King Kong Was Inspired By a Real-Life Komodo Dragon-Hunting Expedition
Viewers weren't looking for realism when they bought tickets to see King Kong in 1933. The movie, which featured a giant ape fighting a dinosaur and scaling a skyscraper, used special effects to transport audiences to a different world. It was a fantastical story, but to anyone familiar with the real monster-hunting mission that took place six years earlier, it wasn't as original as it seemed.
According to Slate, a 1926 expedition to the East Indies funded by the American Museum of Natural History planted the seeds for King Kong. The party, led by museum trustee William Douglas Burden, set off with the goal of recording footage of Komodo dragons and bringing specimens back to the U.S. for the first time.
In addition to the many lizards that were hunted and shot, the expedition brought back two live Komodo dragons that ended up at the Bronx Zoo. Tens of thousands of spectators went to see the living dinosaurs in person. In a pre-King Kong world, the exhibit was the closest people could get to seeing a monster with their own eyes.
The story of the trip to the East Indies captivated many people back home, including screenwriter Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was a friend of Burden's, and hearing Burden recount his adventures abroad reportedly inspired Cooper to write King Kong. The movie's plot bears some similarities to the story: A team of explorers capture a mysterious monster from a remote island and turn it into a tourist attraction in New York City. Cooper may have taken other elements from real life—like the woman (Burden's wife) on the East Indies trip, and even the K in Komodo—and worked them into the script as well.
You can watch footage of the Komodo-hunting expedition that inspired the original monster movie above.