Ray Morton began his Hollywood career as a screenwriter, leading to his current day job as a story consultant and script analyst, as well as senior writer and columnist for Scr(i)pt magazine. But if you’ve visited a bookstore lately (or read the BOOKGASM review), you may recognize him as the author of KING KONG: THE HISTORY OF A MOVIE ICON FROM FAY WRAY TO PETER JACKSON, an instantly essential guide to the entire KONG franchise, authorized and otherwise.
As Jackson’s current remake continues to pummel (most of) the competition in theaters, Morton shared his thoughts on that film, its classic original and, of course, his book with us. And now, through the magic of the Internet, with you…
BOOKGASM: Why a whole book about KING KONG? What does the original film mean to you?
MORTON: I first saw the film when I was 8 and was tremendously affected by it. To begin with, I was fascinated by the whole story – a journey to a mysterious island; a strange tribe of natives offering a human sacrifice; a population of monstrous dinosaurs in a prehistoric, fog-enshrouded jungle – all of these things were tremendously fascinating to my 8-year-old mind. But I was most fascinated with Kong himself – I loved gorillas and the idea of a giant one was just enthralling. The scenes of him running amok in New York City were completely captivating to me, especially since I was from there. The Empire State Building sequence blew my mind. I had simply never seen anything like that before. Ultimately, though, I was very moved by the story.
Although I’m sure I didn’t grasp all the subtleties of the piece at the time, in the end I knew Kong was doing all of what he was doing because he liked Ann and that this is what got him killed, and I found myself crying at the sadness and the injustice of that. All of those feelings have stayed with me ever since. Whenever I watch the film, I am transported back to the 8-year-old boy that I was and I experience all of those feelings all over again.
Later on, as I learned about how films were made and especially how KONG itself was made, I came to appreciate just what an innovative and effective piece of filmmaking that it is, and I am able to enjoy it on that level as well everytime I see it.
BOOKGASM: The amount of detail in your book is staggering. How long was the research process?
MORTON: Unofficially, I have been researching the book ever since I first saw the film. I have always been interested in how things I like are made, so I was instantly curious after I first saw it. As soon as I had access to a library, I began reading all that I could about how the film was made. The two best books for me in that regard were Thomas Aylesworth’s MONSTERS FROM THE MOVIES and the Turner/Goldner THE MAKING OF KING KONG, although I also looked up articles in old newspapers and magazines about the film as well. I also did a similar unoffical research job when the 1976 KONG came out.
But officially, I began researching the book in late 2001/early 2002. I did my first interviews toward the end of 2002/beginning of 2003 and continued with interviews and research right up until I turned in the manuscript in June of this year.
BOOKGASM: Perhaps the most interesting point to me was that the 1976 remake is today largely considered to be a critical and commercial dud, whereas the opposite is true. What do you think changed the public’s perception?
MORTON: I think that part of the problem was the way the film was distributed in the ancillary markets. After its initial run, the film was not theatrically rereleased and De Laurentiis made a deal with NBC to show the film twice in a five-year period of time. They showed it once in 1978 and then again at the end of the deal in 1983. Otherwise, the film was unavailable for that entire five-year period – six, if you count the year following the conclusion of the film’s theatrical run and the beginning of the NBC deal. In those days before home video, television was the only way to see a film and since it wasn’t playing regularly, I think it simply faded from the general audience’s memory.
The only ones talking about it at that point were die-hard sci-fi and monster movie fans who had never liked the film, although their reasons always seemed to me to be a little hard to fathom; most of what I have read or heard did not address the film itself, but seemed to focus on the anger the fans felt at De Laurentiis for daring to remake the film in the first place and anger at the film for not being a carbon copy of the original. Their hatred of De Laurentiis and the film caused them to bad mouth it incessantly and to negatively exaggerate the film’s box office and critical reception. Since they were the only ones talking about it, these comments eventually came to be accepted as gospel. I also think the release of KING KONG LIVES didn’t help. I think many people confused the 1976 KONG with that 1986 film, which is the awful, slipshod, campfest that many accuse the ’76 KONG of being and which it simply is not.
BOOKGASM: You seem to have little to no love for the various KONG sequels and spin-offs. Why is it that filmmakers face an uphill battle – more often lost than not – when making a KONG movie?
MORTON: I hope that I did not give that impression. I have great affection for the various KONG sequels and spin-offs – but maybe not for the rip-offs – although I don’t think that any of them hold a candle to the original or even to the 1976 version. I think the problem with the KONG follow-ups is that they neglect the “beauty and the beast” aspect of the story. It is precisely Kong’s love for Ann/Dwan and the tragedy that results from it that gives the story its power and majesty. With that removed, all you have is a monster movie about a giant ape running around smashing things, which can be fun, but is automatically less emotionally involving and thus interesting. Ultimately, I think there really is only one King Kong story to be told. Otherwise, it’s just – as Charlton Heston once said about the PLANET OF THE APES sequels – “adventures among the monkeys.”
BOOKGASM: Lastly, I have to ask what you thought of the new KING KONG.
MORTON: Technically, I thought it was quite good. I am usually not a fan of CGI – it never seems completely convincing to me – but I thought it was tremendously well-handled here. Kong was quite convincing and they did a good job of expanding on the relationship between Ann and Kong. I thought, though, while they did an excellent job of creating a realistic portrayal of a gorilla, he wasn’t quite Kong, who, in addition to being a gorilla, is also a monster. This Kong wasn’t quite a monster – he seemed too gentle, too sweet. As weird as the romantic angle is in the story, I think by eliminating it, they lost some of the power of the original tale; it seemed more like a MIGHTY JOE YOUNG girl and her gorilla story than it did a tragically doomed love story. I thought Naomi Watts was terrific, but I thought Jack Black was miscast and the character of Carl Denham a bit misconceived. I also thought that the Jack Driscoll character didn’t register as strongly as he should have. The film was also much too long and wasted too much time with non-essential elements such as extraneous characters and creatures. I thought some of the other creative elements of the film – the cinematography and the production design and especially the music – were a bit flat. The Empire State Building sequence was great, however. So, ultimately, I guess I thought it was well-intentioned, but a bit of a misfire.
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