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When visitors enter the museum at Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center, which archives work about and by C.S. Lewis and six of his British influencers, they are treated to an eye-popping display of 53 book covers from famous works: The Two Towers from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis’s Perelandra, Sayers’s first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and more. For each book, covers are arranged clockwise by decades, beginning with the first edition and on into the twenty-first century. It is a fascinating survey in cultural values, covers differing dramatically as marketers seek to sell the exact same content to new audiences. Titled “Judging a Book by its Cover,” the display makes clear that astute observers judge historical contexts as much as narrative contents through changing book covers.

The same might be said about remakes of the same film content. The King Kong franchise provides a great example. The 2021 release of King Kong versus Godzilla reflects profound changes in historical contexts. The original King Kong, one of the few movies seen by C. S. Lewis, set records for film attendance when it was released in 1933. In it, a film crew travels to an isolated South Seas island where a 25-foot ape proceeds to kidnap the film’s starlet, Ann. Sailors and film crew conquer the beast, shipping it back to Manhattan to put on display. When King Kong breaks his chains, he escapes to the top of the Empire State Building with Ann in tow. On top of the skyscraper, he swats at biplanes reminiscent of flying pterodactyls he had battled from the summit of his island lair. When bullets finally bring him down, the film ends with the iconic line, “It wasn’t the airplanes; it was beauty killed the beast.”

Attentive viewers cannot help wondering if the giant ape symbolizes the cumulative gaze of moviegoers who habitually see beauty primarily in the sexualized female body. Indeed, in a scene cut from the movie when the Hays Code came into effect the following year, Kong smells his fingers after fiddling with Ann’s clothing. As famous film theorist Laura Mulvey put it in 1975, women on screen have tended to be coded as “objects of the gaze,” hairy or otherwise. In the 1976 King Kong, Jessica Lange plays the object of the gaze in a contemporary setting, Kong’s remote island discovered during a search for oil, clearly reflecting the 1970s oil crisis. In this movie, Lange actually returns Kong’s gaze, as though acknowledging a 1970s emphasis on women controlling their sexuality. (The fact that Jessica Lange was a fashion model who had never acted on screen before tells us about the producers’ actual object of the film.)

In 2005, Peter Jackson, famous for his Lord of the Rings movies, returned to a 1930s setting for King Kong in order to redirect the gaze altogether. In addition to highlighting the beautiful art deco architecture of Manhattan, he turns Driscoll, a sailor smitten with Ann’s beauty, into someone impressed much more with the beauty of words. Hired to write a screenplay, his Driscoll is called “Shakespeare” while on board ship due to his passion for literary art. Jackson also adds a young sailor, Jimmy, who quotes from Joseph Conrad’s 1901 novel, The Heart of Darkness. A liberal arts education comes in handy when watching Jackson’s three-hour film.

Jackson even changes Kong’s fascination with beauty. Entranced more by the actress’s vaudeville routines—her craft—than her beauty, the ape takes Ann to the apex of his mountain lair, ignoring her to watch the sun shed garments of red and orange as it sinks into the ocean. Enchanted as well, Ann repeats “It’s beautiful,” while patting her heart with her hand. The creature taps his own breast while wistfully watching an azure sea extinguish the flame that keeps at bay the heart of darkness.

At the end of the film, when Kong carries Ann to the Empire State Building, he stops climbing when he notices the sun rising over the waters surrounding Manhattan. Sitting down, Kong forgets not only the army chasing him but also Ann, who so wants to participate in his reverie that she yells up to him “Beautiful!” while tapping her heart. Not wanting to give up on one moment of beauty, Kong keeps watching the gorgeous skies while tapping his breast in reply.

At this moment, gun-toting biplanes rip through the russet-mantled dawn, and bullets pierce Kong’s heart. As his body falls in slow motion to the street below, a soft requiem accompanies his descent until we hear the iconic closing statement, “It wasn’t the airplanes; it was beauty killed the beast.” By keeping the 1933 framing device of a film crew making a movie, Jackson implies that the beauty of film is located not in human bodies but in artistic cinematography and editing, reflecting an era when film programs were flourishing at colleges and universities. *

Jackson and his co-writers finished drafting their new King Kong script in February of 2004, the exact same month that Facebook was launched. After receiving numerous award nominations, the film was available on DVD by March 2006, four months before the launch of Twitter. And that sea-change may explain the narrative of the recent Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), which highlights our contemporary dependence on technology. Rather than beauty generating action, either for good or ill, this film presents a visually ugly culture that Kong and Godzilla attack. C. S. Lewis would have been fascinated by this radically different film, wherein a tech firm named Apex seeks to establish control by accessing the neural networks of a severed head: a plot point echoing the severed head in Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength (1945). Significantly, like the hairy bear and other animals that overrun the hideous technology at the end of Lewis’s novel, King Kong and Godzilla come to the rescue at the end of the 2021 film, defying the Apex of nature-destroying technology.

To understand that destruction, watch the superbly crafted documentary The Social Dilemma (2020), which shows how young people today are being remotely controlled by the seemingly disembodied heads of social media. Tap your breast if you agree.

* Some of the sentences above were borrowed from my essay “The Ape(x) of Beauty,” Cresset 69.5 (June 2006): 25-29.

Crystal L. Downing

Wheaton College
Crystal Downing is Co-Director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College (IL)

One Comment

  • Ted Murphy says:

    thanks for your thoughts on Kong.

    The original King Kong does suggest strong sexual content. However; the pervasive implicit messages of the 1933 film are racial. King Kong projects the anxiety of white Americans over the migration of southern black Americans into northern industrial urban cities. The film falls all over its self in portraying this threat through the mayhem and sexual lust of the the “Bigger” ape ( read in Native Son both in the principle character and what is said about him after his arrest).

    Birth of a Nation made this fear explicit in southern terms. King Kong of 1933 had so absorbed this premise from the 1915 film that it is fair to assume, like D W Griffith, that they were unaware of the message of the film.

    Racist are often- far too often- surprised that they are racist or at least responsible for coded racist ideas. No amount of disclaiming that “this is just an adventure film” can undo what is clearly at play in the images, story and details. The choices made by later films certainly do track with your sexual observations and in some cases try to mitigate the initial racist ideas.