Let me admit this right off the bat, despite how much it goes against consensus opinion on the matter: Paramount Pictures’ 1995 big screen adaptation of the late, great Michael Crichton’s novel Congo is one of my favorite horror/adventure films of that decade. To those who have read even a moderate amount of consensus reviews on the quality of this movie, let me assure you that you did indeed read that correctly. Nearly every single review of the film I’ve read over the years, who are often quick to compare it to Crichton’s 1980 novel–and who range from the most famous film reviewer to the lowliest ad hominem-hurling Internet commentator–is generally this: “The movie totally sucked. You really need to read Crichton’s novel, which was brilliant. The movie version really left a shit stain on Crichton’s great work.”
What finally inspired me to compose this blog was my state of mind after finally getting the chance to read Crichton’s novel, completed just the other day. I was hoping that my greatly contrary opinion to consensus thought about the quality of the movie wouldn’t extend to that same opinion regarding the oft-stated “brilliance” of its literary inspiration. It wasn’t to be the first time one of my hopes were cruelly dashed, but it was the one relevant to this blog. So if you bother to stick around after this sentence, you are about to read my pontifications as to how the book compares to the movie, and I why I greatly disagree with the frequently heard commentary from those who have critiqued and compared both.
This mo’ fo’ will do a lot worse than hurl feces at you.
I. Conventional Wisdom is Not Always Wise
Contrary to what those who read my non-fiction scribing and do not know me well personally may assume, I’m not one of those people who knee-jerkedly goes against anything considered to be conventional wisdom merely for the sake of “being different” or “looking for negative attention.” There are, in fact, many aspects of conventional wisdom I do fully agree with, including within the realm of literary and film criticism. I have strong agreements with many consensus opinions (e.g., I think Citizen Kane is an absolutely brilliant film); and more than my share of disagreements with the vast majority on certain commonly held opinions (e.g., though I concede The Godfather III most certainly did not match the grandeur of the first two films in the trilogy, I do not agree that it thoroughly sucked an unmentionable anatomical extension). I’m simply notorious for being vocal about aspects of conventional wisdom that I may disagree with based upon a combination of personal experience and research, no matter how dear to the heart of mainstream thought such beliefs, opinions, or interpretations may be. Just ask anyone who has ever heard me dare to criticize anything about Alan Moore’s attitude and decisions regarding his infamous falling out with DC Comics, or publicly mention that the movie version of The Princess Bride is not on my list of cherished cinematic memories (I know what you’re thinking about that last one: “inconceivable!”).
Which brings us to my opinion on how CONGO the novel compares to Congo the film (yes, I’m now going to start distinguishing books from films and video games by scribing the former in all caps and the latter two in italics; I just think it looks better that way!).
I insincerely apologize to the vast majority of critics about this, but I most certainly do not think the movie version sucked ass. Was it a blockbuster epic along the lines of Aliens? No, it wasn’t, and no one deciding to watch the film should expect such a thing going in. But it was a slick, relatively well-aced adventure flick with good casting choices, a decent if not stellar script courtesy of John Patrick Shanley, and some impressive physical effects despite a limited budget during the last years before CGI almost completely took over. The species of vicious, gray-furred gorilla which menaced the human expedition to the remote rain forests of Zaire (that’s what they call the Congo now, people!) were genuinely fearsome-looking and deadly… much more so than the versions that appeared in the book, in fact. But I’m getting just a bit ahead of things here.
The cast was genuinely likeable, even if over half of the expedition members were comprised of porters native to Africa who weren’t played by well-known thespians, and were simply there as fang fodder for the gorillas to rip apart. And these simian horrors didn’t skimp on any of that in the movie version! These killer gorillas, said to be the product of an ancient form of eugenics developed by the lost populace of Zinj who bred and trained them to aggressively guard their precious diamond mines, kept up a sizable breeding population up to the present and continued their predatory security purposes long after the human civilization that spawned them vanished from the historical records. That spelled really bad news for the corporation which hired the various individuals comprising the expedition to search for the legendary but unsubstantiated old city and its reported store of diamonds. It’s a terrible shame that the company’s intel on the fauna bred by the people of Zinji wasn’t as good as that which they acquired for the lost civilization’s mineral resources. But if it was, the crew would have gone far better prepared, resulting in no loss of human life and a huge loss of entertainment value for the viewers.
You gotta “hand” it to that laser weapon’s efficiency! Bwah-hah-hah!
This strange species of aggressive gorilla resembled the two known and gentle conventional species, but had gray fur, somewhat sleeker (and thus faster) bodies, and were much more evil-looking. You wouldn’t want to confront one of these things in an alley, whether dark or fully lit, anywhere in the world. Having to deal with a horde of such killer simians in a very dangerous and remote area of Africa that these apes knew much better than any human was a true nightmare to experience. I think it’s a complete shame that we never saw more of these creatures in either additional movies or other in other mediums, thanks to the film’s lackluster performance at the box office. So I won’t hold out much hope for seeing Dark Horse Comics acquire the license from whoever now owns the copyright to produce a group of Congo mini-series, including one titled PREDATOR VS. THE APES OF ZINJ IN THE CONGO or something like that. And what a way cool crossover that would have been!
II. Okay, Why Do I Think the Movie Didn’t Suck?
Shanley’s screenplay was faithful to the main story that Crichton took far too long to tell in the book. To paraphrase an apropos expression that someone living on a farm must have invented, Shanley cut most of the wheat from Crichton’s chaff and took one of the slowest stories I ever read and turned it into a reasonably fast-paced movie without losing anything important. The end result focused largely on the main details of the expedition’s trek into the lost city of Zinj and directly into a brutal life and death struggle with the Zinj Apes (did I just coin that term? We gotta call them something, right? And isn’t this easier to type than “Those Killer Gorillas From Congo “?). Almost all extraneous details not integral to that particular plot, or even having direct bearing on it, were excised. And there were veritable heaps of this extraneous and semi-extraneous material in the novel. This very necessary excision amounted to cutting literally 70% of the text in the book… trust me, I actually checked the counter on my Kindle tablet at the point in the novel where the expedition finally reached the area where they had to deal with the apes.
The gore and onscreen mayhem inflicted upon human victims were surprisingly intense for a PG-13 rated movie, and what survived the cutting room floor for the theatrical version really pushed the limits for that rating. We see the Zinj Apes’ penchant for literally tearing off the heads of human victims and then contemptuously tossing them at the surviving humans in quite graphic detail. This, btw, was in contrast to how the apes preferred to kill people in the book: they smashed their heads on each side with stone paddles specially sculpted by the ancient citizens of Zinj to be used by their ape sentries for that purpose. Yes, you just read that correctly; evidently, Crichton thought the considerable strength of the apes’ bare hands wasn’t sufficient to do the job. I’m thankful that Shanely’s script rectified that matter.
Travicom’s experimental laser beam, powered by the blue diamonds of a certain size that were found in Zinj’s precious mines, was utilized by the maverick Travicom’s computer expert Dr. Karen Ross to literally slice through the ranks of the killer apes like a hot knife through wads of butter. And it was seriously sweet to behold! Those scenes hardly skimped on the retaliatory onscreen slaughter wreaked upon Zinj’s simian sentries.
The blue color of those diamonds actually signified a form of impurity that made these gems all but worthless in a financial sense, but extremely valuable in a sheer practical manner as a power source for certain advanced electronics. In turns out natural diamonds can serve as powerful semiconductors (remember learning about those things in high school physics class?) if they are put through a synthetic process called boron-doping, said impurities leaving the normally clear sparkling gems with an azure hue. The diamonds in the Zinj mines, however, are subjected to some volcanic process that leaves the lot of them naturally boron-doped, and thus invaluable semiconductors for all manner of technology. In the book, the device intended for this power source was a computer system designed to process command protocols and bolster communication speeds for human-created missile-firing armaments; they served mainly as an opportunity for Crichton to show off his extensive knowledge of late 20th century advanced computer and munitions technology. In the movie, the blue gems were used to power the large sophisticated laser which provided the human expedition members with opportunities to give as good as they got against the apes.
Karen Ross kicks some serious hairy ass with the way cool weapon that Crichton didn’t include in the book version.
Perhaps I should also mention that the company whose Evil Capitalist CEO, R.B. Travis (Joe Don Baker), employed Dr. Karen Ross and funded the American expedition to seek out the diamonds was called Earth Resource Technology Services Inc. (ERTS) in the book, but changed to the previously noted Travicom for the film. I’m not sure what the reason for the change was, but let’s face it, the latter title sounds much more satisfactory for the arrogance of a wealthy shark in human clothing like R. B. Travis. Even Tony Stark couldn’t resist naming most of his own businesses after himself!
Take a guess which of the two diamond-powered devices I found to be more interesting and exciting. This was another change in Shanely’s screenplay from Crichton’s book that was a great improvement IMHO. The sophisticated automated, laser-guided ground-mounted machine guns used by the humans to guard the perimeter of their camp from the apes appeared in both the book and movie versions, and the book actually used them to somewhat more of an effect. However, the addition of the diamond-charged laser rifle more than made up for that. Crichton’s book described a more elaborate perimeter defense system, which included small but effective moats of water dug by the expedition members to exploit the fear of water that all great apes have. I don’t recall this shown in the film, but the moats were hardly missed due to the movie’s far faster pace than the book.
Dr. Karen Ross was perhaps the main character in both the book and the movie, but in the film (where she was played rather well by a young Laura Linney) this tough-as-nails dame was given more humanity. The book version, while not truly malicious, was more or less totally self-centered, focused on finding the diamonds and making a name for herself in the company at all costs. The movie version was equally driven and determined, but she was greatly humanized by having screenwriter Shanely provide her with a fiancee that her literary counterpart lacked: Charles Travis (the inimitable Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead fame!), the doomed son of R. B. Travis, who was pulverized by the Zinj Apes during the first expedition sent by the company to find the diamonds. The cinematic Ross had a clear conscience that caused her to turn on Travis when she discovered the mutilated and largely decayed body of her fiancee in one of the lost city’s stone temples, and realized that her employer and almost-father-in-law cared nothing for his murdered son and everything for the diamonds and bottom line. In other words, he was a good CEO at the expense of being a bad person, very much in the mold of the Evil Capitalists Obadiah Stane and Darren Cross, whose film versions we saw in Marvel Studios’ Iron Man and Ant-Man respectively. The cinematic Ross was ultimately glad to sacrifice her career to make R. B. (“rat bastard”?) pay for his callous attitude towards everyone he ever met, including his son and her fiancee. That was nothing Ross’s page-bound counterpart would have done. The viewers of this movie left the theater with much more respect for that version of Dr. Ross than the readers of the book did for the literary version, I’d wager.
Taking the place of the self-centered, avaricious, and deceptive literary version of Karen Ross in the film was the added character of the bogus Romanian philanthropist Herkermer Homolka (try to say that five times fast; he was played by Tim Curry). Perhaps more accurately, Homolka actually acted as the human repository for the base characteristics of Ross’ literary version, rather than a replacement for the character herself. The movie iteration of Ross was similar enough to the book version to be considered the same character, but one might say she was a different variation of the same character, with the possibility that the iteration native to the movie reality had her dark side tempered by having a positive love interest in Charlie Travis. The book version seemed to love nothing beyond her career prospects, and the mission that she hoped would bolster her status within it was always her primary concern. Nothing wrong with a dedicated career woman, of course, but one who loves nothing but herself may leave a bit to be desired as a person. Of course, we all knew that from the moment Homolka was revealed as a fake who was simply after the diamonds that he would be gorilla fodder before the closing credits rolled (does anyone seriously consider this to be a spoiler?).
Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), the scrupulous but in-over-his-head primatologist, and the sign language fluent young female gorilla Amy (Misty Rosas; I once had a best friend named Amy! And no, she wasn’t an ape!), whom he raised infancy and was in charge of, came into the movie with their literary personas mostly intact. The movie made the improvement of including a device worn by Amy that included a computerized audio device enabling a crude verbal translation of her signs so that individuals not fluent in American Sign Language could understand her. This was a good replacement for the very frequent and tedious signs between Elliot and Amy that occurred in the book, with only the primatologist being privy to what she had to say.
The best character improvement was the book’s Scottish mercenary Charles Munro being modified into the British African-American tour guide Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson). The book version was an interesting character with heavy knowledge of the continent and the unsavory business that went on within its borders, but Hudson made his version of Munro a true character. The tough but witty and agreeable mercenary from the book was given a suave, affable, and quite charming personality courtesy of Hudson’s great acting talent. I’ve always believed that Hudson may be rivaled only Michael Ironside (and possibly Lance Henrikson) as one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. The range of characters he plays well is impressively varied, and he was clearly having fun in this movie. The end result was therefore much more of a treat to behold than the written version of Munro in Crichton’s book.
Also included from the book was Mahega (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – try typing that name five times in a row!), leader of the expedition’s team of African porters. The book version was actually a bit more interesting than his movie counterpart, simply because the latter had a “jolly,” good-spirited nature that intermittently offered relief from the grim situation the expedition crew found themselves in. The movie version had much less to say and do, thus making his character, though important to the expedition, largely come off as “just there.” Still, since neither version of the character had any major bearing on the main plot, so I was able to overlook this personality modification.
III. Why I Think the Book Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype
For one thing, I should note that Crichton, despite being rightfully renowned as a great novelist with a lot of talent, frequently breaks what writing instructors frequently tell their classes to be one of the cardinal rules of writing: show, don’t tell. He never hesitates to include long paragraphs of explanatory prose to describe every bit of scientific information and/or historical background behind anything of even moderate relevance that his cast of characters come across. This includes a long historical perspective of Zaire, and the chaotic political situation going on there since time immemorial throughout the 1970s decade; the scientific process of boron-doping; the history and technical workings of computer, munitions, and satellite technology, and precisely how such tech was all interwoven by 1980; the history of American Sign Language (ASL) being taught to simians and the details of various famous great apes who used it; the fully scientific skinny on the rain forest; the nature of mountain gorillas and the full range of their intelligence in captivity; the historical background of prevalent cannibalism practiced amongst so many African tribes right into the 20th century; the history and status of the various human tribes living there; the nature of vulcanism, complete with an overview of many of the world’s most active volcanoes; etc., et al.
He is also fond of using this info to make largely incorrect future predictions. Then again, he didn’t suggest there would be a skyline full of flying cars, numerous kids enjoying the use of hovering skateboards, and giant holograms on movie-advertising billboards engaging in simulated attacks on people who walked past the theater by 2015, so I’ll give him a break on that.
Large swaths of the above were not presented to the reader via the dialogue and actions of the characters, but through countless paragraphs of textbook style documentation. Don’t get me wrong, I consider few rules presented by writing instructors to be the equivalent of holy writ, and to be much more than a combination of the instructor’s personal tastes or popular convention amongst the writing community at any given time (for example, look at how many college and graduate school instructors frequently pontificate about how they loathe genre writing and consider it the nadir of the literary realm). Every reader’s preferences differ outside of a basic united desire to see coherent grammar, spelling, and formatting. For those who, like myself, enjoy absorbing knowledge off the page like Superman’s arch-enemy Parasite sponges the life energy from others, you may find Crichton’s work–including this novel–an excellent source of info. I was highlighting passages of such dry information-laden text left and right for this reason.
Behold the glorious days before Andy Serkis came along.
But for those who prefer storytelling over big helpings of raw information, they would likely find Crichton’s writing style to be ponderous, not to mention an unwelcome diversion from the main plot and characters of the story. This is a problem you will not have with the movie. I suspect that this is why so many critics and reviewers applaud Crichton’s novel as being brilliant in comparison to the movie. The thing is, it can well be argued that his genuine brilliance may be better served writing textbooks than prose fiction, or at least leaving the heavy helpings of scientific and historical information out of a tome devoted to telling a fictional narrative rather than simply providing paragraphs of facts. This happens so often that the novel often reads like an educational book for grad school students rather than grammar school kids.
The pacing of the book is also incredibly slow. I made no exaggeration when I said that you don’t even get to see the expedition encounter the Zinj Apes and volcanic bedlam until 70% of the way into the book. We barely see the killer gorillas prior to that, save for an early prologue sequence at the beginning of the book where their handiwork is shown inflicted upon the first expedition, and a brief image of one of the apes is caught on one of their cameras. Dr. Elliot also takes long stretches of time to analyze and theorize on what type of animal is shown in that hazy image.
The day-to-day travails of an inexperienced group trekking through the unforgiving rain forests of Africa take up a huge bulk of the story, but it never really becomes interesting enough to build a compelling narrative. No real tragedy occurs amongst the expedition during this time, and their encounter with the Ghost People tribe is pretty much a diversion to get them to encounter the traumatized and soon to die sole survivor of the first expedition so they can learn something horrible happened. The only hint as to what that horrible thing may have been was the man’s horrified bellow upon seeing Amy the ape just before he collapsed dead. And that’s another thing: a further huge portion of the book is taken up with Elliot’s cute relationship with Amy. Charming interactions to be sure, but hardly necessary in their entirety. This relationship between man and ape was made pretty clear in the movie without it taking up huge portions of the allotted time.
Then there were the many changes in the cast of characters I noted in the previous section. With the exception of Mahega, all of the character alterations in the movie improved over the versions seen in the book. Some of the humor in the film was strained and forced, but it was usually quite welcome, particularly those moments provided by Hudson. The subplot of the consortium composed of foreign corporate agents mounting a rival expedition to Zinj, and the Phileas Fogg-ish race between the two to be the first party to reach the ancient city, was left out of the movie. No great loss there, since despite the suspense it may have added to the book, it was hardly necessary to the plot and simply served to pad the book further. If anything, it took up further space in the book simply to keep the page count up.
Nothing “great” about this ape.
[in sign language]: “You fuck off you, Nigro. Amy know you can’t sing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in sign like Amy. Amy good gorilla.”
Let me also make it clear that the enormous length of novels prior to the previous decade was often insisted upon by publishing houses of the era, since a bloated page count allowed them to justify charging more for the books and the establishment of monopoly price control. As a writer who worked during the era prior to the new possibilities offered by digital publishing, Crichton may well have inured himself to filling a book with 600 pages as an editorial demand. It’s just how it was done back then. The self-publishing revolution which began in the previous decade has alleviated that requirement, but in those days there was little way around it if you were serious about being published, at least by a major label. Nevertheless, it doesn’t make the reading experience any less exhausting or tedious.
More action was featured in the book regarding a short span of pages following the expedition’s departure from Zinj (leaving the vicious gray gorillas behind for good) where the surviving members had to contend with repelling a savage attack from a group of deadly primitive tribesmen from the remains of their airplane (those bastards even shit on the seats of the plane, I kid you not!). Moderate suspense was to be had here, but considering how much more exciting the confrontations with the gorillas were in the movie than the book, the removal of this sequence in the film version was no biggie. In fact, the earlier scene of the expedition members dodging hostile government missile fire while traveling over Zaire airspace was even more exciting in the movie version, with Dr. Ross finding a most clever way of diverting the government’s heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. The very suspenseful volcano erupting sequence from the book was retained in the movie, with the latter going much further with showing cool scenes of the killer gorillas getting filleted by the raging rivers of red hot liquid rock.
I have since found a few others voices of agreement with me in regards to the quality of the movie, despite the legions of naysayers out there. This includes both my friend and colleague Derrick Ferguson, who describes the film version of Congo as a cool modern pulp adventure on the Blood & Ink blog here; and the detailed analysis of the movie provided by PhilipJames1980 for the IMBd entry on this movie (just scroll down the page to the top of the ‘User Reviews’ section). I was also recently informed by a valued member of one of my writing groups that Amazon has several reviewers who likewise enjoyed the movie and were not so keen on the book. Even though the absence of these other praises wouldn’t have affected my opinion, it’s always a bit refreshing to find out that you aren’t the proverbial lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to a certain strong minority view. Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong, but it’s certainly important to question it on matters where we happen to feel that it is. As such, I fully recommend that everyone who enjoys good, fun pulp-style adventure to give the movie a chance, and to only take the time required to read the book if you happen to be enamored of Crichton’s specific style of writing. To each their own, bro.
“Okay, I may be from that other movie about apes who war against humans, but since I’m sure lots of humans can’t tell the difference between a chimp and a gorilla anyway, who cares, right?”