On the Subjects of Fearing the Unknown, Ambiguity in Horror, and Honoring the Tone of the Original Godzilla
First published 10/10/18
When the decision was first made on my part to launch the GODZILLA NOVELIZATION PROJECT, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I selected the original 1954 masterpiece — the proverbial “one that started it all” — as the first adaptation to be tackled. It seemed the logical place to start, and I stand by that decision to this day, despite the challenges that have naturally arisen as a result of launching the project with what will no doubt be one of the hardest films to convert into the written word. While each of the Godzilla films will present — and are currently presenting — their own unique set of hurdles to overcome as I continue my endeavor to adapt them all (a task I must confess I’m more excited than fearful to tackle), there’s something about the original Godzilla that elevates it to another level of complexity.
In fact, there are several aspects of this particular adaptation that have presented me with different, often challenging decisions to make. However, for this first behind-the-scenes peek into the creative process behind the GNP, I’ve selected one key aspect that, to me, defines much of the effectiveness of that first, seminal entry in the Godzilla franchise: the fear of the unknown.
Chances are you’ve heard this phrase countless times, and chances are even higher that you’ve actually experienced the phenomena firsthand. A fear of the unknown is, it seems, as integral a part of the human experience as breathing or sleeping. Whenever you find yourself in a situation where you’re faced with an as-yet to be determined outcome, or with an occurrence that seems hell bent on escaping rational explanation, fear — or at least a healthy amount of nervousness — begins to emerge. When we don’t understand something, oftentimes our natural reaction is to treat it with suspicion, fear, or, in the most extreme cases, hatred or loathing.
Take the following scenario as an example: a child, laying in his bed in the dead of night, suddenly hears a clattering sound in his closet. The child’s eyes shoot open, widened with the fear of what that clattering sound could have been. In the mind of a child, the thought that the sound could have been created by a falling toy or book is just as probable as it having been caused by some kind of threat — a monster, a bogeyman — that could at any moment emerge to frighten or hurt them. With no way of knowing the answer, the result is terror, however irrational it might be. In all likelihood, there is no monster in the closet. But try telling that to a scared child.
Here’s a more realistic, monster-free example: a grown man is awakened from his sleep by a clattering sound coming from downstairs. He is then presented with the following possibilities: first, that the family cat has knocked a vase or some variety of knick-knack off a shelf and onto the floor, or second, there is an intruder in the house, an unknown force that could rob him of his belongings, hurt or kill his family, and ultimately pose a massive threat. Once again, with no way of knowing if the man in question’s fears are justified, the result is panic. As in the scenario with the little boy and his monster in the closet, the chances of the sound being anything more than a clumsy house pet are pretty low. But without the reassuring knowledge that explains away the suspicion, our hypothetical husband truly can’t know if he and his family are safe or not.
It must be said that there is a marked difference between the kind of fear discussed above and the kind of irrational fear that has sent people fleeing from spiders and other creepy crawlies for centuries. While it’s true that fear of otherwise harmless animals or things is irrational (and really, who doesn’t have at least one irrational fear? I know I do!), this doesn’t necessarily represent a fear of the unknown. A man or woman might be frightened of a bat flying around their heads without knowing that bats are innocuous, environmentally beneficial creatures with no history of attacking humans, but that fear doesn’t likely stem from a lack of knowledge pertaining to bat-related zoology. Some animals just give certain people the heebie jeebies, plain and simple.
And this is where the brilliance of how fear of the unknown is used in the original Godzilla. While the titular titan is certainly a terrifying force within the film, I think it can safely be said that the Japanese people weren’t fleeing from its massive footfalls because it gave them the same kind of creeps that mice give to the lower halves of freaked-out cartoon characters. Something else is at play, and while there are many reasons to be afraid of Godzilla in his 1954 debut flick, there is one that, at least for me, makes the monster the most frightening of perhaps all of his many incarnations: the ambiguity surrounding his existence, his attack, and his motivations.
In one of the most famous scenes in the entire Godzilla franchise, Dr. Yamane (played by one of cinema’s finest actors, the great Takashi Shimura) presents his hypothesis on Godzilla’s origins, revealing his belief that the beast — a relic from the Jurassic Period — was awakened and loosed upon the world by the repeated testing of hydrogen bombs in the Pacific. Whether the bomb mutated or simply awakened the monster is never directly addressed (although the decision to texture Godzilla’s skin with radiation-caused keloid scarification seems to indicate the former), but such an issue is hardly the point. This is reinforced by the fact that following this sequence, no further discoveries pertaining to Godzilla’s origins, biology, or motivation are presented to the audience. All we need to know is that the monster exists, and that it’s headed straight for Tokyo.
The question of what drew — and still draws — Godzilla to Japan, time and time again, is one that continues to arise in discussions of the franchise, and several installments have attempted to provide answers. In the American cut of 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Dr. Arnold Johnson, armed with his grade-school dinosaur picture book, states that fossils resembling Godzilla had been found in Japan, and that the Monster King might see the Land of the Rising Sun as his homeland. Nuclear power plants have lured Godzilla to Japan in several films, and experimental plasma energy resulted in two attacks in 2000’s Godzilla vs. Megaguirus. A desire for revenge against an apathetic modern Japan fueled the rage of a possessed Godzilla in 2001’s GMK. The bones of the original Godzilla — incorporated into the structure of Kiryu — were to blame for the second Godzilla’s attacks on Japan in both 2002’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and its sequel, 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. And, of course, let’s not forget the much-maligned 1998 take on the character, who sought out New York City as a nesting ground for his army of asexually produced raptorlings.
But in 1954, no such explanation is given. There are no nuclear power plants with the promise of energy, no bones of fallen predecessors to lure the beast ashore. Godzilla has not come to Japan to nest or to breed, nor has he come to engage another titanic creature in combat. There seems to be no explainable reason for the beast to come to Tokyo, much less destroy it so thoroughly and completely.
And that’s exactly the point of it.
With Godzilla, there is no rationality, no motivation that can be understood by mankind. The creature’s attack seems at once senseless and horrifically calculated. Purposeful yet seemingly lacking in any comprehensible purpose at all. His destruction of Tokyo is methodical, slow, and seemingly driven by an intent that we cannot understand.
Since the film’s release, several American critics (most writing at a time when only the 1956 “Americanized” cut was available in the States) have seen this apparent lack of motivation for Godzilla’s attack as a weakness in the film, an oversight on the part of director Ishiro Honda and writer Takeo Murata. After all, most American monster movies of the era (and still to this day) provide motivation for the monster’s attack as a matter of course. The titular Beast from 20,000 Fathoms came to Manhattan expecting to breed. The Deadly Mantis, Tarantula, and Black Scorpions attacked humans in their search for food. King Kong, that most legendary progenitor of the giant monster genre, lashed out from a mixture of fear, loneliness, and — upon reaching New York — confusion at being in an alien and hostile environment. A lack of motivation in Godzilla’s attack, therefore, must be a mistake.
But we fans know better.
It’s common knowledge that the original story treatment for Godzilla, written by science fiction author Shigeru Kayama, featured the ultimately deleted concept of Godzilla’s ventures into the human world being driven largely by hunger. However, all references to this motivation — including the reshooting of Godzilla’s introductory shot to remove a bleeding cow from its jaws — were taken out of the final draft of the story in favor of heightened ambiguity. The decision to remove any clearly defined motivation from Godzilla’s attack was a brilliant one; the monster was transformed into a force as supernatural as it was the product of science gone awry.
Admit it… would the original Godzilla have been nearly as scary if you found out all it wanted was to eat a good meal?
While the previously mentioned explanations for Godzilla’s repeated visits to Japan in the sequels work brilliantly for their respective films, the lack of explanation in the first film is, at least in my eyes, one of the reasons the film worked — and continues to work — so effectively. When we, the audience, are presented with the revelation that the Rhedosaurus from Beast is simply hoping to seek out others of its own kind, the fear of the monster is reduced, if only a little, in our minds. We now understand the creature a little better, opening the door for sympathy to walk in and make the monster’s climactic death a tragic one. No such door opens for Godzilla. Answers regarding his advent, his motivation, and his very existence all remain disturbingly out of reach for the duration of the film. What mankind doesn’t understand, it fears… and the original Godzilla is a very fearful beast, indeed.
Perhaps the beauty of how this fear of the unknown was handled in the film is the simple fact that such a fear is never mentioned onscreen. The characters do not theorize on the possibilities of what drew Godzilla to their country, nor do they pontificate on the allegorical or potentially supernatural significance of his coming. This fear is certainly present, but not because it’s directly stated to the audience. One only need watch the film to feel the overwhelming sense of dread that hangs over the city of Tokyo as Godzilla makes his presence known. The fear is in the atmosphere, the very air we breathe as we let the film wash over us. This fear becomes a very real feeling, a dramatic sense of doom and smallness in the face of a force that we, as mere mortals, cannot hope to understand. This is the genius of Godzilla, and of the men who made it. Through their story, in all its technical and artistic aspects — Honda’s directing, Tsuburaya’s effects, Ifukube’s chillingly haunting score — we too feel the dread. We feel the despair. We feel the fear of the unknown.
And that, dear readers, is my challenge. Yikes.
One of the guiding principles of the GODZILLA NOVELIZATION PROJECT is to preserve and honor the intent, atmosphere, and tone that the creators of the films instilled into the various installments of the franchise. This has proven to be a challenge, but one that — as I mentioned above — I’m thrilled to be taking on. With such a varied series of films, covering a variety of sub-genres and tones, there will be ample opportunity to take a crack at writing in a variety of styles, and from many potential points of view, as the project continues into the future.
However, despite the incredible amount of fun that this project has been to work on, I must confess that I often feel the weight of a tremendous legacy on my shoulders. A legacy that I love and respect, and one that I strive every day to honor through my work. And nowhere is that weight felt more than in my adaptation of the original Godzilla.
This is a film that I love, a film that I treasure and respect beyond words. What’s more, it’s a film loved and respected around the world. The amount of time, effort, and care a novel adaptation of this film deserves is, in my mind, monumental, and a huge part of that will be preserving the feelings of dread and fear that I described above. The film used atmosphere to effectively communicate these feelings, respecting the audience enough to let them feel the tone rather than having the characters tell the audience how they should feel. This is the approach I will be using, as well.
Putting those emotions, those feelings, into words that allow you to be swept along with the story in the same way the film sweeps you along will be no easy task. However, despite the challenges involved (which also include research into the film’s script and shooting process, deleted scenes, storyboards, post-war economics and politics, the culture of Japan during the period, reading testimonies of A-bomb survivors and accounts from the victims of the Lucky Dragon #5 tragedy, among other things), it’s a journey that I cannot wait to continue on. To have the opportunity to even attempt an undertaking such as this (as fan-made and unofficial as it may be) is not only exciting, but an honor beyond words. It’s a task I don’t take lightly, and it’s my hope that the full-length novel that will someday emerge as a result of all this research and writing will honor the legacy and intent of one of world cinema’s finest moments, as well as the brilliant minds who gave it life over six decades ago.
No pressure at all, right?
Plus, there’s also the matter of writing those 30+ sequels…
But I’ll crush… ahem, cross that bridge when I get to it…