Kong: Skull Island - The Official Movie Novelization


Kong: Skull Island - The Official Movie Novelization

English Book Title

Kong: Skull Island - The Official Movie Novelization


Tim Lebbon


Titan Books





By: Nicholas Driscoll

I have been meaning to write a review of this book since it first came out—I even pre-ordered the blasted thing. But life gets in the way, getting distracted by a million projects gets in the way, writing novels gets in the way, freaking health problems get in the way—many things get in the way! Nevertheless, I have finally gotten around to finishing reading this book (I was recently asked to review another kaiju book, but I figured I should finish this one first since I was already in the middle of it, and so that functioned as a sort of boot to the trousers to get this review done.) I am not going to do anything fancy with the review, but I want to give a brief synopsis, then go over some of the negatives first, and then the positives—including a few notes about new monsters that appear. Straightforward, no-nonsense review.

Yeah, so the story concerns the titular Skull Island and takes place at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, in the early 1970s. Monarch, the kaiju-hunting government agency from the films, is in an infant state here, in danger of being snuffed out completely, and in a last-ditch effort those in charge put together a mission to a mysterious island, ostensibly just to do a geological survey—but really to scout for giant monsters. Monarch collects a jungle guide (Conrad), a spunky photographer (Weaver), a bunch of military soldiers, a bitter commanding officer (Packard), and a few others. Shortly after arriving at the island (which is cut off by an endless storm), the group proceeds to bomb the place so they can measure the boom-boom echoes underground or something (it doesn't make much sense) and thus accidentally-not-accidentally flush out a giant ape known as Kong. Kong smashes up the helicopters, many people die, Packard gets the hots for Kong—hot anger, hot fury, hot desire for revenge. Our heroes then try to survive the sundry dangers of the island, getting picked off by various local nasty beasties, and eventually team up with an eccentric WWII pilot who has lived on the island with the noble natives for thirty years. Together they work to try to safely get to an extraction point, but Packard is on a mission to kill Kong as revenge for the ape's attack on the helicopters and his men's deaths, and so leads them through deadly lands where giant nasty monsters called Skullcrawlers are popping out from a hollow earth underneath the island. Will anyone survive?!?!

Let's get the negatives out of the way first. I was not a big fan of the movie, and maybe reading the above synopsis might give a few clues as to why. There are a lot of characters and the characterization can be as hollow as the earth sometimes, and so many plot threads, and the combination of the above sometimes bogs down the story of the film. The novel suffers a bit from this too I think, but not as much. Still, there were times I would get confused about who was who, or even about the race or background of individuals. Sometimes, too, I felt that Welsh dark fantasy and horror author Tim Lebbon (who has written many adaptations of popular properties—I enjoyed a radio drama-style performance of his Alien: Out of the Shadows story) occasionally stumbles in his prose. In addition to a scant few mistakes in the text, there were some passages where I got the feeling he was searching for words and big ideas and not quite finding them. Also, for some anyway, the level of gore in the story might be off-putting—though to be fair, the movie is also fairly grotesque and bloody for a PG-13. The book takes the gore from the movie up a couple notches, and it rarely bothered me much, but it was… noticeable. Extra bodily fluids bursting and spraying, that sort of thing. One addition to the plot, where the natives get riled up due to some sacred objects being stolen by the research team, felt unnecessary and backwards, since the natives end up letting everyone go anyway.

I think the positives, though, far outweigh the negatives. Lebbon usually does a fine job of injecting life into the cast, deepening motivations, and getting beyond the jokes and the machismo. The deaths of the characters mean more, and some tweaks improve the story—such as Cole's death, which actually serves a purpose of slowing down the Skull Crawler instead of just being a quick cheap death.

There are additional monster encounters, too—most notably Conrad fights a monster snake early on, and another giant squid-like creature that was quite distinct from the Mire Squid. First I want to cover each of these encounters real quick for those of you who want to know about the beasts, but don't want to read the book. The snake attacks Conrad early in the book when he gets separated from the others after Kong downs the helicopters. When Conrad is climbing on a cliffside, a 60-foot snake attacks him, and they have an extended and perilous fight, with Conrad swinging around and grappling. Ultimately Conrad offs the snake with an application of his knife to the top of the creature's head. The other big addition is a sort of squid-like creature that attacks Marlow's makeshift boat. Early on something with an appearance like a snake grabs Slivko (a young soldier) and tries to haul him away into the water. They manage to cut the thing in half. Then many tentacles appear, each with "webbed fins" and "elongated heads ending with small, suckered mouths." These tentacles were not equipped with suckers, but rather beefed up with musculature. Slivko is grabbed again, and after Weaver fails to cut him free, San (a Chinese researcher) appears with Marlow's katana and slices through the tentacle that had trapped the young soldier. The creature continues to attack the boat, pulling itself up, and we get a peek at its "barbed beak" and eye. Conrad shoots it in the aforementioned eye, and San slices another tentacle, and the creature finally gives up. Neither of these monster attacks are strictly necessary for the narrative, but they add extra intrigue and fun for readers, so I appreciate their inclusion.

The monster fights and attacks are also usually described with grit and verve—Lebbon excels at this stuff, and I often found myself admiring his prose (which was a contrast to the Godzilla: King of the Monsters novelization which, while I liked it very much, had a more sparse prose style). An early comment I remember seeing online suggested that Lebbon mistook Mothra for a dragonfly due to an offhand comment in the book about additional monsters, but I don't think the dragonfly was supposed to be Mothra—I suspect it was just an unnamed Titan (a few of which are hinted at in native art). Overall, the monsters are treated well—Kong is awe-inspiring, the creatures are horrifying, it's all good.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the book is that a rewatch of the movie after reading the book resulted in a much more satisfying viewing experience. I loved the additional detail resonating in the back of my mind as I watched the movie again, and I loved that the characters were that much more vivid.

Generally I am not a big fan of movie novelizations, and the English Godzilla novelizations have definitely been a mixed bag (with the worst probably being the 2014 Godzilla novel). This Kong novel, though, was a big step up—exciting, fun, and with more sharp character moments than the movie had. Heck, I even liked how Lebbon cut some of the lamer jokes from the script, which helped the characters to overcome their sometimes jokey-hokey shallowness. Conrad and Weaver get many more hints at a romance as well, which I can do without, but it's fine. Is Kong king of the Monsterverse novels? We will have to wait and see until Godzilla vs. Kong is released, but arguably it inches out the novel of Godzilla: King of the Monsters in several key areas and, whichever you end up preferring, it still makes for a pretty satisfying monster romp read.