King Kong Explained: The Inspiration, History, And Science Of King Kong

King Kong. What inspired the giant beast? Could King Kong have once been real? Does science support the giant ape? Let’s get King Kong explained.   

Have you ever wondered who came up with King Kong, and why? The answer to the former question is filmmaker Merian C.Cooper. The second question requires a more thorough explanation.

The idea for King Kong was born from the imagination of a young boy, Merian C Cooper.

Cooper became obsessed with gorillas at the age of 6, when his uncle gave him a book all about Equatorial Africa. The book, (Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, 1961), told of the adventures of French-American traveler Paul Du Chaillu, who had spent time learning about the natives and wildlife in Equatorial Africa.

Du Chaillu, Paul. Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa
A page from Du Chaillu’s Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, the original inspiration for King Kong.

The book spoke of a giant gorilla of “Extraordinary size”, a “half-man, half-beast” that was “the King of the African Forest”. And thus, the inspiration for King Kong was born.

But why is King Kong so big? Surely no ape could ever have been so large.

It’s easy to see how six year old Cooper might interpret this “half man, half beast,” giant ape as being like King Kong. After all, kids are blessed with healthy imaginations. And there have been numerous reports of giant apes throughout the ages.

And that raises the question:

 

 

Did Kong Kong ever exist for real?

Science has proven that indeed there was once a giant ape called the “Gigantopithecus”.

In 2005, Jack Rink, a geochronologist at Canada’s McMaster University, examined the jaw-bone fossils of one such ape. He determined that the ape was not quite King Kong’s size. It wasn’t as big as a skyscraper. It was, however, a staggering 10 feet tall, and weighed a whopping 1,200 pounds. The ape, which was called the Gigantopithecus, lived in Southeast Asia millions of years ago.

In 2005, scientists researched Gigantopithecus to determine why the giant ape had died out.

The scientists studied the teeth fossils of the giant ape in order to learn about the creature’s diet. They discovered that Gigantopithecus ate plants and was a forest-dweller. Sadly, the forests where Gigantopithecus once lived turned to Savannah grasslands that were unable to sustain the giant ape’s diet.  And so, Gigantopithecus died out 100,000 years ago.

Gigantopithecus bones giant ape
Gigantopithecus skull next to a gorilla skull and a human skull

 

Cooper’s book about the wildlife in Equitorial Africa would stay with him through the years, and he would remain fascinated by apes. And all the while the idea for King Kong was playing in his mind.

It was decades later when, as an adult, Merian C Cooper entered the motion picture industry. While filming one of his movies in Africa (The Four Feathers), Cooper came across a family of baboons. He was so fascinated by them that he decided he would make a movie about primates. It was to be what he called a “terror gorilla picture”. And so, decades after first being inspired, Cooper decided to make his flick about the giant ape.\

However, Cooper wouldn’t make King Kong a regular ape. He wanted to truly conjure the ferocity and power of apes. And to do that, King Kong needed to be giant. Specifically, King Kong needed to be so big that could realistically represent a threat to modern civilization.  The reason why King Kong is so big is because Cooper needed Kong to stand a reasonable chance of toppling humans. After all, one of the most important rules in storytelling is that the two opposing forces be equal in strength. Luke Skywalker has to be as powerful as Darth Vader. The Darleks have to be as powerful as Doctor Who. King Kong has to be as powerful as we humans.

That, however, represented a challenge in terms of storytelling. Because while King Kong needed to be giant, he also needed to be realistic. It would be no good making a giant ape that was as realistic as Jabba The Hutt. Cooper wanted to realistically portray the wild.

To make King Kong realistic, Cooper would have to do plenty of research.

The most important part of that research came from reading and talking to explorer Douglas Burden. Burden had been investigating Komodo Dragons, which was why one appears in the final movie.

Cooper decided that he would “giantize both the gorilla and the dragons to make them really huge. However, I always believed in personalizing and focusing attention on one main character and from the very beginning I intended to make it the gigantic gorilla, no matter what else I surrounded him with”.

It was Cooper’s discussions with William Douglas Burden that would inform much of his filmmaking. A trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, Burden was an authority on wildlife and knew much about both Komodo Dragons and apes.

Douglas had sought, captured and brought Komodo Dragons back to America.

douglas burdens komodo dragons
From Dragon Lizards of Komodo by W. Douglas Burden, published in 1927. Photo by Mrs. Burden.

At the time, the Komodo Dragon was thought to be a purely mythical creature. So it caused quite the stir when Douglas brought one back to the U.S. He claimed that Komodo Dragons were the closing living relative to dinosaurs.

Sadly, the Komodo Drgaons that Douglas brought back to America died. They were unable to survive the human world.

And it’s here that the plot of King Kong is explained for us. Because the fate of King Kong would match the fate of Burden’s Komodo Dragons.

Like the Komodo Dragon, Kong is unable to survive the human world.  And indeed, Merian Cooper wrote, ‘I immediately thought of doing the same thing with a giant gorilla.'”

 

 

The Ending of King Kong, Explained

king kong

Douglas said that the reason his Komodo Dragons died was because they could not survive modern civilization.

This was the inspiration for the ending of King Kong.

Cooper wanted to show civilization killing the mythical beast. The ultimate symbol of civilization was the Empire State Building and the modern warplanes (and it’s worth noting that Cooper had once flown for the U.S. Airforce and Polish Air Force).

So that explains the ending of King Kong. Just one more mystery remains: The love interest. Why would an ape be in love with a woman, Ann Darrow?

 

 

How do you explain King Kong’s love for Ann Darrow?

ann darrow king kong

The relationship between King Kong and Ann Darrow represents hope. King Kong represents the wild. Ann Darrow represents modern civilization and mankind. And the relationship between the two represents the relationship between the wild and man.

With the relationship, Cooper is saying that he hopes that one day the wild world will live in harmony with modern civilization.

Had King Kong survived and lived with Ann Darrow in America, it would be like Cooper saying, “The wild world and modern civilization can live in harmony”. King Kong’s death shows that Cooper believed modern man would be the end of the wild.

However, it is also worth noting that Kong Kong is far from the only story where an animal carries off a woman. There is timeless symbolism in this event. Women, especially during the era of King Kong, represent glory in movies. Think of the sheer amount of times James Bond has won the woman at the end of the film.

So, what does it mean when the man doesn’t get the girl and instead the girl is carried away by a wild animal? It means that the wild is more powerful than mankind. That one act of an animal carrying the love interest away serves to humble mankind, by saying, “Mankind is less powerful than nature”. And when that animal is killed, it represents man killing nature and killing the hope of living in harmony with the world.

As I mentioned, King Kong is far from the only time when an animal or beast carried a female character away.

One of the most important depictions of an animal taking the love interest is in Emmanuel Frémiet’s 1887 sculpture, Gorille enlevant une femme, which literally translates to “Gorilla Carrying off a Woman”. This sculpture may very well have inspired the relationship between Ann Darrow and King Kong.

 

And that is King Kong explained.

Put this all together and you can see why King Kong is so famous and popular.

King Kong tells the timeless tale of man versus nature. And it does it in one of the most inspiring ways imaginable. By making the giant beast the victim of modern civilization, Cooper opens s audience’s eyes. He says, “Mankind are killing nature. And we need to live in harmony with the natural world”. That is why King Kong’s love for Ann Darrow resonates with us all. Because we all want to see nature and mankind live in harmony. And that is why King Kong must die; because we do not.

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Paul Harrison

Paul M Harrison is an entertainment journalist, novelist, and blogger, and a specialist in the theory of storytelling. Paul Harrison can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter or Facebook.

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