Category Archives: Movie Thoughts

King Kong: 1933 and 2005 – What Each Movie Reveals About the Era They Were Made In

Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray in publicity photo - Notice that Wray is actually a brunette, she wore a wig for the film

Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray in publicity photo – Fay Wray was actually a brunette; she wore a wig for the film

When I first watched King Kong I wasn’t at all sure I could take it seriously, let alone like it, and I was somewhat reserved in my review several weeks ago in stating unequivocally how much I liked it. I had a similar reaction to James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. But something about those two movies really clicked for me: I couldn’t get them out of my mind or stop thinking about them or re-watching them and trying to learn about how they were made and the people involved.

And after watching Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (he was the co-producer, co-director and originator of the story) I had to see Peter Jackson’s King Kong. There is also a 1976 remake, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy, yet.

The 2005 movie is a fairly true-to-the-original remake, but a remake can’t help betraying the differing attitudes and preoccupations of the era it’s made in and it is interesting to compare the two movies. One of the best examples of these differing attitudes occurs at the beginning of the film, when Carl Denham (director in search of Kong so he can film a movie) is looking for a leading lady. In both versions, he finds her at a food stand, hungry and attempting to steal an apple. He pays the apple-seller, buys her a meal and talks her into coming on his movie-making expedition. Both movies are set in 1933, when the depression was at its worst, making the original film contemporary and the new one a work of historical fiction.

In the original movie – after Denham (Robert Armstrong) has bought Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) a meal – he asks her how she got into this position of stealing apples and she tells him, simply, without any self-pity. She’s done many different jobs, even worked as an extra at a movie studio that closed and when Denham offers her a job you can see that she desperately wants the work. She is just wary about his motivations.

There is a sense of collective suffering, especially in how Ann doesn’t personalize her own experience. She says there are lots of girls in her position, which is a very 1930’s outlook; looking at her experience as part of a collective phenomenon in the country. She does not feel sorry for herself in the least, feeling she has no right because her situation is not unique.

Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong talk to the apple-seller

Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong talk to the apple-seller

After watching the film I was talking to my grandmother, who remembers her dad talking about his experiences during the depression and she agreed with me that it was a very 1930’s and ’40’s attitude (WWII was also a collective experience – every family felt the affects and either had someone fighting or knew someone who was). The depression, my great-grandfather told her, was so unsettling because he had always been able to find work his whole life, even as a child, and now he couldn’t. But this was happening to everyone. 25% unemployment in ’33, which is staggering: one in four people.

Going on Denham’s expedition is not just a job for Ann, though; it is also an escape. It was an escape for the movie audiences in ’33 who saw King Kong and for Ann Darrow, who left unemployment and struggle behind her for excitement and exotic locales. It is clear she is having a tremendous time while on the voyage, enjoying all the new experiences, finds the crew charming, loves the monkey on board, chats with the cook, sees through the cranky exterior of first-mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), falls in love, enjoys wearing the costumes while making test shots, anticipates the excitement to come, has no particular fear of the natives and generally has a good time…right up until she meets Kong.

The new movie presents a modern sensibility, the focus on the individual. There is more backstory for Ann (Naomi Watts); we watch her working as a vaudevillian, expressing a desire to act in plays and losing her job. It seems she does feel a little sorry for herself, with Denham (Jack Black) remarking that she is the saddest girl he’s ever seen.This is very modern, the personalization and internalization of suffering. In modern times, there is much more interest in personal feelings (my grandmother was telling me that when she was growing up it was never “how do you feel?” but always “what do you think?”).

We are also very interested in self-determination today. Ann makes it much tougher for Denham to convince her to come on the trip. She is not quite as desperate for work and much more focused on achieving her dream job (she refuses to work in burlesque and nearly refuses to work for Denham, whereas hardcore pre-code Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck or Marlene Dietrich wouldn’t have hesitated to go into burlesque if they were really hungry or thought it would get them where they wanted). It is only when she discovers that her idol, the playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is writing the script for Denham’s movie that she relents.

Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts

There are other examples in the two movies that demonstrate this general difference between collective and personal experience. In the original film, it is Charlie, the Asian cook, who finds the native necklace that tips him off that Ann has been kidnapped. And at the end, Denham and Jack Driscoll work together with city authorities to kill Kong and rescue Ann. In ’05, Jack seems to do everything by himself, which is typical of the modern hero. He finds the necklace, he searches the boat for Ann and he ignores the authorities at the end of the film (who don’t seem interested in saving Ann), working to save Ann on his own.

The 2005 film is also generally less about escape (though still adventure) and is relationship heavy. There is the mentor-relationship between the first-mate and the young man who was found as a stowaway on the ship, there is Ann and Jack, Denham and his sidekick. And there is Kong and Ann. He has a tantrum like a misunderstood adolescent when Ann doesn’t behave according to his expectations, they admire the beautiful sunset together, go ice-skating together, and spend a remarkable amount of time gazing into each other’s eyes.

And also, as befits a modern leading lady, Ann gets more to do, standing up to Kong at one point (he is more human in his emotions in this one – albeit an adolescent one). It is obvious the screenwriters wanted her to have more to do than merely scream fetchingly (Merian C. Cooper’s main directive to Fay Wray during the making of his movie seems to have been: “Scream! Scream for your life, Fay.”). However, in their attempts to give her more initiative (she climbs up ladders, slaps his paw, does cartwheels to get his attention) her physical emancipation brings some mental incapacitation. Besides the obvious case of Stockholm Syndrome (identifying with your captor because you owe your safety to them), she spends much of her time attempting to prevent people from killing Kong. Since Kong is often in the process of killing other people, one can’t help wondering what her plan is, exactly. She’s so busy identifying with Kong that she doesn’t seem to mind if anyone else dies. The ’33 Ann Darrow does scream a lot, but in regards to maintaining emotional distance between herself and Kong (something they teach you in classes on how to deal with hostage situations) she at least possesses great mental clarity.

Although the new King Kong is horribly long (over three hours!) it is a surprisingly faithful adaptation; you can tell that Peter Jackson loves this story. He has said it was the movie that made him want to be a director in the first place. But the relative closeness is what makes the differences all the more fascinating. I would be extremely interested in seeing what the 1976 King Kong is like.


Posted by on December 1, 2014 in Fantasy, Horror, Movie Thoughts


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A Remake of Ben-Hur and Movie Remakes in General

MV5BMTQ3NzUzOTc1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzcwMDkxMTE@__V1_SX214_Waterloo_Bridge_(1931_film)_jpeg I didn’t use to think I was a fan of movie remakes, but it has come my attention that frequently I do like them. I just watched the movie Waterloo Bridge with Vivien Leigh and that was a remake of the 1931 movie starring Mae Clarke (of Frankenstein fame) and directed by James Whale (also of Frankenstein fame). Both movies are actually quite interesting and I liked both, though they are very different. One is a pre-code film (which means it is much more upfront about the main character’s job as a prostitute) and has a definite class element to the story and a bit more of an edge to it. The remake is far more gentle and sentimental (in a good way), more coy about prostitution, and fits the mood much more of 1940, when Europe was at war and people didn’t want the edges of the early ’30s.

I also actually like both movie versions of Sabrina. I saw the 1995 version with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormand first and then was enchanted by the original that was directed by Billy Wilder and stars Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. I also love both Ninotchka (with Greta Garbo) and the musical remake, with songs by Cole Porter, called Silk Stockings (Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse).

I guess I’m coming around to the idea that you cannot have too much of a good thing, if they really are a good thing. Since I love George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion;” I also love the movie (with Leslie Howard), the musical “My Fair Lady, multiple cast recordings, and also the movie version of My Fair Lady. I am even about to listen to a radio dramatization of the play.

And I cannot tell you how many different movie versions I have seen of Pride and Prejudice (at least five) and Great Expectations. Of course, there are an awful lot of awful remakes out there, but I am trying not to be judgmental.

But what put all this in my mind is that I just read online that Ben-Hur is going to be remade and will come out in 2016. And I also must confess that, despite all my enforced goodwill for remakes, my first thought was “Oh really? I wonder how that’ll work out.” Old habits of cynicism regarding remakes die hard.





Actually, the book Ben-Hur has been remade many times and the famous 1959 movie with Charlton Heston was the third movie adaptation. Published in 1880, it was originally adapted as a play (that must have been fun to stage!) and was then made into an unauthorized movie in 1907. It was fifteen minutes long and Lou Wallace’s estate sued and from then on movie makers were much more careful about getting the copyrights of a book before making a movie. The next version was made in 1925 (still a silent movie) with Ramon Novarro and was a huge hit.

And of course, it was made in 1959, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston. It was nominated for twelve academy awards and won eleven of them, a record it shares with Titanic and Return of the King. There was also an animated Ben-Hur made in 2003, with Heston providing the voice of the main character. And there was a 2010 miniseries made in Britain with Joseph Morgan in the main role and a supporting cast that includes Ray Winstone and Hugh Bonneville (of Downton Abbey fame).

Apparently, Jack Huston has been cast as the eponymous Ben-Hur. He is best known for his role in the show Boardwalk Empire, which I have never seen so I cannot judge whether or not he is a good choice. The producers of The Bible miniseries, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, will be executive producers and it will be directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who has directed such movies as Wanted, Night Watch, and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I will try and quash my doubts and wish them luck!


Posted by on September 17, 2014 in Movie Thoughts


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Movie Adaptations of Books

"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned 
into bouillon cubes" - John Le Carre
"Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy"

“Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy”

Ever since reading about Mary Poppins the movie and Mary Poppins the book and how there are a certain group of people who considers what Disney did to P.L. Travers’ book to be nothing short of artistic rape – that is the very phrase used – I have been curious. Being a person who likes both the book and the movie and who came to the book through the movie, it got me thinking. I used to be quite a snob about how movies absolutely had to follow the book exactly or else you would hear about it, but then I realized that I was only applying that standard to books I liked. Books I didn’t like or hadn’t read didn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it and here are some of by observations that I’d like to offer up and see what people think.

Observation OneA movie is not a book. Complaining that a movie does not stay true to the book is like complaining that a painting does not stay true to a character in a book. It can’t. A movie needs to make sense by itself and not assume that the audience has read the book. A movie is a different medium and often what reads well does not look good on screen. At the end of the book Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, they are going to commit a double suicide by leaping into the water with sharks. This would have looked silly on screen and the ending they came up with for the movie was simply amazing. Even the author liked it.

Observation Two – When people say that they don’t like a movie because it is not like the book, this is mere dissimulation. When we like the movie, we forgive. Not staying true to a book does not mean the movie is bad. I recently watched two versions of Anna Karenina. The first version was with Greta Garbo from 1935 and the second is with Vivien Leigh in 1948. The one with Vivien Leigh is quite a bit more accurate, but somehow the direction is uninspired; it’s dull. The one with Greta Garbo takes quite a different interpretation of the book, but it is a more internally consistent movie and is more interesting to watch.

And I’ve finally had to come to grips with the fact that it is not because Peter Jackson is unfaithful to The Hobbit that I dislike his movies so much. It is because I really dislike how he directs. To me, his movies are bloated. That is not an issue of inaccuracy, it is an issue of editing.

Observation Three – A bad movie or inaccurate movie cannot really hurt a book. The book remains, no matter what, especially if it is a good book. If it’s a bad book or just a popular book, it will fade away no matter how good or bad the movie. But a movie can keep a book alive long after it has ceased to be popular. This has always been the case. How many people have heard of Olive Higgins Prouty or Edna Ferber, both very popular in their day. But I have discovered these authors through the movies. I’ve discovered many good authors like Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, a book should be able to stand on its own and I don’t think it’s fair to blame a movie for the memory or lack of memory of a book. Nor do I feel that it is fair to say that because of a movie, no one is reading the book. People who watch the movie might not watch it if it were more accurate, so you haven’t necessarily lost anything, anyway.

Observation FourThe best books, the classics, the books that endure, can handle multiple movie remakes. In fact, the best books do have multiple movie remakes: Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick. Even classic comic books have multiple remakes. Some books, like Jane Eyre, have over ten remakes. The Maltese Falcon was made three times in ten years. Spider Man has been made into two series and five movies in the last twelve years. The books and characters are so vast and so vital that no movie can encompass them. There are two television series about Sherlock Holmes running right now: Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller. Some versions are more accurate than others, but that’s okay. There’s so much richness in books, they can handle multiple interpretations.

Observation Five – Unless a book is a great classic, the further away the movie is made from its publication date, the less the movie has to try and follow the book. If a book is turned into a movie in order to capitalize on a book’s popularity, generally the filmmakers try to follow the book to a certain degree in order to please the fans. This was true even during the silent era. Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, both adaptations of popular books written by Rafael Sabatini, were turned into movies only a few years after the books were published. They are also quite faithful. However, the remakes of The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche, made in 1940 and 1952 are not nearly as close. In fact, The Sea Hawk retains only the title and the time period. 

Sometimes, I’ve even watched old movies that were based on contemporary, popular novels and wished they had departed more from the books than they did. Examples of this are two Bette Davis movies, The Great Lie and Now, Voyager. I could so see the possibilities that these movies had, but they were oddly hampered by having to stay faithful to the story. This is what happens when a popular but flawed book is turned into a movie with excellent actors. The book is forgotten and the movie is remembered, but the movie could have been even better if they had departed more. Ironic.

None of this is to say that I think directors and producers shouldn’t try to follow the book. It is a wonderful thing when somebody who truly values the book makes an effort to capture what it is about the book that is so good and transfer it to the screen. I love those kinds of movies and they can enrich my appreciation of the book. I guess I’m really just saying that a movie isn’t bad just because it isn’t faithful.

Books and stories have always provided the inspiration of movies, operas, plays, musicals, poetry, paintings, songs. This is partially how stories are transmitted down the ages. I think the real question is not whether it is accurate, but whether it is well done.


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