In the essay that follows, Justin Robison compares the depiction of King Kong in Skull Island to his own unique, radically different Kublai Kong in Fifty Feet of Trouble. The eloquent portrait of Kublai Kong, included in the print version of the novel, is by Fernando Caire.
It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of King Kong. Not so much the 2005 Peter Jackson version. My feelings for that one, and one of the most important writing lessons I ever learned, is best summed up by the Tripod song of the same name. (You’re going to want to google that one, and if you’re at work, put on some headphones. You’re welcome.) I like the original, and more to the point, like with a lot of monster movies, I like the character far more than I like any one execution of him. I prefer the idiosyncratic amalgam that exists only on my head, but that, like any fan, I will defend to the death as the one true version.
Once I hit on the idea of including the 50 Foot Woman as the femme fatale in Fifty Feet of Trouble, I knew I’d be adding a Kong-equivalent as an abusive boyfriend. I don’t know what to tell you; that’s how my mind works. I wrote Fifty Feet of Trouble in the latter parts of 2013 and early parts of 2014, so the new film wasn’t on the horizon, and I’d mostly dismissed the Jackson attempt as “that really long slog I might watch if I’m sick or hungover.” It was more the image of the great ape that inspired me, the same way my mind had combined the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera with Phil Alvin of the Blasters and Willem Dafoe in Streets of Fire to produce Cacophony Jones. Like I said, it’s the amalgamations in my head that I’m obsessed with.
So with the love of the character, it wasn’t a matter of if I’d see Kong: Skull Island, but when. Their take on the giant ape is vastly different than the one I used on my book, which can largely be chalked up to the differences in genre. Fifty Feet of Trouble is a comic neo-noir; Kong: Skull Island is a pulp horror/adventure.
The Kong of the movie (who I’ll refer to as “King,” and my version as “Kublai,” to avoid confusion), is ostensibly a relic of an earlier time. He’s the last of his kind, and it’s outright stated that there was a whole race of these giant apes. While previous incarnations have left the reasons for the near extinction a mystery, Skull Island points to a bunch of lazily-designed legless lizard monsters as the culprits.
My Kublai doesn’t have that element of tragedy at all. He’s part of a “type” of monster, the monkey khan, and while they’re far from common, he’s not the only one in the world. Perhaps more importantly, like every monster in the City of Devils universe, Kublai used to be human. Another monkey khan turned him from an insignificant human to one of the more powerful monsters in the world. You can kind of get an idea of who he used to be. He’s the kind of person that took his newfound power, built a giant gold room and a throne, and romances women much too small for him. (Other monsters would point out that a woman should be half your height plus seven feet before she’s a viable date, but I digress.) Kublai was a small man in life, and paradoxically, as shown in the book, he’s remained small on the inside. Kublai does eventually get into a Kong-caliber fight, but it’s entirely for selfish, petty reasons.
He’s never done anything heroic in his life, unlike King, who is a hero. The next best thing to an Avenger, really. He’s basically the Hulk, if you added about fifty stories and a hundred thousand tons. (maybe that’s why they cast Loki?) King is basically the thin banana-smelling line between Earth and an omnicidal breed of subterranean monsters. He doesn’t wrestle lizard things because what else is a bored giant gorilla to do. He wrestles lizard things because they killed his parents. King is a tragic hero, spurred by grief to save the world. Give him a cape and a cowl and he’s Batman. (He is vengeance. He is the night. He is… Batkong.)
Kublai, though, is a City of Devils monster. There’s nothing in this world I despise quite as much as bullies, and many of the villains in the series have taken that form. Kublai is no exception. He’s completely self-serving, his presence in the finale mostly because he can’t believe anyone would defy him. He’s not out for vengeance. He couldn’t care less about saving the world. He’s taken to heart the idea that a while a five hundred pound gorilla might sit wherever he wants, a five hundred thousand ton gorilla does whatever he wants, and that includes wrecking large parts of a city.
King isn’t even the bad guy of Skull Island. Sure, the first we see of him, he’s swatting helicopters like flies at a barbecue, but look at it from his perspective. He was chilling at home, maybe looking around for a lizard to wrestle, when suddenly these guys come in and start bombing his home. After the initial dust-up, he’s pretty merciful to the survivors, too. He only ever kills one more, and to be fair, that guy had just set him on fire. The true villains are both the lizard monsters, whose motives appear to be largely culinary, and Sam Jackson’s character, who wants a little payback on the ape who killed his men. A circle of vengeance that involves lizard monsters, a giant ape, and Samuel L. Jackson, might be the greatest vengeance circle in history.
Kong: Skull Island is poised to be the second film in a shared cinematic universe of giant monsters. I imagine he’ll stay roughly the same, the anti-hero who wrestles the monsters humanity can’t. I can also promise that if Kublai ever returns, he’ll be the same cad we saw in Fifty Feet of Trouble. After all, you can’t teach an old gorilla new tricks.