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Planet of the Apes – Book, Film, Film

WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for both films and the book.

The recent hype surrounding Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of The Planet of the Apes has revived interest in both the original film and Pierre Boulles novel Les Planet de Singes (translated under the less than auspicious title Monkey Planet) upon which both are ostensibly based. What is interesting to note about the two film versions (ignoring subsequent entries in the first franchise and the plethora of spin-offs) is what they derive from the novel and crucially what they choose to leave out. Indeed the closest you could currently get to the source would be to splice the two together and superimpose Mark Wahlberg onto Charlton Heston’s face. Or visa versa, the choice is yours.

One aspect of the book that is ignored by both films is the book-ending tale that sees the discovery of the books hero **’s notes about his discoveries and adventures. These notes are found, romantically, in a bottle drifting in the cosmos by * and *, two lovers who cruise around in a solar powered interstellar craft. At the books close, and marking a second twist ending, the story is discarded as preposterous and fanciful as it is revealed to us that they too are apes. This is wisely dropped as any attempts to film this further twist would have to be shot in such a way that the suspicion of the viewer would be instantly aroused – it is a ploy that works best here in an entirely literary context.

Perhaps the most often remembered (but not actually the most interesting) aspect of the original film version is the ending that sees a weary Charlton Heston, having just won his freedom to roam with sexy savage Nova, discover the buried remains of the Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand. At once he realises that the “bloody fools” – his ancestors – have allowed the apes to dominate. He has not travelled in space but merely in time; he has never left the Earth at all. In contrast both the book and the Tim Burton version have their hero transported far off into space to land on alien soil; in Burton’s version this is down to an accident in an ill-defined electromagnetic storm “kinda-thing” while Boulles has his protagonists (like the original film there are more than one although Boulles doesn’t include the gratuitous blonde that turns into a shrivelled corpse so that the men can go out alone) actively seek a planet similar to ours but not in the obvious neighbouring star as, due to the effects of close-to-light travel the difference in travelling time (ships frame) is negligible so they may as well choose somewhere a little further afield than Alpha Centuri (interestingly they choose the Betelgeuse system, birthplace of Ford Prefect and of course the name of Burton’s hyperactive bio-exorcist). In the novel the hero discovers that humans were once the rulers of the planet due to the discovery of a doll (a scene played out in the first film) at an archaeological dig. Realising that the human inhabitants have through their own ancestors created their evolutionary decline he starts the journey home with his new (human) family, across the stars and back to an Earth that he left, due to relativistic differences, hundreds of years previously. When he arrives he is delighted to see that the symbol of his home, the Eiffel Tower (Eiffel was also the designer of the Statue of Liberty), is still standing proud over the Paris skyline. And then he realises that the reception committee that greets him is entirely simian in nature; Earth has succumbed to the same fate as its distant cousin. Burton’s film similarly sees a return to Earth from the stars but this time our hero faces the Lincoln memorial only to discover that the features are that of his ape arch rival Thade (quite how this can happen is probably best left quite alone, call it co-incidence – probably the same co-incidence that saw Burton’s scriptwriters coming up with an identical ending to Kevin Smith, not that Smith was bitter about Superman Lives or promoting Jay and Silent Bobs Return of course…) and that Washington is now in ape hands. It is alleged that up to five different endings were filmed in order to throw internet speculation and gauge the most appropriate one to use but in the end they just plumped for the one that had been written down forty years before.

Both film versions, the former for budgetary reasons the later presumably for aesthetic and budgetary reasons, depart quite substantially from the book when it comes to the depiction of the technology available to the apes. In both cases the apes are fairly primitive, even tribal, in their attire and the level of technology they possess. Apes are codified by their costumes that are in general sectorial robes or leather armour – tribal codification. The military apes in the first film version wield nothing more sophisticated than rifles (in the films breathtaking introduction to the apes dominance of the planet we are shown the systematic rounding-up, hunting and slaughtering of the terrified human tribes. It is actually the films best scene and normally overshadowed by the ending. In the aftermath the proud hunters take pictures of themselves posing by mounds of human corpses, just as the American pioneers did to the buffaloes and the Indians) but Burton’s apes are denied even this level of destruction – the solitary remaining gun is in the possession of Thade’s dying father (ironically played by gun totting Charlton Heston) as a reminder of the destructive streak in human-kind – Burton’s apes may well have a highly disciplined army but in some sense you wonder what for, there seems no need for war and until the arrival of the outsider there is no serious implication of a human threat. In contrast the book sees ape society as technologically on par with our own. Partly this stagnation of technology is seen as proof of apes ability to mimic but not create but is used primarily as a satirical device in which we hold a mirror up to our own society. The apes in Boulles novel are (depending on status) exquisitely tailored, follow fashion and are a ‘civilised’ society in the same sense that ours is. The lack of technology in the film versions dilutes the satire on our society that makes the book work so well as a plea for (for want of a better term) humanity; by primitivising the apes we are removed from them, we can side with the humans rather than despise their snivelling subservience and apathy towards progression. Obviously some elements remain but the gap between humans and apes is shortened by each subsequent film (even in the sequels to the first one) so that by Tim Burton’s version the ape dominance seems to be down as much to luck as it does to evolution. Burton prefers not to have his apes perform human tasks to mimic them but to exceed them; his guitarists are more dextrous, his card sharks have more sleeve hiding opportunities than their human counterparts and so on. But while there are some elements of Boulle (the human dancing to the barrel organ playing ape for example) these are purely for humour value rather than conveying any sense of social commentary. In contrast the first film version has higher aspirations in using its apes to portray America’s guilt at its treatment of its indigenous population, the rise in anti-racism protests and the involvement of the US in the Vietnam war. It is about as liberal as a Hollywood blockbuster gets and, coupled with the downbeat ending, would be unlikely to be green-lit in today’s anodyne marketplace – certainly as a PG-rated “family” movie. Unfortunately it is these politics, together with Heston’s earnestly stone-faced performance that have dated the film rather than the effects (opening excepted). Indeed about the only aspect of the apes themselves that seems dated is directly comparing them to the astonishing work by Rick Baker on Burton’s film, by all other standards they are exemplary examples of the make-up art at its best (and highly deserving of the special Oscar that was awarded to it – make-up as a separate category was still over a decade away).

Boulle’s apes (or rather more specifically Boulle’s chimpanzee’s – the simians most curious and likely to forward ape thinking) hypothesise that the reason for their superiority over the humans in evolutionary terms is down to their ability to move and conceptualise in three dimensions with greater ease than their less agile and dextrous relations. In this respect the apes mastery over the vertignal aspects of their environment coupled with their more versatile four limbs provide them a distinct advantage. In Schaffner’s* film the apes have to all intents and purposes become bipedal in nature and two dimensional in outlook whilst Burton’s reign in three dimensional space; swinging from beams, scurrying up walls, switch perspectives depending upon which limb is holding on and performing incredible leaps as they scamper atop the forest canopy.

Another decision in the recent release is the dropping of the apes caste system as well as integrating other forms of simian into the narrative. Boulle and Schaffner* have their apes split into three distinct species that also denote the apes job/characteristics; gorilla’s are hunters and warriors, orang-utans are the political and administrative personnel who lack original thought while the chimpanzees are the creators and scientists, inquisitive and artistic. Naturally our hero sides with the later camp because the other groups are products of unthinking group indoctrination or self-interest regardless of consequence. Indeed it is the chimpanzees that recognise his ability to communicate and think; heresy to ape doctrine. So much are the chimpanzees willing to consider the unthinkable that they risk their own futures in order for the truth to be known in the name of science. This group identification helps the audience/reader in quickly assessing essentially alien social situations, provides political/social allegory and prevents matters getting bogged-down in over explanation. In Burton’s world there is no caste system (although there is still a hierarchical power structure) to separate the various breeds. We are meant to identify with this multi-special society and relate it to our own – apes can be good, bad or indifferent regardless of their background, they are individuals. However it is worth noting that once again it is the daughter of a senator (as the presidents daughter does in Mars Attacks!) who has the foresight to recognise the strangers intellect and campaigns for human rights. Quite how these apes manage to spot the otherworldly “sparkle” in Mark Wahlberg is anyone’s guess, maybe it’s the clothes, because he is not alone in being able to speak, all the other humans also have this ability. The only thing that marks him out is that he does not buy into human servility and actively rebels against it. Whatever the other humans hatred of their ape masters they don’t bother to do anything about it until they are shown the way by an extra-terrestrial, who they follow just as blindly as the apes. Will they never learn, give it twenty years after the Captain set off back home and the apes will be back in power once more.

Key to much of Tim Burton’s oeuvre is his adoption of that B-movie staple the mad scientist, either in malign or benign form (think the Inventor in Edward Scissorhands, Alfred in Batman, Vincent, the Martians, Ichabod Crane etc) which allows him the opportunity to do grotesque things (witness the creatures in Nightmare Before Christmas) and introduce surreal imagery in a genre acceptable way. Not so Planet of the Apes which hardly skims the surface and remains the films most puzzling omission – Boulles novel introduces us to several experiments on the caged humans and *’s relationship with the sympathetic scientist chimpanzee * is the main hook to his escape and his discovery of ape culture. It is through his ability to talk that he finally convinces * as to his work although he spends some time trying to master elements of the ape language (despite the American origin of speech in Burton’s film the centuries since its adoption would have altered its pattern and goes little way to explaining how the humans too have a spoken history prior to this intervention). Eventually he discovers that vivisection on humans is being performed to ascertain the level of their primal ability to communicate and to remove any blockages in their brains. Shocked he realises that these are no different to the experiments humans perform on apes back on Earth, and even humans on humans. While the original film necessarily tones these elements down they still provide a central core to the story and go some way to explaining the affair between * and Nova (Burton wittily places his own beau Lisa Marie in the role of Nova but has her as an ape – the film favours apes sexually as more interesting than the humans too) as well as contrasting *’s fate with that of the now pacified/lobotomised Prof. * (Burton’s production has only one person land on the planet, both the book and film have three survive the impact). On the question of sex this is again toned down in the original film as in the book the parties first encounter with humans is the naked Nova whom they try to coax like a pretty animal while later * spends many nights sleeping with her and is even forced into sexual intercourse with her in his cell in order to maintain his companion and provide his ape scientist captors with information on the mating habits of humans, hence justifying his worth as a subject. This is all implied in the Heston version but the book goes further and even touches on the concept of ape/human sex, an arrangement that the books hero seems to be willing to try in order to show his gratitude for his ape saviour and deepest friend but which is curtailed when * admits that “I can’t, you’re just too ugly!” The prospects for Ari and C* to get it on in Tim Burton’s version really seems likely but is swiftly brushed aside in favour of the more ‘audience friendly’ sight of Marky Mark snogging a Canadian synchronised swimmer. Cop out. Despite expectations for inter-special sex it is plain (12/PG-13 rating not withstanding) that such an encounter was unlikely, Burton only ever seems to film sex for comedic value and in very small doses – only the Martian windscreen-wipered voyeurs in Mars Attacks! and the brief intrusion on two apes in kinky foreplay as Ari leads the human captives out of the ape city spring to mind.

All three versions of Planet of the Apes offer much for the observer/reader to enjoy but perhaps surprisingly Tim Burton’s version is the weakest on all bar some technical levels, reducing any political subtext of its predecessors in favour of ‘safe’ box-office returns (it has already exceeded its budget in terms of box-office). It should be pointed out that the original film was a blockbuster of its day and in no way the B-movie that some modern commentators have called it in order to fix in with Burton’s famous love of the B-movie aesthetic. It is surprising that such an overtly political movie could come out of a major studio (ironically it is lower budget B-movies that generally offer social subtext that big studios can ill afford to take the financial risk on) but at that time the studios were in turmoil and willing to tackle mature subjects in a science-fiction context (Heston would spend the next few years bringing his ‘biblical’ style of action hero to the socially concious science-fiction blockbuster in films such as Soylent Green and The Omega Man). Ultimately the book is more universally philisophical than either film version (if Burton’s film even has a philosophy!) and still reads well as a product not just of its time but beyond it too.