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I finished reading King Kong: The Island of the Skull by Matthew Costello today, just in time to go see the movie. The book is a prequel to the film, so I thought it would be fun to read it first. And it was. It was flawed fun, but it was fun.
I should’ve expected trouble from the cover, which I believe was taken from a production painting from the movie. It depicts a jungle scene with a flying lizard of some kind hanging out in a tree, and it’s very very dull. There are no people on the cover; no giant gorillas. It’s very generic.
The biggest disappointment though is that the book doesn’t stand on its own at all. It depicts events in the lives of three characters: Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, and a deep sea diver named Sam Kelly. The first two names are recognizable to anyone familiar with either version of the film (I don’t count the horrible ’70s version); Kelly is responsible for creating the map that sends Denham looking for Skull Island. The novel ends with Denham’s purchasing Kelly’s map, so at least their stories intersect in the novel, but unless you already know what happens in the movie, Ann Darrow is a completely superfluous character. We see her struggling with a couple of jobs (one of which foreshadows an affinity she has with animals) and that’s all. She’s given a full third of the novel, but nothing to do.
I guess Costello can be forgiven (if you’re feeling very generous) for needing to include Ann in the book, but it would have been good if he’d figured out a clever way of connecting her to the rest of the book, even if just in a brief encounter with a secondary character or something. What I can’t forgive is Costello’s introduction of plots and characters that aren’t made necessary by the film, but that he mysteriously discards with no follow-up. For example, Sam Kelly is pointed towards Skull Island by something he finds on a ghost ship, the crew of which has been killed by an unknown disease. The source or nature of the disease are never explained, it’s just a convenient way to wipe out the crew so that they don’t complicate the plot once Kelly’s done with them.
There’s also a Jewish paleontologist who flees Germany and comes to the U.S. with some dinosaur bones he’s discovered… bones that are only a few years old. He has a couple of scenes — none of which are with any of the main characters — that reveal what he’s discovered and he’s done. No explanation of where he found the bones (or any indication that he’d found them on Skull Island or any other place that would justify his appearance in the book). I figured that maybe he’d be a character in the new film, but no… I have no idea what he was doing there.
Costello does do some things well. He builds tension like no one I’ve read. Almost frustratingly so, but that’s a compliment. Because of that, his action sequences are very strong, but it’s tension and action without a story. We never care about Sam Kelly. He’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t have any real relationships that would make us feel anything for him. Denham and Ann are more fleshed out, especially Ann, but like I said before, Ann is just there to be there. She should have her own novel; it doesn’t make sense to put her in this one.
Having seen the film now, The Island of the Skull is an entertaining, but unsatisfying read. It adds nothing to the movie, instead being satisfied with simply generating some thrills featuring the same characters. (It should be noted that these characters are the Peter Jackson versions, by the way. Ann is in showbiz, not a random out-of-work girl; Jack Driscoll is a playwrite rather than a sailor.)
The movie, on the other hand…
The only negative buzz I’ve heard about the film is in regards to its length. Some early critics claimed that it drags in places. Nonsense. I suppose if you’re only looking for action, you might grow anxious in between action sequences, but personally, I like some story with my action and that’s what Jackson delivers. He takes his time and develops characters and relationships and builds mood and emotion so that we care about what happens to these people as the movie goes along. There are bits that could have been edited out, but nothing that I ever felt should have been. The experience was like watching a pre-emptive Extended Edition.
I don’t wanna give too much away, so I’ll just mention two things I especially appreciated about it. First, there were some nice homages to the original version: at one point, Denham wonders if he can get “Fay” to star in his movie, but he’s told that she’s already shooting a picture for RKO. Jackson also manages to incorporate some of the goofier scenes and elements from the original into Denham’s productions, and there are other spots where he outright copies shots or dialogue from the original.
The other thing I appreciated is that it made me cry. Yes, I know I’m a little girl, but King Kong made me cry. Not the death scene, but the anticipation of the death scene. I won’t say more than that except to acknowledge how much of a genius Jackson is to use the audience’s familiarity with the source material to make his own version more powerful than the original.