As hype builds for the upcoming Kong: Skull Island movie, there’s an awful lot of talk about the creatures in the film, particularly the “Skull Crawlers”. Without fail, it seems, my contributions to these conversations comes to a screeching halt, because I screw up and call them “Death Runners” instead. For this I blame Joe Devito.
In 2004 (in anticipation of the Peter Jackson flick), Devito and Brad Strickland co-authored Kong: King of Skull Island, a lavishly-illustrated novella that serves as both prequel and sequel to the original fil- *ahem* to the original novel (wink), authorized by the Cooper estate.
Taking place in 1958, Carl Denham’s son Vincent finally decides he’s going to go looking into his old man’s past, after a 25-year absence. Upon getting to Skull Island, he’s separated from Jack (who for some reason was willing to return to that hellscape, only to spend the rest of the book crawling through caves), injured, and nursed back to health by a native storyteller, who regales Vincent with the backstory we never got to see on screen.
The culture, history, and political drama among the islanders, their prior contact with European sailors, and the raising of a young Kong on a quest to avenge his parents’ deaths (at the hands of the dinosaur Gaw) is all very interesting, but the bulk of the book can be frustrating to get through if you’re already invested in the frame tale. The first time I read it, I was really caught up in the mystery of what became of Carl Denham, and all that gets stopped flat to tell the islanders’ story. On subsequent reads, once I knew how everything ties together (the timeline is still a little suspect, but within plausibility), it became a much more satisfying work to revisit.
What King of Skull Island is first and foremost, though, is a great example of expanding a mythos while maintaining the core that makes it work, and it’s certainly been an influence on later works, such as the recent Kong of Skull Island comic series from Boom.. a sort of expanded universe has sprung up around this novel. There was some buzz a few years ago that Neil Marshall was going to direct a movie adaptation, an unlikely prospect in the face of the current franchise. It’s sad but understandable that said project fell through; how to depict the islanders on film is a tricky matter, and having them take the bulk of the film could be a hard sell for general audiences. Plus, a movie would have quite a challenge replicating those illustrations!
You can get the book here. There’s also an audio book, but since that doesn’t have DeVito’s awesome artwork, which is pretty integral to the experience, I can’t really recommend it. There was also a comic adaptation, which isn’t too bad, but it seems like the art team was in constant flux and some of the panel layouts are difficult to follow. Overall, you’re best sticking with the original prose.