“Aping Plots and Themes As Best They Can” by Jeffrey Poehlmann

I just put down my copy of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 opus, Planet of the Apes, as translated by Xan Fielding. “Put down” may not be the most accurate phrasing here — I closed the app on my phone and proceeded to do some web surfing for a while. That was primarily to verify the number of  movies spun off of this relatively slender volume: seven films and two television series, at least one video game and several supporting documentaries and behind-the-scenes projects shot up on the IMDB site in short order. At first blush, these varied projects, most of which I have seen, bare little resemblance to the book used as their source material beyond the conceit that apes somehow supplant man as the dominant species of their planet.

SPOILER ALERT: I am going to ruin the book for anyone who has not read it. It is a quick read, so if you are a fan of the movies and have any self-respect, you might as well do yourself a favor and pause long enough to download a copy and read it for yourself before continuing.

Franklin Schaffner’s 1968 adaptation (with writing credited to Michael Wilson and Rod Serling) hews probably as close as it can to the intentions of the original space opera cum Voltairian satire that Boulle initially created. To recreate the world of Soror from the book, a far more sophisticated and advanced ape society than that of any of the Hollywood entries, would have been prohibitively expensive at the time, and the overall tone may not have played as readily to the tastes of American audiences. Yet, this original film version of the novel is in many ways still close in spirit, if not precisely in plot and character. And although the novel carefully projects its own surprise twist ending from the very first pages, the Hollywood film necessarily had to offer its own twist with the now famous Statue of Liberty revelation. By so doing, and with a few careful character changes, the film is able to both stand on its own and pay homage to its source in a respectful manner.

The changes between the book and the film are significant. Not the least of these is that the protagonist in the book is a journalist from the far future, his narrative being read by a pair of space-sailing lovers from the even farther future who have found his story literally floating in a bottle through their far-flung solar system. The universe imagined here is somewhat typical of science fiction odysseys from the 60s and 70s, rooted vaguely in the scientific potential of space flight and an emerging understanding of distant stars. The story presupposes technology that allows near-light speed travel, imbuing just enough fantasy to enable a crew of three to make the trip with seemingly endless resources and no support crew. There is no shortage of gaps in the logic of the narrative, which is sort of beside the point as this piece is pointedly satirical and, if not as politically driven as the movies that followed it, stakes its reputation on its commentary on humanity’s supposed superiority.

While the three key apes in the novel are retained somewhat intact in Schaffner’s film, the book rather glosses over most supporting characters altogether. In fact, the book is narrowly focused on only those characters necessary to propel its narrative; quite unlike the “world building” that is so important in much current fantasy and science fiction literature, this bit of literary pulp is purposefully sparse on detail, yielding more to the reader’s imagination. What is described is a somewhat 20th Century society, with nods to 19th Century Colonial attitudes and a somewhat stagnated technological state. It takes grand leaps here and there reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his “Mars” stories, but seems strangely retro at the same time. Granted, a book that is fifty years old is bound to appear dated, and this one does if for no other reason than so much of today’s commonplace technology never enters the equation. On the other hand, dealing with a distant planet as the book does, the matter of “modern” technology is moot because the society there need not be a perfect parallel to our own in every way as long as it still hits the broad strokes for allegorical purposes.

The three human explorers from the book are translated on screen as genuine astronauts rather than the esoteric scientists and journalist who have gone off on something of a permanent vacation from their home world. In the movie, something goes wrong and the spacecraft crashes with its passengers unaware of their location — until, of course, the big reveal that they have somehow traveled to the future and returned to Earth. The book has a defined objective for its human journeyers, to travel to the nearest star with a potentially habitable planet like the Earth. Upon arrival, after a two year trip for the three explorers that would have equated hundreds of Earth years due to the relative nature of time and the speed of travel (thank you, Mr. Einstein), the three men from Earth are particularly pleased to find the young naked perfection of Nova, our protagonist’s quasi love interest. It is no surprise that they are all smitten with the first female they see, although the protagonist, Ulysse Mérou, quite arrogantly relegates the humans they encounter to animal status based on their very primal behaviors and apparent lack of either reason or intellect. In this sense, too, does the character of Nova change in the movie version, becoming much brighter and more proactive than the character in the book is allowed to before she bears Ulysse’s child and is smuggled aboard his spacecraft to return with him to Earth. In the movie, Nova is a more genuine love interest to Col. George Taylor, himself something of a misanthrope in contrast to Ulysse and his ultimate sense that he is a key to the revival of humanity’s ultimate superiority.

While the 1968 film retains some key plot points from the book, especially with regard to the introduction to the ape society through the means of hunting down the humans, during which one of the astronauts is killed and the others captured — one of which is later lobotomized in a mix of the book’s plot elements, whereas the character in the book has merely reverted to an animal state very quickly after being put in confinement (first in a zoo, then in a cage for study), presumably as a coping mechanism. The Taylor character and Ulysse alike must learn to feel for their human companions on their new worlds, but for very different reasons. And in both cases there is a more genuine and affectionate relationship between the human protagonist and Dr. Zira, the she-ape scientist who is in turn engaged to Cornelius, also a scientist and conflicted champion of his new human friend.

Although the big revelations of how human society fell to the apes is presented through a somewhat weak flight of fancy which requires the acceptance that some kind of ancestral memory could exist in the brain to allow for skillful verbal descriptions from people with no language skills of their own, it does offer a moment for the author to display his own feelings about the psychological laziness of modern society. The apes are able to gain power because of man’s ego and lack of wisdom coupled with an innate fear of strength. Not surprisingly, after the several hundred more Earth years that it takes Ulysse to return home with Nova and their child, his own planet has befallen the same fate of the distant Soror.

The relatively ill-conceived 1970 sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, takes little from the book, although it expands upon the notion that there are some apes dedicated to proving that their society was a result of mimicking human society. This first sequel takes a decidedly more political, anti-nuclear tone, but is probably most notable for being markedly cheaper and cheesier than the first film. And also they blow up the planet, which would normally end a franchise.

In 1971, the producers sent the heroic Zira and Cornelius back in time via Taylor’s spaceship from the first movie and attempt to mine some of the back story that was mostly hinted at in the novel with Escape From the Planet of the Apes. Interestingly, by taking Zira and Cornelius to Los Angeles in the early 70s, this movie is able to use a lot of material from the novel that had to be changed in the original film. Zira and Cornelius essentially swap roles with Ulysse as scientific test subjects who are ultimately brought out into society, only later to realize that their progeny could potentially be the downfall of the dominant civilization. In the book, Cornelius masterminds the escape of Ulysse, Nova and their son in order to avoid the threat of assassination. In this movie sequel, however, the assassination of the heroes is completed, but not before swapping the ape child for a less evolved newborn from a circus act. Escape From the Planet of the Apes actually gets a lot of mileage from the original book and manages to probe more deeply into the social content as a result. It is, perhaps, the closest of all the movies to the book’s tone.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes followed the next year, continuing to pull ideas from the novel by essentially taking its plot from the few paragraphs evoking the ancestral memory of humans on Soror. Apes were trained, turned into servants and, eventually after they developed the will to speak, began running things their own way. The cinematic version has a slightly more visceral approach to the revolution, which was relatively quiet and unopposed in the book; the literary version had the apes armed with nothing more than whips, such was the lack of human will against them. The future society depicted in this film installment has a fascist streak, where humans — at least those representing the establishment — are cruel. This creates a much more political tone, bringing race relations to the forefront.

The fifth and final film in the original franchise, 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, breaks away from the book and struggles to find its own storyline to wrap things up. The ultimate message is one of racial, or at least intra-species, harmony. This and the several sequels preceding it, operate under the assumption that apes are as lucidly intelligent and original as humans, a notion that is questioned at the heart of the book. In the novel, Ulysse alternately suspects and insists that the Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Orangutans in the story are merely mimicking — or aping — the society that they took over. This is why there has been no reasonable technological or scientific advancement in some 10,000 years. It is also why, upon his return to Earth, Ulysse finds that even after hundreds of years, nothing appears particularly changed on his home planet. This is, of course, a greater embarrassment for humanity, that it could have fallen so far, so easily, so quickly as to be replaced by animals merely repeating observed actions and which are able to speak key words at appropriate moments. But such is the society that Boulle envisions.

Tim Burton’s re-imagined Planet of the Apes in 2001 retained almost nothing from the book aside from three things: the apes are not on Earth, there is a chimp that comes along from Earth, and the fact that the astronaut hero returns to Earth only to find it has been taken over by apes. Those nods to the book are so thin as to almost be coincidental. For example, the chimp in the book is killed off by Nova almost immediately after landing on the new planet. Neither the planet nor the ape society represented in the movie have any connection to what is in the novel. And the return to Earth in Burton’s film is highlighted by a view of a modified Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., fashioned after the defeated ape leader the protagonist had just escaped from before going back in time (and space) to get home.  While this adaptation tips its hat to the 1968 film of the same name, it lacks the humanity and socio-political commentary that made the first movie and the book interesting. With a budget far larger than the combined money spent on the five original films in the series, and the technical ability to actually realize the vision of the novel, it is amazing that this film was able to miss the mark by such a profound distance.

2011 brought Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a reboot of the series that attempts to ground the mythology in more accurate biological science. The resulting plot-driven story, however, is more of a thriller than the satirical allegory of the novel. Aside from a few nods to the earlier films, mainly to wink at the audience, this is a new vision. Ultimately, it is an example of how a franchise can take on a life of its own, for better or worse, and render the source material obsolete. While there are many commendable things about this latest installment, and it does try to find its own way into the established mythology of the film series, television series, video games, comic books and, yes, the all but forgotten book that started things off, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is ultimately its own vehicle. By revisiting the concept of how, rather than why, this movie offers itself as more typical Hollywood entertainment, but without the same wry bite of either the book or the original 1968 film.

As written by: Jeffrey Poehlmann

Jeffery is a motion pictures and film professional in Los Angeles, California. He also created the 3rd Party Blog.

“After tending bar for a while and working the fields in a small corn town, I became a producer of fine television commercials and lavish corporate productions (mainly in languages I don’t even speak). This segued into a minor Hollywood writing career that was waylaid by more commercial work. After a few bouts with producing Independent movies, I am currently focused on expanding my writing work and, you guessed it, more commercial production.”

2 thoughts on ““Aping Plots and Themes As Best They Can” by Jeffrey Poehlmann

  1. Joe Pepper

    Just stumbled across this fun assessment after googling the author. My son read one of his books on my Kindle and wanted to see what else he had done. Apes was one of my favorite books as a kid and its great to see this attention to the book version. Hope to read more from Mr. Poehlmann soon!

  2. Digereedoo

    Best comparison I’ve read of this topic. Apes was one of my favorite childhood books when it came out, and my kids loved it, too. The burton film was TERRIBLE, and this article got it right!


Leave a Reply