Hollywood Monkeyed Around With ‘Planet of the Apes’ And Created a Masterpiece


The year 1968 was a pretty good one for science fiction, fantasy and horror: Future genre classics 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, and Night of the Living Dead all premiered that year to greater or lesser fanfare. So did one more: Planet of the Apes.

Apes starred Charlton Heston in one of his most memorable roles: Astronaut George Taylor, one of a crew of astronauts awakened from suspended animation after their craft crashes on what they initially take to be an alien planet. The ship has been traveling at near light-speed while the crew hibernated, and it’s now thousands of years in the future. Soon they discover that this strange world is ruled by intelligent gorillas, chimpanzees and baboons. The planet is also home to human beings, but they’re mute and only semi-intelligent. One of Taylor’s friends is killed and the other is lobotomized, leaving him the only talking human on the planet. The apes consider Taylor’s tales of a grand civilization ruled by human beings blasphemy and a threat to public order, and intend to have him killed. With the aid of sympathetic Chimpanzees, Taylor escapes into the “Forbidden Zone”, a place where no apes are allowed to travel. Once there, he learns the truth: This “alien planet” is actually future Earth. The movie ends with him falling on his knees before the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, raging that humanity destroyed itself.

Almost fifty years later, the movie still packs quite a punch. That last scene of the Statue of Liberty’s crumbling head and torch is so perfectly revealed in those final moments, and Heston’s reaction so genuine, that you feel it in the pit of your stomach. It’s not only Taylor who experiences a terrible realization, the audience does too: Taylor’s cry of “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” is directed at them.

Planet of the Apes had a lot of things going for it right from the start: Groundbreaking prosthetic effects by John Chambers (He designed Mr. Spock’s pointed ears, among other thing), direction by the brilliant Franklin J. Schaffner (later the director of Patton, Papillon, and The Boys from Brazil, among other films) a talented cast hat not only included Heston, but also Roddy McDowall, a disjointingly avant-garde yest instantly recognizable music score composed by Jerry Goldsmith, and a screenplay written by Michael Wilson and none other than Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling, who had adapted it from La Planète des singes (Monkey Planet), an original novel published in 1963 by French writer Pierre Boulle. (Boulle also wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai. It was adapted into a feature film staring Sir Alec Guinness, who was later Star Wars‘ Obi-Wan Kenobi.)

Audiences and critics alike loved Planet of the Apes. The movie went on to spawn eight films (including the soon to be released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), two television series, spin-off novels, comic books, toys, games , and more. From the late sixties until the early to mid seventies, America went “ape”. More than a few of these ape fans probably rushed out and picked up Boulle’s novel. If so, they were probably confused by what they found. See, Planet of the Apes the movie had only a superficial resemblance to Planet of the Apes the book.

In the original novel a couple on an outer space pleasure cruise intercept a message in a bottle. Inside is the unbelievable story of a man’s adventures on a faraway planet where apes rule over semi-intelligent human beings. The man, an astronaut named Ulysee Merou, writes that he wwas stranded for years on an odd planet run by apes. This is where things get different. A lot different. Spoilers ahead.

Boulle’s apes dress and act exactly like twentieth century humans. They wear regular clothes, live in houses, and even have their own aircraft. They even smoke cigarettes and wear little gloves on their feet. The one thing that they don’t do is speak English or any other human tongue. They grunt, hoot, and roar like real apes. Boulle’s ape society sounds more like the old “Bear City” skits on Saturday Night Live than anything else.

Merou is taken to a laboratory and held there until he learns their language. When he does, he presents a speech to the apes and is granted his freedom, plus clothes, and other accoutrements of civilization. Merou goes digging around and discovers evidence of an ancient human civilization that was overthrown by the apes. His ape hosts aren’t happy about his discovery, so Merou gets the spacecraft working again and high-tails it out of there and sets a course for Earth. In due time, he arrives on Earth, where he is greeted by gorillas. Yep, Earth. Not the other planet, which was definitely NOT Earth, but had a Earth-like civilization, human beings, and the apes that took over… and apparently took over Earth, too. Complete coincidence, I guess. Merou takes off into space once more, and that’s when he tosses out the message in a bottle. Oh! And you ready for the big surprise? The couple on the ship that found it? Apes. You got it. Ape people. (“What a twist!”)

It’s not that Boulle’s novel is bad, it’s just different: Really, really different. Surrealistic sixties social science fiction that’s brilliant on its own, but as a movie is Probably a hard sell. The framing device is useful only to deliver an odd secondary twist that takes place after the big finale, which in itself might be confusing to audiences: Why have  your protagonist go to an Earth-like planet full of apes and then have the poor guy go back planet Earth and find it full of apes? What are the odds, anyway? That, and civilized cities full of apes wearing tailored suits and going to work and raising families sounds awfully boring, at least as the premise of a movie. It sounds like Merou just joined a really weird gated community instead of an alien civilization.

Serling’s initial script bore a closer resemblance to Boulle’s novel, but execs were concerned with the cost.  Subsequent revisions by other writers took it further and further from the source material, but Serling, Wilson, Schaffner and the rest of the production had to make an entertaining action film out of Boulle’s odd bit of social science fiction. In the end extricated the bit about astronauts encountering an ape civilization and stitched it all up the best they could. Normally that spells disaster, but in this case it all came together and made a great film. Boulle was pretty much fine with it, as even he wasn’t that crazy about the book. He called it a fantasy and said it wasn’t his best work. The one thing the writer took exception to was Serling’s twist ending in front of the Statue of Liberty – which was one thing that even critics who didn’t care for the movie still thought was pretty good.

We’re on the second total reboot of the franchise, although to be fair, this is more of a prequel series. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes looks like a great movie, and like the other films, bears little to no resemblance to Boulle’s book. Fandom usually gets pretty mad about liberal interpretations of books and comic books, but in this case Is that a bad thing? Read Boulle’s Planet of the Apes and find out.