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What are the dangers when a director monkeys around with a classic film? Thomas Wartenberg on the remake of King Kong.
Peter Jackson’s recently released remake of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 masterpiece King Kong brought a number of questions to my mind. I love the earlier movie and began thinking about what motivated someone to remake a classic film. Obviously, there are financial considerations. A film with a reputation like King Kong would be sure to draw large crowds, especially since a modern version would employ the latest CGI technology for rendering Kong and his various opponents on Skull Island. And while that is no insignificant factor in the decision to remake a film, I wondered if there was more to it.
One reason that occurred to me was to make a classic film like Kong more available to contemporary audiences. Although the technology used to make the 1933 version of the film amazed audiences when it was released, it now looks very dated, with Kong and the other monsters no longer seeming credible. What was once a very scary film – I can remember being terrified even when watching it on a small black and white TV in the mid-1950’s – has become tame due to the dated nature of the animation. It would make sense to try to rekindle the original sense of Kong as the Eighth Wonder of the World by using CGI technology to render him lifelike to contemporary audiences. I expect the challenge of doing so was one of the reasons the filmmakers wanted to remake this film.
This is borne out by the film itself. The filmmakers obviously relish the task of creating prehistoric monsters that will scare the living daylights out of their audience members. And there are many more scenes of dinosaurs fighting both each other and Kong – while nearly trampling the fleeing white men – in this film than there were in the original. I joked to a friend that what we had seen was King Kong Meets Jurassic Park, for the scenes on Skull Island seemed overly long to me. However, the filmmakers chose to go for disgust rather than straight fear in a series of wonderful sequences that involved huge insects, an innovation that I thought was a great idea.
The need to remake the film in order to create verisimilitude in the monsters brought to mind the idea that there are features of any work of art – including films – that are transparent to an audience contemporary to it that become opaque to later ones. What I mean by ‘opaque’ is that one doesn’t just see through the representation to what it stands for but notices how the representation is made. This shift from transparency to opacity is clear in the instance of fakes. What seemed like an authentic Vermeer painting to audiences in 1933 stands out clearly as a forgery to us now. This is because elements of the picture’s style that were transparent to the earlier audiences have become opaque to us, things that we cannot overlook but have to see rather than see through. The same holds for technology in science fiction and horror films. Elements that audience once saw through so that they might be taken in, in some sense, by the fiction now disrupt it and make it seem unreal and dated. A prime motivation for remaking a horror or sci-fi film could be to make transparent once more the technology for making the monsters so that audiences could reengage with the story at a more visceral level than was possible for them.
But what about the story of King Kong itself? Is this a story that would attract contemporary audiences? Before seeing the film, I wondered how the filmmakers would handle the overt racism of the film. Actually, there are various different racist elements to the original film. The most obvious is the portrayal of the natives on Skull Island. Then there is the fact that Kong kills all the black virgins sacrificed to him but not the lone white woman, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). Indeed, the whole film pivots on the idea that Darrow, as a white woman, represents an ideal of beauty that is universal. Finally, there is the question of Kong himself and the possible link he bears to black men.
Jackson’s King Kong attempts to soft peddle most of this. The natives are represented as Polynesian headhunters, at least to my untrained eyes. The question of previous sacrifices is only gestured to, when Darrow (Naomi Watts) notices the heads and necklaces of what must be women sacrificed to Kong. The narrative never overtly discusses the issue of Darrow’s abduction, thus allowing the racism of this element of the plot to be tacit. And Kong is now so realistically portrayed there is no mistaking him for anything but a huge ape.
Still, the film retains the notion that a white woman is so beautiful that she can tame a beast. The remake transposes the original’s intertitle into a line of dialogue spoken to introduce Kong in New York and retains Carl Denham’s famous final line: “It wasn’t the bullets. It was beauty killed the beast.” Both of these emphasize a racist conception of white female beauty, for it not only universalizes it, but treats all beings – humans as well as apes and perhaps even dinosaurs – as susceptible to it.
The biggest change in the plot is that Darrow is now presented as falling in love with Kong. In the original, Fay Wray did nothing but scream from the moment she first saw Kong until his fateful death atop the Empire State Building. Not so Naomi Watts. Recognizing that Kong has risked his life to defend her from numerous attacks on Skull Island, Watts no longer fears him, but loves him and tries to make him laugh. Later, in New York, she voluntarily comes to him and the two seem like a pair of mismatched lovers – what I call an unlikely couple – hunted down by a society than abhors such love.
The question is why the filmmakers have made this choice and what effect it has on the plot. The latter question is easier to answer: It undermines the role that Jack Driscoll plays in the film. In the original, Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) falls in love with Darrow and gets to prove his manhood by risking his life to save her from the vicious beast. While Adrien Brody does the same in the remake, the fact that Darrow has recognized Kong’s love and reciprocated it makes Driscoll’s pursuit of her seem less motivated. Darrow now appears to be pretty satisfied with her jungle life as she peers out with Kong over the landscape, teaching him the word ‘beautiful.’ The need for her rescue is less motivated. This is even truer in New York, where Driscoll’s reunification with Darrow atop the Empire State Building after Kong’s death has none of the pathos of the original, when Darrow was genuinely frightened of her abductor. Now, she willingly goes with him and tries to get the planes to stop shooting at him. What room is there for her to be in love with a mere mortal like Driscoll?
This is one of the problems with remakes. While they need to retain major elements of the original film in order to be a remake of it, they also have to fiddle with elements that seem arbitrary, offensive, or outmoded. The problem is that works of art are, as Hegel said, organic wholes, so that all of the elements are internally related to one another. Changing one has ramifications for all of the others. As Peter Jackson’s King Kong demonstrates, it’s not easy to recreate an organic whole once you change one of its elements.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2006
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.