Could King Kong be a better film than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?
It is said that J.R.R. Tolkien disliked the Narnia stories, written by his closest literary comrade, C.S. Lewis. He found them to be a "a hodgepodge of myths.” This December, two films vie for a permanent place in our imaginative landscapes, offering two distinct visions for moviemaking. We should not be surprised that Lewis’ Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, so faithfully translated by a Disney team, is pitted against King Kong, a passionate offering by a director who so triumphantly translated, and transformed, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Narnia was a good film: but not a great film. King Kong is the better film -- And quite possibly a great film.
Don’t get me wrong. Georgie Henley, whose debut makes an indelible mark in the Narnia movie, playing Lucy, deserves much praise and recognition (the Academy Awards should create a new category – call it, let’s say, the Drew Barrymore E.T. Phone Home Award for the most iconic child actor of the year). Narnia should be seen by all of us if only to witness the light of Narnia wonderment refracted in Lucy’s face, and truly magical wardrobe scenes. The movie came out, to the relief of many Narnia fanatics, very much faithful to the text and imagery of C.S. Lewis. The depiction of the White Witch captured the intensity of conflicts, both spiritual and physical, and her cold stealthy fingers of evil were felt reaching into our hearts. And the twist in the end can unlock a mystery of redemption that we long to understand and describe as Christians.
But it’s the depiction of the beast that gave pause.
Can you really compare Aslan the lion, the Christ figure of Narnia with King Kong? You might ask. Isn’t Narnia the most redemptive, Christ-focused work on the screen today? And don’t you want any ventures related to the writings of C.S. Lewis (a writer I deeply love) to succeed?
Yes, no, and definitely yes.
We can, and need to, compare the two beasts, because the movies beckon us to do so. While the original text of Narnia is most redemptive, the movie pales in comparison: and I venture to say that Kong somehow manages to create a need for redemption better than Narnia as a film. Yes, I do want anything associated with our beloved don of Oxford to succeed. But, I came away convinced that Peter Jackson’s King Kong delivers the beastly quality best, while Disney’s Aslan felt tame and not the fierce Lion/King of Lewis’ original Aslan. Therefore Narnia’s redemptive quality suffered. I wonder if Lewis himself would have agreed: after all Lewis was "absolutely opposed" to a live-action version of "Narnia." (“according to an unpublished 1959 letter he wrote to a BBC producer. ‘Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare.’”)
In King Kong, we witness the transformation of the Beast to glimpse love and to experience beauty. We see the Beast be destroyed because of, and in spite of, that response. This transaction is deeply truthful, and even Biblical. He convinces us of the lack of a way out of that beastly existence. Romans chapter eight of the New Testament tells us “the creation was subjected to frustration…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20,21). Kong exactly captures this frustration. And in that gap between what may be possible and what is actually not, Christians can see our need to appear on the scene as children of God: we are to be Princes and Princesses of the great King. Narnia could have told this royal appearance most powerfully in the cinema, not just as a mandatory Star Wars-like last scene, but as a layered character development that evolves over the course of the film. It is after all, a story of children who are literally destined for thrones. Psychological elements, the inner tension between the weight of the call and the actualization of that call, could have been explored much deeply.
Kong became truly dangerous and remained untamed even until the end. Andy Serkis, who “played” Kong deserves an Oscar (again, let’s create a new category – maybe name it after him, the Serkis Award for the best acting-via-CG. There are sure to be many more given in the future.) His depiction, his movement breathes life into a previously undeveloped beast as a tragic hero. After initiating us in incomparable Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy to how technology can morph the art of acting as we know it, he follows the same uncharted beastly path in Kong. His depiction of emotional depth and range of a wild monster turned to sacrificial protector is utterly unrivaled in modern cinema, excepting, possibly in a much smaller way this year, Gromit the claymation dog by Nick Park in Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were Rabbit.
And then there’s the Empire State Building. I may love King Kong simply because New York City, wearing her 1932 Art Deco gown in the midst of The Depression, appears in the film as a central character, as important as any other actors, with the freshly built Empire State as her crown. From the misty East River to Times Square’s snowy theatre district, King Kong shows the city as wild as Skull Island, but also romantic and dreamy, and certainly much more dangerous than dinosaurs and poisonous spiders. The movie captures the monstrous power and sophistication of the City to make a plaything, a mere spectacle, out of a pure beauty called Ann Darrow, who is just as much of a misfit in NYC as a savage 50 foot beast.
Just as in this year’s Pride and Prejudice (another highly recommended film to see) a pure range of emotions of romance is explored without pandering to cheap, sensationalistic sex scenes. Compassion, to see beyond the veneer of our beastly existence, defines Naomi Watts’ performance. And Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is seen mirroring his complex emotional connection in his act of creativity as a playwrite. In Skull Island, he is a “dare- to–save the girl” triathlon hero and not very credible (I certainly do not know many playwrites who can move that fast). But back in the NYC theatre, revelation he has, echoed in his own play, was one of the most important moments of the film. There is a great overlap between the dashed hopes of an imaginative, creative soul and the falling Ape. Both face an incomparable Empire State building and must climb to the top. And romance has everything to do with it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1939:
"From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood—everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed, but that it had limits – from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground."
A year before his death, the beast of the literary world stood on top of the Empire State building and saw his own limitations. He saw the world crumble down, including his love for his beloved wife Zelda. Kong, in the same way, represents not just a beast, but a “Heart of Darkness,” (Joseph Conrad’s novel of African journey is often quoted both explicitly and implicitly in the film). And the tale is about our darkened hearts, and our Pandora’s box opened. We struggle to retain the wilderness, or fail to tame it. That’s why romances in our lives either destroy us or ultimately fail to satisfy us. Therefore, Kong was seen as a necessary villain residing deep within our hearts, a victim of our dark presumption. In the climactic scene of the movie, in a “Christina’s World” like stretch, the body of Naomi Watts reaches into the beast’s eyes of surrender. On top of the world, the beauty is held together still, for but one single moment, with the beast.
This beast truly proved dangerous, and beautiful at the same time: the way Aslan should have been. Kong stood on top of the Empire State and roared against the incoming fighter planes and even against his own death: Aslan’s willingness to suffer and be sacrificed for the betrayal of Edmund could have been equally as compelling visually, but it was not.
Lewis stated in Mere Christianity about Beauty and the Beast, “The girl, you remember, had to marry a monster for some reason. And she did. She kissed it as if it were a man. And then, much to her relief, it really turned into a man and all went well…” He continues in the essay to woo us to realize that these stories of old are really a means for us to tap into the great, deep longing of our hearts, and our need for the gospel, the Good News of Christ. It is that suspense we wish for, what we deeply desire that is captured in Kong: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe needed to capture that better than it did.
It may be that Narnia was so wedded to the original text that it lost some of its mythic power. The Chronicles of Narnia is indeed a great story (and especially to read aloud to our children): and it does not need to be a film to add to its integrity. If the film makes us re-read these great stories, to appreciate Lewis’ myth-filled imagination, so be it. They may have seemed a “hodgepodge” to Tolkien, but to us in this age of uncertain fears, they are more like color-filled lights refracted in Lewis’ multi-faceted prism, filling our hearts with secure hope.
On the other hand, King Kong has to be a film. There’s no other way to communicate this beauty and beast visual drama. It’s a film that needs to be a film: that’s why it can be a great film.
Finally, it’s Peter Jackson’s love for movie making that prevails. He clearly believes in the art form called film: And he loves it deeply as a myth-making medium. It is that love for the medium that convinces us of a movie as not a mere translation, but as a transformational piece. Narnia is a faithful translation with a few magical moments. But it did not, ultimately, transform the text (that would require much more freedom to the movie makers). Kong transformed the tradition of movie making as an art form. He thoroughly explores that potential to the extent that some have complained on the time length of the Kong movie: to that I say… Narnia should have been at least three hours as well! See, Peter Jackson knew that the story was worth our time – such great stories of transformation take time to steep in our hearts.