Congo, Michael Crichton‘s tale of murderous gorillas and a forbidden city, took 15 years to become a movie, and here’s what took so long. One of the highest-selling authors of all time, the late Crichton saw several of his books be translated into notable films, including Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain. He also wrote and directed the cult sci-fi classic Westworld himself, so there’s definitely a track record of Crichton’s ideas translating well to the big screen. However, that definitely wasn’t the case with Congo.
While Congo isn’t Crichton’s best book by any means, it’s an enjoyable read, and was yet another best-seller for the prolific author. It makes perfect sense that it would be adapted into a movie, but unfortunately, the final product is far from great. That’s not to say it’s abysmal, or unwatchable, but it’s quite flawed, and often ends up residing in the realm of “so bad it’s good.” Then again, it’s much better to be entertainingly bad than outright boring.
What many tend to forget though is that Congo was actually a sizable box office hit, despite awful reviews, and today stands as something of a cult classic, partially thanks to fun supporting performances from Tim Curry and Ernie Hudson. This success proves that a Congo movie was a good idea, but the really odd thing is, it took 15 years to finally happen.
Michael Crichton published Congo the novel in 1980, but the movie adaptation didn’t get released until 1995. It turns out that it really shouldn’t have taken that long. Crichton had actually sold Fox on the idea of Congo before the story was even written, planning to turn it into both a novel and screenplay, as well as direct the adaptation himself. He wanted Sean Connery, who he’d previously worked with on 1979’s The Great Train Robbery, to star. That sounds like an easy sell, and it was. The problem was actually entirely on Crichton, who absolutely insisted that Amy, the gorilla who speaks in sign-language throughout the story, be played by an actual gorilla.
Crichton felt that no person in a gorilla suit or animatronic creation could properly convince the audience Amy was a real gorilla, and that it would take them out of Congo‘s story. Yet, Crichton and company were unable to find a way that using a real gorilla in the film would be possible, so he eventually recommended to Fox that they cancel the project. In a rare reversal of Hollywood’s usual circumstances, the studio objected, and finally decided to proceed on the project without Crichton’s direct creative involvement.
Congo‘s adaptation spent the next few years being teased as coming soon, then falling back into development hell, before Jurassic Park‘s smash success pushed Fox to finally make the film happen. Unfortunately, Crichton was right on the effects front, as Amy, while a charming character, is hardly convincing as being real, and neither are the crazed monster gorillas seen later on in Zinj. For his part, Crichton did no real promotion for Congo, and basically washed his hands of the movie.