Great Moments in Storytelling: King Kong

Thanks to COVID, I’m hacking through my library again, and it gives me the opportunity to talk about great moments in storytelling. Today’s masterclass comes from fifteen years ago: Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. When Peter Jackson originally planned to make King Kong, no studio was prepared to let him try. Instead, he made a trilogy of movies called ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ leveraging time, technology, and success to come back and re-make the classic movie for a new century.

On paper, that might sound like a bad idea. After all, the 1976 King Kong was beyond ridiculous. What made Jackson think he could make it a success? The answer, in one word: story.

I love how the movie starts. We get this gritty, documentary-style look at New York in 1933. Everyday people surviving the Depression, Prohibition. What must it have felt like to be hungry, out of work, desperate for hope?

At the same time, he recreates New York in loving detail. Rush hour with a sea of Model A’s leaving Manhattan. Iron workers pulling beams into place over giddy heights with no safety gear.

Our protagonists find themselves in similar circumstances, with Denham the filmmaker about to be sued for a recent movie production, and Darrow the female vaudeville actor begging for a job in the streets of Manhattan. The voyage to the island could be boring in the hands of a lesser storyteller. Jackson uses the time to make us care about every single one. Throughout these moments, he seems to be telling us: This isn’t just about King Kong, this is about us.

I’ll explain further. There’s a moment at the end of the first act of the movie, where Mr. Hayes the first mate quotes from ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad: “We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages of those ages that are gone leaving hardly a sign, and no memories. 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.”

By the end of the first act, he’s managed to capture our hearts, our minds, and our souls. This was the moment I fell in love with King Kong as a story. Jackson deftly sets the tone for the movie and for ourselves. We, the moviegoers look upon classic films like King Kong as shackled, conquered monsters. Jackson brings him back to life, bring us back to the brink of terror and adventure that the original audiences of the 1933 King Kong must have felt. He does so with masterful texture and depth. We feel every inch of the tramp steamer Venture. We feel every inch of Driscoll, Denham, and Darrow’s desperation to ‘make it’ in their particular field.  We feel every inch of the rage and terror of the untamed world existing in the imagination of every human being.

The characters personalities grow and change throughout the picture. The awkward relationship between Driscoll and Darrow falter in the face of tragedy. We see Carl Denham’s selfishness (Played impeccably by Jack Black) as he insists on continuing the film project after it’s clear his hired crew are in mortal peril. One thing that stands out to me as a storytelling bonus with the 2005 King Kong – they really explore the character of the great ape.

In the original 1933 version, King Kong is something of a caricature. He’s a monster, there to frighten and amaze. In the 2005 version, it’s clear in several different scenes that King Kong is a complex character. All at once, he’s powerful, protective, misunderstood, and lonely. You come away with this sense of King Kong as a product of a harsh environment, and you can’t help sympathize with his unhappy lot. Then, you realize later that Jackson and Andy ‘King of Motion Capture’ Serkis accomplished all of that without a single line of dialogue. Now that’s storytelling.

The odyssey of survival in the remaining 2+ hours (No joke, this is a long albeit beautiful film) builds upon the foundation of storytelling laid in that first hour. Each action feels organic and necessary to the advancing plot. No wasted moments, no wasted motion. By the time Darrow climbs the ladder to the top of the Empire State, and Kong falls to his inevitable doom, we’re completely invested in the hopes, dreams, and failures of each character.

How did they get there? If you consider King Kong as a story-telling exercise, you come away with some storytelling hacks for your own personal use:

  1. Don’t be afraid to start over – it’s widely understood that Jackson had worked for years to get King Kong ready for production, and that included a long period in which they chucked a camera-ready script and wrote their own, using the original 1933 film as a base.  Even still, there were many drafts and story changes between 1996 and 2004. Jackson and his writing partners (his wife, Fran Walsh, and Lord of the Rings co-writer Philippa Boyens)
  2. Draw inspiration from many places – The 2005 writing team used the original film, as well as the 1932 novelization by Delos W. Lovelace as inspiration. Jackson also took Ann Darrow’s character and fleshed her out, using a memoir by vaudeville performer June Havoc. Carl Denham was intentionally modeled after and inspired by Orson Welles. They also drew from footage of live gorillas, helping us see King Kong, as a complex character. The point? Don’t be afraid to look in many places for your inspiration.
  3. See your characters as real people – One of the triumphs of King Kong, what made it a ‘majestic spectacle’ to Metacritic, was how textured the story and characters are. These characters don’t just look and sound real, they feel real. As the writers drew from real life experiences, they breathed that same life into their characters. Even now, fifteen years later, they still jump off the screen.

So as a great moment in storytelling, we can celebrate King Kong for being a ripping good yarn, even without the amazing special effects. It’s downright admirable to see a big-screen director continue to develop his craft, and it’s why I’ll be looking for Jackson to make many more beautiful films for years to come.

I hope you enjoyed this discussion, and I invite you to start breaking down the game films of your favorite movies to see what great storytelling moments you find.