Planet of the Apes – Variation on a Theme

The book was better than the film. How many times have you heard that? A lot I bet. When a book translates into another medium like films it becomes restrained by budget, run times, practical effects, and other factors. The story is usually altered to fit the medium. In the case of Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle, it is no different. When we compare the novel to the 1968 film starring Charlton Heston, there is a large deviation in the story. To understand the gap between the two we must look at the missing link, the original screenplay written by Rod Serling. Planet of the Apes: Visionaries a graphic novel by Boom Studios is Rod Serling screenplay adapted for sequential art. Though Serling’s screenplay is rewritten by another author for the 1968 film, it is the missing link that bridges the gap between the novel and the film.

Warning! The following will contain spoilers. I greatly encourage any ape fan to enjoy the source material I present here for themselves before I spoil any of the plot twists. The original novel and 1968 movies are easily found, while the graphic novel might be harder to come by.

Before we compare the three, it’s important to first have a little history lesson about them. La Planète des singes (its original French title) or Planet of the Apes to US audiences and Monkey Planet to UK audiences, written by French author Pierre Boulle published in 1963. At the time Pierre Boulle was best known for his novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (The Bridge over the River Kwai), but it didn’t take long for Planet of the Apes to get noticed. Film producer Arthur P. Jacobs purchased the rights to the novel to create it as a motion picture even before the author finished it.

While Arthur P. Jacobs was looking for a studio to produce his picture, Rod Serling, of “The Twilight Zone” fame, wrote the original screenplay for it. Rod produced many versions but they were ultimately rejected due to high production costs. The screenplay was given to Michael Wilson, a previously blacklisted Hollywood screenplay writer, to rework. His version proved more cost-effective and moved further away from the novel and Rod’s screenplay. In 2018 Boom Studios published a graphic novel based on Rod’s screenplay called Planet of the Apes: Visionaries.

Most people are familiar with the 1968 movie. It was a box office success and has become part of pop culture. Three astronauts become stranded on a distant planet, similar to there own. They find human inhabitants who act primitively. Much to their surprise, apes rule the planet. Talking apes! Captured by the apes in a human hunt only one of the astronauts survives. For the rest of the movie, we follow this lone survivor, George Taylor, as he fights for his human rights, of which he has none under ape law. In the end, he discovers that he is not on some distant backward planet. He is on Earth in the future after it’s destroyed by man; leaving it in ruins. It’s a fantastic movie, but not the novel Pierre Boulle wrote.

Pierre Boulle’s story is about a journalist, who accompanies two others on a long space journey. Upon arriving, the explorers discover the planet has savage humans and civilized sentient apes living in modern societies, much like their own. The journalist gets caught up in a human hunt and captured. He learns the ape’s language and pleads for his life which is granted. Freed, he lives among the apes and has a romantic relationship with a native human, Nova, who bears him a son. With the aid of his ape friends, the trio escapes the planet.

Rod Serling’s screenplay is the bridge between the novel and the film. The screenplay follows the novel more closely, but not exact. Rod adds in his ideas and reworks parts of the story to make it his own. The finished work is a blend of the two. How much? For the answer, we’ll compare the stories of each side by side. Looking at the similarities and differences between them.

We’ll look are each one starting with Pierre Boulle’s work. In the novel, Ulysse Mérou, a journalist, joined the expedition into space with Professor Antelle, physician Arthur Levain, and a chimpanzee named Hector who dies with their first meeting with the primitive humans. In Visionaries, the beginning characters are Jonny Thomas, LaFever, Dodge, and Stewart, who died just as quick as Stewart in the film. In the film, we have Colonel George Taylor, a.k.a. Taylor or Bright Eyes, John Landon, Dodge, and the lovely Lieutenant Stewart, who didn’t survive very far past the opening credits.

The crew of each story traveled to a distant point in the sky that took two years to reach; a planet orbiting Betelgeuse which they named Soror (novel), Terra (Visionaries), and a planet orbiting the star Bellatrix in the constellation of Orion (film).

Their arrival on the planet of the apes is different from each other. The novel has the ship assume an orbit in space while the crew disembarked in a landing vessel to the surface. Visionaries the ship lands on the planet safely. In the film, the spaceship crashes into a lake. From there, the crews of each ship explores the planet by foot (novel & film) and a roving vehicle (Visionaries).

Each crew’s journey brings them to a body of water where they first encounter native man; a lake with a waterfall (novel & film) and a sea or very large lake (Visionaries). In each version, the native humans are mute with less intelligence than the astronauts. In the film and graphic novel, humans wear animal skins while in the novel they wear nothing at all. The natives in the novel are afraid of the crews’ clothing. They keep their distance until the crew fully disrobe. The graphic novel portrays a similar fear, but the crew only partially disrobe. The film doesn’t show us the human’s reaction to the crew’s clothes, but the natives do destroy some of the crew’s discarded clothes. The crews’ interactions with the humans in the film and graphic novel are fairly brief before the next scene, the hunt. Whereas, the crew in the novel spends a considerable amount of time with the humans before they get captured in the hunt.

Accepted by the natives of the planet or living among them as in the novel, our crews find themselves caught in a human hunt. Each group finds themselves herded into a killing/capturing zone by the ape hunters. The novel and film ape hunters use beaters with long poles while in the graphic novel they use helicopters and jeeps. Both Dodge characters and Arthur Levain die in the hunt. Thomas and Taylor both try their best to escape but each takes a bullet to the throat rendering them mute. Ulysse does not get wounded, just captured.

Captured by the apes Ulysse, Thomas, Taylor come under the care of a female chimpanzee named Zira. Zira is a researcher in the novel, a doctor in the graphic novel, and in the film, she is an animal psychologist. Ulysse comes to Zira because he is a good human specimen and Taylor and Thomas for their wounds. All three live in cages in a facility along with other humans. Nova shares a cage with Ulysse and Taylor for mating purposes, while Thomas is alone. There is little interaction between Thomas and Nova. Nova’s interaction with Thomas doesn’t occur until later in the story. This could be an editing decision by Boom Studios. Not all of Rod’s screenplay could fit into the graphic novel and selected parts were omitted.

While under Zira’s care, each meets Dr. Zauis an orangutan; a learned elder (novel), a medical or research official with clout (Visionaries), and a leading member of the Ape National Assembly, Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith (film). All three astronauts exhibit signs of intelligence. Taylor tries to speak but his wound is not healed. Thomas gives Dr. Zira and Zaius the impression he can understand what they say, and Ulysse starts to learn the ape language. At first, he speaks the names of his captors.

Later, the three characters communicate in written form. After going through a series of intelligence tests from Zauis, Zira presents Ulysse with a pad of drawing paper and the two communicate with images. Thomas first tries with his blood on his cage wall but it’s washed away before ever being seen. Taylor tries to communicate, first by writing in the sand in an outdoor cage, but that too goes unnoticed. Both Thomas and Taylor finally succeed when they steal a note pad from Zira. Thomas writes “I can speak. I am a civilized man. I am from another planet.” while Taylor writes “My name is Taylor”.

Once they can communicate with Zira they meet Cornelius, a member of the Academy and Zira’s fiancé (novel), Anthropologist (graphic novel), archaeologist and Zira’s fiancé (film). Thomas and Taylor continue to communicate with the written word until their voices return, while Ulysse continues to speak in their native tongue.

At this point the three stories splinter. They no longer run parallel. Similar events among them do still occur just not in the same order. From here we will be looking at these similar events and put aside their timing in the stories.

Each character stands before an audience to plead their cases for existence. Ulysse pleads for his life to the Academy whom Cornelius is a member of. Ulysse impresses the Academy and given his freedom, a place to live, and a chance to live life as he sees fit. Similarly, Thomas goes before the scientific congress. He tells his story and convinces ape society that he is not a threat. Thomas gets his freedom and the right to exist. He receives a new suit and an apartment. However, Taylor faces a trial where he has no rights. He is granted life with the caveat of forced sterilization.

In time, each character seeks out their crewmates whom they haven’t seen since capture. Ulysse saw Arthur Levain’s death at the hunt, but with Zira helps he find Professor Antelle. The professor lives at a zoo. Upon meeting him, he acts savagely like the natives of the planet. Ulysse believes the professor has gone mad. In Visionaries, Thomas visits a museum to find Dodge stuffed and on display. Later he locates LaFever through Zira’s contacts. He is under the care of another doctor after suffering a severe head wound which renders him mute and unresponsive. Taylor in the film discovers Dodge stuffed and on display in a natural history museum while running amuck through Ape City. Later during his trial, Taylor points out Landon from a group of humans as his crewmate. Landon is unresponsive and bears a lobotomy scar.

Not willing to do nothing, Thomas and Taylor escape their captures unaided at least once in their stories; Ulysse makes no attempt. Thomas hides in the back of a food truck among the fresh bundles of vegetables and fruits. The truck drives him into Ape City where he runs wild until finally captured. Taylor tricks and overpowers his guard to escape his imprisonment. Taylor then runs through Ape City until he’s caught with a net.

The netting of Taylor in the film is an iconic moment. It is the first time that the character speaks in front of apes. It’s where he says “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” All the apes within earshot are all taken back. Ulysse’s first words to his captures were their names Zira, Zaious, and his guards spoken in the ape language. Thomas’s first word bursts out while he’s strapped to a gurney awaiting his lobotomy. Thomas struggled to free himself. He panics and shouts “No!” followed by “Leave me alone.” as a sedative filled syringe bears down on him. In all cases, their human exclamations are shocking to their ape captors.

Towards the end, the stories merge again into a shared but alternative narrative. All three visit an archeological dig site at the behest of Cornelius. Each finds a human doll that speaks. In the novel, it speaks “Papa”, while in the graphic novel and film it says “Mama”, signifying that humans came first. This leads to the final scene in the film and the graphic novel. The novel continues beyond this scene before it too ends.

Each story ends with a twist. I’m going to start with the film’s ending and work backward from there. The film’s final scene is iconic and widely known. Taylor and Nova travel down a sandy beach on a horse. Much to Taylor’s horror and Nova’s confusion, they discover the remains of the Statue of Liberty, revealing that Taylor was on Earth.

The graphic novel ends with Thomas on the run from apes that wish him harm. Thomas runs into a field not far from the archeological dig site. He stops in a large clearing and stares up at a towering object just out of view from the reader and shot dead. The last panel is a wide shot of the Statue of Liberty with Thomas’s lifeless body in front of it.

The novel has two twists to its ending. The first twist is Ulysse, Nova, and their newborn son escape the planet of the apes by becoming test subjects on a space rocket. Ulysse uses the apes’ ship to get to his own craft still in orbit. He then travels back to Earth with his family. Upon arriving back in France not far from Paris, he encounters a truck that belongs in a museum. The driver steps out and it’s a gorilla. The second plot twist is the story about Ulysse was nothing more than a piece of fiction found in a bottle floating in space. At the beginning of the novel a couple, Jinn and Phyllis, are sailing through space in their personal space vehicle. Along the way they discover a bottle floating in space and bring it onboard. Inside the bottle is the self-authored story of Ulysse which Jinn reads aloud. At the end of the novel, we learn Jinn and Phyllis are chimpanzees. They believe the tale the fiction of an over-imaginative ape.

One last difference I’d like to point out between the stories’ is their settings. The novel and graphic novel show Ape City as a modern city with the technology of the 1960s with apes in place of humans. The film depicts Ape City as a primitive settlement. Technology is a mixed bag; horses as the main source of transportation, modern firearms, and complex surgical practices.

The “Planet of the Apes” novel, original screenplay, and film shows just how you can alter the story but still keep it the same. As gamemasters, we can do the same with published material, a game run for us based on a published adventure, and our own interpretations of the two. Putting your own spin on other people’s works enhances the experience as long as you stay true to the original intent. Give it a try yourself. It‘s great when you have players who are familiar with the plot but surprised at the deviations, making it a whole new experience.

~Stephen Pennisi

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