January 2006

Barbara J. King

features

Reading King Kong (and Pitching Peter Jackson)

Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness helped me understand Peter Jackson’s 2005 movie King Kong.

Before King Kong’s December opening, zookeepers and researchers around the world flooded an Internet gorilla forum with anxious speculation. We all knew that actor Andy Serkis had hung out with wild gorillas in Africa before shooting his scenes as Kong. Would he get the knuckle-walking right? Would moviegoers glean any sense of gorillas’ keen intelligence and subtle communication, or would King Kong perpetuate the dangerous (for the apes) myth of gorillas as mindless aggressive beasts? Entering my neighborhood theatre, I pulled out a yellow pad and grimly settled in to take technical notes.

But over the next three hours, something startling happened, something foreshadowed onscreen when Jimmy, an adolescent boy, clutches a worn copy of Heart of Darkness. “It’s not an adventure story, is it?” he asks. As it slowly dawns on Jimmy that Conrad meant to explore human nature and human cruelty as much as he did the Belgian Congo, it slowly dawned on me that Jackson meant to give us not just a blockbuster film but also a profound tale about the human will to exploit those who are different.

King Kong is not an adventure story. Nor are Hollywood spinmeisters right when they label it as an interspecies love story. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy, pure and simple. When I wept at the end, it wasn’t only because of what happens between Kong and Ann Darrow, but also because Jackson so beautifully symbolizes the shameful history of human exploitation of apes, that lethal combination of species-ism and indifference that mirrors the racism and indifference in Conrad’s tale.

I’m no groupie; parts of Jackson’s film are downright infuriating, better off teleported right back to Conrad’s century. The images of Skull Island’s dark-skinned inhabitants, adorned with spikes and gibbering in a language that sounds like a version of Elvish from that other Jackson movie, set anthropology back 200 years. Then, Kong appears. Gazing into his eyes, I saw -- well, not much, and certainly not the vital spark that enlivens the eyes of real gorillas. As Kong beat his chest, roared, and clutched the shrieking Ann, I snapped shut my pad in disgust.

But the movie evolves, and so does Kong -- or rather, so does our comprehension of Kong’s true nature. Slowly, as Kong and Ann begin to trust each other, Kong’s eyes take on depth. Mirrored there, we see curiosity, love, fear, and eventually, resignation. Slowly, as his behavior diverges from the gorilla-run-amok stereotype, it diversifies; Kong is protective, then tentatively playful, then lovingly playful. (Counted among my Christmas gifts this year was the incomparably moving skating scene.)

Most powerful of all are images that hurtle viewers back to the bad-old days of natural history, when rifle-toting safari-men trapped and shackled gorillas for display -- or killed them outright. Sadly, that past echoes still. In today's Africa, gorillas are dying, dying in the thousands and thousands. We humans cut down their habitat. We humans sell gorillas as beef for other humans to eat. We humans admire “the big monkeys” we see in zoos or at the movies, rarely bothering to get the taxonomy right and much more significantly, not caring quite enough to insist that the killing and destruction stop. At a terrifyingly profound level, Peter Jackson captured this reality.

Jackson reaches us chiefly through Ann’s empathy for Kong (or rather, through the actress Naomi Watts’s acting skills), just as Conrad reminded us of the reality of Africans’ humanity through the growing awareness of Marlow. At one point, Jackson even has Jimmy’s mentor, Mr. Hayes, utter these words: “We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there -- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.” Yes, this is Heart of Darkness, verbatim. In the book, of course, there’s more: “It was unearthly, and the men were -- no, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it --this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity -- like yours -- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.”

How many viewers of King Kong will have read, or remembered, Heart of Darkness? I don’t know, but I suspect that too many will leave the theatre fixated solely on Kong’s punching a dinosaur or falling for the blonde gal. So here’s the pitch to Jackson. When it comes time to create the DVD version of King Kong, how about including an on-location-in-Africa, scientifically accurate mini-movie? Even five minutes might do it. Read aloud passages from Conrad, maybe, then report the numbers of dead gorillas in Africa and the reasons why they are dying. Most importantly, tell people how to stop the carnage. Send them to www.dianfossey.org or www.bushmeat.org for up-to-the-minute news.

Meanwhile, what better way for us to start 2006 then to revisit a timeless novel? Marlow’s voice is not often paired, on reading lists or college syllabi, with books about gorillas, but it could be. For a primatological classic, try The Year of the Gorilla (1997 reissue) by George Schaller. For a more recent (read: more searing) glimpse of the reality of being ape in Africa today, read In the Kingdom of Gorillas: Fragile Species in a Dangerous Land by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder. As Peter Jackson knows, and Joseph Conrad knew too, that “dangerous land” is anywhere inhabited by humans.

--Anthropologist and ape-watcher Barbara J. King thanks her fellow scientist and friend Stuart Shanker for always saying exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment.