From book to screen, exploring 50 Years of Planet of the Apes
The true father of the Apes? That would be an author named Pierre Boulle.
But the forefather of fifty-years of Planet of the Apes stories couldn’t have known what he had on his hands. The flood of success enjoyed by 1968’s Planet of the Apes and its sequels even took Boulle, the author of the franchise’s inspirational novel, completely by surprise.
La Planete des Singes was one of several books Boulle published following his 1952 bestseller The Bridge over the River Kwai, which itself was made into an Oscar-winning film and sold millions of copies worldwide. By comparison, Boulle deemed Planete unfilmable due to its depiction of a technologically advanced, distant future, but it was exactly this otherworldly appeal that made the book so wildly popular. There was no denying that this adventure was written to be realized on film--it was only a matter of time.
Afterwards, Boulle himself sat down to write a screenplay for a sequel to Planet of the Apes, and even though his own rendition was ultimately turned down by the film’s producers, the phenomenon of the Ape Planet had begun.
After five films, it’s hard to believe Planet of the Apes was never an easy sell.
In reality, the franchise was a work of metamorphosis before it took up a single frame on film. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs purchased the movie rights to the book, and proceeded to navigate a sea of shaken heads from Hollywood.
One of its original scripts, written by The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, was ultimately rejected because bringing a technologically advanced ape society to life on screen would simply cost too much. Director Franklin J. Shaffner suggested the apes’ society be scaled back to a more primitive iteration, and with that direction, formerly blacklisted writer Michael Wilson was brought in to rewrite Serling’s script.
It was only after Jacobs’ success producing 1964’s What a Way to Go! for 20th Century Fox, a completed script and story art, and a successful makeup footage test, did Jacobs manage to convince Fox vice-president Richard D. Zanuck to finally give Planet of the Apes the green light.
Emerging from the Cold War era with anti-war sentiments, gangster film revivals, and a soft spot for caveman films like One Million Years BC (1966), the 1960s in film also harbored a love of unconventional characters.
1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, for example, featured a heroic pair of criminals in a top-down subversion of Great Depression gangster films.
Fellow 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey featured a villain AI, Hal 9000, who was neither alive, nor technologically feasible at the time.
Similarly, Planet of the Apes introduced audiences to another anti-heroic main protagonist in Astronaut Taylor, whose cynical and antisocial persona challenged tropes of the time.
In the years afterwards, Charlton Heston, who played Taylor, went on to star in a series of apocalyptic sci-fi films, including 1971’s The Omega Man.
What Boulle considered his worst novel became a staple sci-fi franchise with five films in the original series, TV series adaptations, numerous comic and graphic novel adaptations, a modern re-imagining of the original film, and today’s three-part series reboot. Planet of the Apes also became one of the very first films to tell a multi-part story over a series of complete films.
In the area of film marketing, Planet of the Apes sparked the 70s’ “Ape-mania” craze, including the production of collectible merchandise and action figures which would later inspire marketing efforts for Star Wars and the Indiana Jones films later in the same decade.
The series also revolutionized movie-making technology. Planet of the Apes had one of the largest makeup and effects budgets of its time, making it possible for the innovative makeup techniques presented on screen.
In fact, while makeup and effects would not be honored with their own official Oscars category until the 1980s, Makeup Artist John Chambers was presented an honorary award for his work nonetheless--by a chimpanzee in a tuxedo, of course!