Anthony Browne on his new picture book
I’ve been saying for years that making a picture book is like planning a film, so when I got the idea of turning a film into an illustrated book, it seemed to be a perfectly natural progression. King Kong has been one of my favourite films since I saw it at art school many years ago. It was shown alongside Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete and a surrealist film by Bunuel, and I’ve always thought of King Kong as a surreal version of Beauty and the Beast.
Although the film was made purely to entertain and has no pretensions to Great Art, it is in many ways as personal a statement as anything by Bergman or Fellini. However fantastic and implausible much of the story is based on biographical fact. Carl Denham, the daredevil producer who seeks and finds Kong, is a personality composite of the directors of the film, Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack.
They, like Denham, had previously made films in incredibly difficult conditions, and had accepted danger as being part of the job. They, too, sought a beautiful woman to appear in King Kong because exhibitors of their previous film, Chang, had complained that if the film had only had love interest it would have made twice as much money. Cooper’s friend, W Douglas Burden, had led an expedition to the island of Komodo and was the first to bring back to the US the fabled Komodo Dragons, the world’s largest lizards. They died. The character and life of Ann Darrow, the film’s heroine, bear many similarities to those of the writer of the screenplay, Ruth Rose. The innovative animation is due to the technical director, Willis O’Brien, who compensated for a life filled with tragedy and disappointment by pouring all his energy and imagination into his work. Those who knew him say that O’Brien was Kong, recognisable on the screen in every gesture and reaction. In the aeroplane that finally kills Kong, the flight commander and observer are played by Cooper and Schoedsack. This unusual piece of casting stemmed from a remark Cooper made to his co-director as they were nearing the end of shooting the film: ‘We should kill the sonofabitch ourselves.’
Two years ago I’d been trying to do a book of fairy-tales, and the only story I’d finished was ‘Beauty and the Beast’. My editor, Julia MacRae, had been urging me to do a big book, something that wasn’t a conventional 32-page picture book, but I decided I wasn’t quite ready for such an ambitious project. She then sent me a copy of Michael Foreman’s wonderful War Boy. This prompted me to start thinking about a book based on my own childhood, but I soon dismissed that idea and began to think about one based on my father. I was aware that some people think I’ve given dads a tough time in my books, and my father had lived a short but fascinating life. This project excited me and I began to collect together my memories of him. I can’t remember how it happened but somewhere in the middle of this process King Kong came along and took over. It wasn’t until I’d finished working on the book and was thinking about a dedication that I saw the connection between the two.
I have in the past tried to explain my fascination with gorillas by comparing them to my father. He was a big man and I was a small boy. He was strong and physical, a war hero who was in the Army for much of his working life and encouraged my brother and me to play rugby and to box. Yet he was also artistic and sensitive, and spent a lot of time drawing with us and writing poems. It’s the dual nature of Kong which attracts me – the terrifying beast who is, in reality, a gentle beautiful creature. Memories of my father’s death have, for me, terrible echoes of Kong’s fall from the Empire State Building.
Although the story of a gigantic ape terrorising the population of an island in the Indian Ocean might seem a long way from the experience of a boy growing up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the book is far more personal than it might appear.
The process of writing and illustrating a picture book is not like writing a short story and then painting some pictures to make it more interesting. Nor is it like painting some pictures and later adding words to make the story clearer. It’s much more like planning a film, and the first thing I always do is to make a storyboard, 32 rectangles filled with indecipherable scribbles that are neither pictures nor words. Changing King Kong from a film into a book was a remarkably similar process.
In 1988 I illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with 44 illustrations and I now wish I’d doubled that number. I was determined this wouldn’t happen with King Kong so I decided there would be a picture on every page. I wanted the book to be somewhere between picture book and an illustrated novel. I suppose I was looking back to that transitional stage I experienced as a child when it was considered important to grow up into ‘proper books’, i.e. books without pictures. I think I would have welcomed a book like King Kong, and hope other children will now feel the same.
I had already seen the film many times on video, and began work on the book by watching it again with a notebook in one hand and the remote-control in the other. This was the equivalent of the storyboard stage. I would freeze-frame at key moments and these images became the bases for the final illustrations.
At this stage it became clear the book would be 96 pages and I began the difficult task of writing the text. At first, because of the references to ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the film, I tried to write in the kind of fairy-tale style I’d previously used in a picture book called The Tunnel, but it soon became clear this wouldn’t work and I found myself writing in a style more akin to the period and style of the film. King Kong had been published as a novel in 1932 and although I’ve never seen it, I’ve read a shortened version for children published in the USA, and that proved useful.
The part of making a book I dislike most is preparing a dummy to show my editor. I’ve been working with Julia MacRae for such a long time now that my dummies have become extremely vague; she understands how I shy away from producing anything that is too finished. But King Kong was different. Because the book was so long, there were so many illustrations, and the plot was much more complex than a picture-book, the dummy had to be very carefully worked out. Although I didn’t enjoy the process at all, the fact that I’d spent so much time on it and had already solved many of the technical problems helped me to keep my sanity when I later became bogged down working on the endless finished artwork.
The imagery of the film was, of course, a great inspiration, but many of my pictures are not based directly on those of the film. I didn’t want to use Fay Wray as the heroine, so I spent many fruitless hours like Carl Denham looking for the face of Beauty. Needless to say I never found her. (You may notice a passing resemblance to a later blonde Hollywood star.) As for Kong himself, it seemed pointless to make him look like an animated model, but part of the power of the film derives from the fact that he has almost human characteristics and is obviously not just a gorilla. I tried to portray him in a slightly more realistic way but at the same time attempting to keep his human attributes.
One of the interesting aspects of the film is the way Kong changes size. Cooper and Schoedsack selected his proportions to provide the most effective dramatic relationship between him and the actors. That an inordinately big monster is as impersonal as a hurricane has been demonstrated by those dreadful films of the 1960s featuring a 500 foot monster called Godzilla. It was rightly felt that Kong must be thought of as a personality capable of pathetic yearnings rather than as a natural disaster. But when the first tests showing Kong in New York were shown it was quickly realised he was too small. However awesome the giant had looked wrestling with dinosaurs and carrying Fay Wray through the jungle, he was dwarfed by the huge buildings of the city. For the jungle scenes technicians had worked on the scale of one inch = one foot, making Kong appear 18 feet tall. The city scenes were re-shot in a different scale making Kong appear 24 feet high. The producers hoped no one would notice. Even in the city scenes there’s a ridiculousness of scale – at one point Kong’s hand is big enough to crush a train, at another time it’s only large enough to be a magic carpet for the heroine. But these surreal abnormalities actually help to give the film a dream-like quality, and I tried to keep this feeling in the book.
The special effects in the film were revolutionary, but were never allowed to overwhelm the story. The slow opening in New York during the Depression is realistic enough to persuade the audience of the actuality of events, and so the transition from the familiar to the absurd is almost imperceptible. Part of the thrill of doing picture books for me is to use illustrations to do at least half the work – sometimes to let them tell another story or a different aspect of the story. In the slow opening of the book I tried, by the use of significant details, to begin this transition earlier. Because I had only 81 images to tell the story, each picture had to convey more information than any still from the film.
It was the most exhausting book I’ve ever worked on. 81 pictures in 18 months seemed like a marathon, and I found it increasingly difficult to keep each one to roughly the same standard. About halfway through the work I was offered the job of illustrating a wonderful novel, The Daydreamer, by one of my favourite authors, Ian McEwan. It was a chance too good to miss, so I spent some months painting King Kong in colour by day, and The Daydreamer in black and white by night. Although it was extremely tiring I think that illustrating the novel actually helped to keep my interest going for Kong. It was like being let out of prison for a few hours each evening. (Or do I exaggerate just a little?)
For a long time after finishing King Kong I couldn’t bear to look at the result. I hated what I’d done. I often have a reaction like that after finishing a book, but this time it was worse than ever. The problem was that I’d spent so long working on the illustrations, all I could see were their faults. I’d look at the pictures through a mirror, or upside down, or creep up on them and surprise them – anything to try and see them with a fresh eye. It rarely worked. I told anyone who’d listen, ‘Never again. I’m going to stick to nice easy 32-page picture books from now on.’
Recently I received a finished copy of the book and forced myself to sit down and read it. I saw the illustrations in their proper context – with the words. It wasn’t as bad as I had thought. In fact, I’m just beginning to consider the possibilities of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Tarzan or Frankenstein or… any suggestions?
Anthony Browne’s King Kong (from the story conceived by Edgar Wallace and Merian C Cooper) was published in October by Julia MacRae, 1 85681 258 8, at £12.99.
Details of other books mentioned in this article and illustrated by Anthony Browne are:
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Walker, 0 7445 3073 3, £8.99 pbk
The Tunnel, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 374 8, £5.95 Walker, 0 7445 1792 3, £3.99 pbk
The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan, Cape, 0 224 03671 8, £8.99