack
Son of Kong poster, 1933
Son of Kong, 1933
Directed by Ernest Schoedsack
King Kong poster 1976
King Kong, 1976
Directed by John Guillermin
King Kong poster 2005
King Kong, 2005
Directed by Peter Jackson
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This original version is notable for its brilliant special effects which were achieved by photographing models one frame at a time: a technique known as stop-motion animation. Willis O’Brien’s animation was to later inspire Ray Harryhausen who would go on to animate Jason and the Argonauts and the Sinbad films.

Willis O’Brien had worked on Harry O. Hoyt’s 1925 silent feature, The Lost World, based upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel. King Kong’s debt to this earlier film is fairly obvious. In that story Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a prehistoric world upon a high plateau where dinosaurs are found. In Lovelace’s novelization, Kong’s island is referred to as a ‘lost world’, and Denham must lead his expedition onto a plateau, which slops gently back to Skull Mountain, to get to the main part of the island: “. . . the plateau is alive with all sorts of creatures that have survived along with Kong.”

Despite deserved enthusiasm for this film as a classic, it has its limitations. The writing and acting are basic by today’s standards, and you have to understand that attitudes expressed about women and race in this film are of their time. Also, the movie fails to effectively develop any relationship between Ann and Kong. Our sympathy for Kong derives from his attraction to Ann, a beautiful woman, and his protection of her, even though she finds him terrifying.

With that said, the movie is one of the most remarkable movie achievements ever, and its black and white aesthetic and 1930s special effects only add to its charm.

Son of Kong follows the problems of Carl Denham a month after King Kong has run amok in New York and been shot down. He is being served summonses and may even be criminally indicted. He escapes New York to avoid this with his former captain, Englehorn. In Dakang they meet a young woman, Hilda Petersen, who wishes to travel with Denham after her father is murdered. The story returns Denham and Englehorn to Skull Island where they look for a treasure. Here they meet an ape, only about twice the size of a human, whom they presume to be the son of King Kong. They befriend the ape and he saves them from various creatures on the island and, eventually, an earthquake.

This film is a curiosity, in itself, having been released less than a year after the original with the same actors playing Denham and Englehorn. The tone of the film is strange. There is little real drama in the script. The son of Kong is an affable creature with some weird comic expressions. The climactic scene is impressive, but the romantic denouement is cringe worthy and disappointing.

King Kong, produced by Dino De Laurentiis, loosely follows the same story as the original. An exploration is made of a hitherto unknown island and a giant ape is brought back to New York where he is killed on top of a skyscraper. However, De Laurentiis made changes to the original story. For a start, he changed the names of the main characters as well as the reason to look for Skull Island. In the original film, Denham anticipates making an adventure film on the island with his beautiful address. He suspects there will be something amazing to film. In this 1976 version, Fred Wilson, an oil executive for Petrox, a fictional corporation, hopes to find a massive deposit of oil on the island that will drive his career forward. This version of King Kong was made after the 1973 oil embargo against nations supporting Israel which caused the oil crisis of that period.

In this version Dwan (the Ann Darrow character) is the survivor of a shipwreck picked up by the oil exploration vehicle, Petrox Explorer. Jack Prescott (the Jack Driscoll character) is a palaeontologist who sneaks aboard the vessel. Kong becomes enamoured of Ann and his attentions to her are clearly sexual.

This version has only one other large animal – a giant snake – besides Kong. Instead of the diverse animals that made the original Kong more fantastical, this movie focusses on the relationship between Dwan and Kong, including scenes on the ship back to America, where Dwan enters Kong’s holding pen. Despite the fact that Kong is a bit rapey, Dwan and Prescott are both sympathetic to him, and try to prevent his death.

This is best version of King Kong, judging by the acting, writing and the sophisitication of its characterisation and story. Peter Jackson chose to set his remake in the same period as the first film, and digital technology allowed him to recreate New York of the early thirties and the jungles of Skull Island with absolute believability. Jackson was more respectful of the original film than Dino De Laurentiis. As a fan he owns many artefacts from the original production. The characters maintain the same names, and Naomi Watt’s early costume is an homage to Fay Wray’s first costume in the original. Jackson adds to the story. He fleshes out characters. He chose Jack Black to play Denham as a conman who needs to get out of New York. But his motivations for heading to Skull Island are the same as Denham of the 1933 original.

Jackson’s much longer screen time allows him to maintain the many monster scenes that make Skull Island a special place, as well as develop the most empathetic relationship between Ann and Kong. Kong’s reimaging as an older gorilla helps to avoid the lascivious aspects of Dino De Laurentiis’s Kong, and create are more nuanced and relatable character.

While Ann is a down and out actor, as in the original film, Driscoll is a writer this time, conned to stay on board the ship by Denham as it pulls out of port. Denham wants him to write his screenplay. In this version, Kong sees Driscoll as a threat and is antipathetic towards him. Ann is in love with Driscoll but has a connection to Kong. Driscoll tries to save her not from Kong, but from the situation Kong puts her in.