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Planet of the Apes (1968) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review



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Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes

Film adaptations that improve upon the source material are a rare thing, since the demands of one medium are often at odds with the style of another. Rewatching the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes for the first time after reading the novel, however, I can say that, even though Pierre Boulle's novel is excellent in its own right, this is one of those rare things: a movie that is better than the book. As I've already discussed the film at length in a video retrospective review, this article will focus on why it works in translation, what it does to the story that improves upon its source material.

For starters, there's the decision to make the protagonist the misanthrope of the story. In the novel, that role is filled by Professor Antelle, who goes completely feral and winds up living in ignorant bliss at a zoo, not dissimilar to the film's character of Landon, whose degeneration is explained by lobotomization. In the film, Taylor, as played by Charlton Heston, has a much more dynamic character arc than the relatively milquetoast Ulysse Mérou of the novel. Taylor goes from being disillusioned by humanity to showing pride for it, even going so far as to rub Dr. Zaius' face in it when he learns that the ape culture got its technology from an earlier human civilization. Then, of course, in the famous ironic final twist, he is shown to have been right about mankind's stupidity all along.

As for that twist, it is a sheer stroke of brilliance, inserted into the story by one of Rod Serling's many failed attempts to create a viable screenplay. This solves a lot of the book's narrative conveniences, such as the fact that a nearly identical evolutionary tree sprouted on an alien world that is somehow perfectly (physically) hospitable to humans from another planet. It manages to recontextualize the thematic punch of the novel without taking away the shock of its twist ending, even though the twists are quite different. Granted, the fact that intelligent ape evolution has to have happened within 2,000 years (not to mention the impossible formation of fossils in that time span) is a bit contrived, even if you want to argue that nuclear fallout accelerated the process.

Planet of the Apes
Is it too late for a spoiler alert?

The themes are a little less sociologically grandiose in the film, less concerned with the nature of intelligence (though that is still present, albeit in toned down form) and more concerned with issues of warfare. The screenplay also tweaks the underlying satire, changing the European classism that is skewered in the novel into more of a focus on American racism, not to mention the heavier emphasis on religious fundamentalism.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes is the ape technology. In the novel, the apes are at a nearly identical level with humanity in the mid-Twentieth Century, complete with cars, helicopters, and even primitive rockets. This is necessary for the narrative in order to give Mérou a way off the planet, and it allows for a bit more exploration of the assumptions of evolutionary theory. The idea of evolution is still present in the film, and some lip service is given to the idea that interpreting the causes and effects of evolution can be a tricky and subjective business. However, it's not front and center. One positive is that, because of the twist, this lack of technology can be seen as a purposeful rejection by those in power of the same tools and weapons humans once used to nearly destroy the world.

Planet of the Apes
Let's face it: the movie owes everything to Heston

This change in intelligent ape culture, despite its perfect fit with the narrative, was driven by the needs of filmmaking at the time. The movie didn't have a huge budget, and it arguably would have looked much goofier to see apes driving cars and helicopters on the big screen. Alas, this also required sacrificing one of the neatest ideas of the novel, which is that evolved apes would inevitably be more three-dimensional, climbing on scaffolds and making more efficient use of interior space. You can almost see this represented in the design of the primitive ape city of the film, but it's so subtle you won't notice unless you're looking for it.

One thing I have only grown to respect more after reading the book is Linda Harrison's performance as Nova. I would never call her a great actress, and I know Harrison only got the part because she was dating the producer. However, she absolutely nails Nova's characterization from the novel, especially in the scene where she smiles for the first time. The film does omit the pregnancy subplot, but given how difficult it would have been to include the forced mating scene in the film, that's easily forgivable.

Planet of the Apes
That's the look of someone smiling for the very first time

The fact that our hero gets shot in the throat and is mute for a good portion of the film also demonstrates how cleverly the narrative adapts to the needs of the film. The apes speak English, which is why this plot beat needed to be included. No doubt the reason they speak English is so the film would be watchable to wide audiences that tend to have little patience for extensive subtitles. However, thanks to the film's big twist, the apes' English is actually an important clue as to their origins, and even though the language would no doubt have changed in 2,000 years, it's not implausible that they would adopt the language of the land they live in (presumably the East coast of North America).

I could go on to talk about other things like Dr. Zaius and the added action sequences, but sufficed to say, 1968's Planet of the Apes is a masterclass in how best to craft a film adaptation of a great novel. It contains the same basic plot outline as Boulle's story, but it makes several changes--some of them dramatic--to better suit a different medium. These changes, far from being merely cosmetic or inconvenient, inform a slightly different tone and direction for the narrative and are chosen with care and deliberation. That's one of the reasons--though not the only one--that 1968's Planet of the Apes is one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made.



-e. magill 10/14/2021


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SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS:

BattyBatFirebrand
Chris Connell
David Murray
Diane Magill-Davis
John Burrill
Myk OConnor
Paul Kyriazi
Sylar Magician
Warren Davis


Become a Patron today!
patreon.com/emagill


PLANET OF THE APES:
  • Planet of the Apes (novel)
  • Planet of the Apes (1968)
  • Beneath the Planet of the Apes
  • Escape from the Planet of the Apes
  • Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
  • Battle for the Planet of the Apes
  • Planet of the Apes (2001)
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • War for the Planet of the Apes

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