Those of a certain age will remember the time before the home entertainment revolution of the mid/late 1980s when the only affordable way of laying your hands of a permanent record of your favourite feature film was to pick up an “official movie novelisation”. These often hastily-written, mass-produced paperbacks were a Godsend in the days before VHS (ask an elderly relative), when the very idea of sitting at home and watching the likes of Star Wars or Back to the Future in your own home at a time of your own choosing seemed as unthinkable as Man travelling to Mars and finding that McDonalds has got there first. It’s heartening, then, in an era of downloading and streaming, to find that the movie novelisation is still alive and, if Tim Lebbon’s high octane adaptation of the recent Kong: Skull Island, is any indication, in fairly rude health.
The latest big screen incarnation of Kong is an unashamed romp of an adventure movie but few of its many admirers (this writer included) would argue that its script is its strongest point and that its cast of characters are richly-drawn and multi-layered. The ferociously-prolific Lebbon, working from an early draft of the script judging by a couple of monster confrontations which don’t appear in the final film, has taken the opportunity to put some meat on the bones of a dramatis personae which is often little more than monkey mulch in the movie itself. So Tom Hiddleston’s weedy mercenary-for-hire Conrad becomes a man haunted by a previous professional misjudgement, Brie Larson’s feisty photographer Ellie Weaver is driven by family abandonment and even Samuel L. Jackson’s grizzled Packard has a bit more light and shade away from the glare of another of those Samuel L. Jackson performances. John C. Reilly’s Marlow is less of a broad comedy figure here and more a sympathetic, tragic, man out of his own time. Even the assorted scientists, civilians and military grunts who seem to be along for the ride to the mysterious, storm-lashed Skull Island just to be stomped on or swallowed alive, are given a few broad-brush strokes, which at least make them seem like real people rather than Star Trek redshirts.
Kong: Skull Island is, in all honesty, all about the spectacle; those adrenalised set pieces, the massive 100-foot Kong in battle with helicopters, squids and Skull Crushers. It’s hard for dry text to recreate the visceral visual thrill of giant monsters fighting to the death but Lebbon’s tight, punchy, no-nonsense writing genuinely captures the pulsating pace of the film’s narrative and spectacle (he dwells on some of the more gruesome sequences slightly more than a 12A certificate film might allow) and the stifling otherworldliness of the island itself and its assorted gallery of grotesques. In less accomplished hands the Kong: Skull Island novelisation could have been a slab of cheap, disposable cash-in tat but Lebbon has delivered a brisk piece of page-turning tie-in fiction which not only complements the movie but, in many ways, helps to improve it.
KONG - SKULL ISLAND: THE OFFICIAL MOVIE NOVELISATION / AUTHOR: TIM LEBBON / PUBLISHER: TITAN BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW