“Yes, you’ve finally made a monkey out of me”
As you might recall, I had never seen the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes until earlier this year, as AMC ran it as part of the 50th anniversary celebration. It’s one of those movies that you know so much about even if you haven’t seen it, so I knew quite a lot, but still enjoyed it. Most people know, however, that the movie diverges wildly from the French source novel, perhaps most notably in that the apes in the novel live in cities and dress like the people of the time it was published (1963). The novel also doesn’t actually take place on Earth, nor is the protagonist an astronaut, but the shift from an urban setting to the more primitive living arrangements of the apes in the movie is a big one. And, as most people also know, the first draft of the screenplay did not make this shift. Rod Serling wrote the original screenplay, and he kept the urban setting (Serling knew a thing or two about twist endings, so he changed the ending into the famous one we know and love). However, the budget would have been far too big for 20th Century Fox, the studio that finally agreed to do the movie, so the screenplay was reworked by a new writer, and the more primitive ape society was used. Such is life.
The Serling screenplay, however, is now realized in comic-book form, as Boom! decided to do an adaptation of it. Dana Gould and Chad Lewis bring it to us in a nice hardcover, and it’s quite interesting. Let’s take a look!
Much like the movie, we begin on a spaceship, and the astronauts are going into suspended animation. Upon landing (it’s a good landing, not a crash like in the movie), they discover that one of their number has died in transit, making them question exactly how long they’ve been asleep (it’s a man who dies, not a woman, but otherwise, it’s basically the same scene). The other three decide to head out, and they discover the primitive humans before the apes come to round them up. One is shot and killed, the other is injured in the head, and the third is shot in the throat. The latter two are taken prisoner.
So far, so the same. It’s when they get to captivity that things start to change a bit, as the main character – named Thomas here, not Taylor (John Thomas, rather unfortunately, but almost no one uses his first name) discovers the complex civilization of the apes. Instead of regaining his voice after a long chase through a bunch of adobe huts, he regains it as they’re about to perform brain surgery on him, and he doesn’t say the iconic line about the “damned dirty apes.” He becomes a public sensation, too, as Dr. Zira takes him under her wing and introduces him to ape society. Nova is around, but she has both far less to do than in the movie and a more crucial role. In the movie, she gets plenty of screen time and becomes Heston’s lover, but in this book, Thomas may or may not be having sex with her, but he’s definitely training her to be “human,” a role she learns quickly. It ends more tragically than the movie does, but pretty much at the same place (well, not on the beach, but with the epic shot).
So why should you care? Why not just watch the movie, which features manly man Chuck Heston? Well, this book is more philosophical than the movie (the movie hinted at it, but not too much). The apes are far more civilized, so Serling/Gould can parallel them with humans in the 1960s, and it works better as an allegory than the movie. The movie did more with the divisions within ape society, but Gould gets more into the fear the apes feel about Thomas. Dr. Zaius wants to erase Taylor in the movie because of religious reasons, but in this book, his reasoning is more credible – he has heard Thomas speak of human society, and he fears the warfare and strife that comes with it. Zira tells Thomas that the humans breed faster than the apes, and they need to be culled once or twice a year or they will soon outnumber the apes. Zaius tells Thomas that he doesn’t want to learn about human civilization, because that means they would know how to kill each other better. The irony, of course, is that the apes are brutal in their maintenance of the status quo, meting out violence on the humans to keep them docile. Gould make the connection between the way humans treat animals, of course, but even after the apes know Thomas is intelligent and even after they know Nova can learn quickly, they still use violence to squash any hope of a human renaissance. It’s chilling because there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s the same thing humans would do, and it’s cruelly ironic because the apes, naturally, claim to be above such base emotions. Plenty of humans think they are, too.
Lewis doesn’t do anything spectacular with the art, but he’s a solid collaborator. He keeps things on an even keel, and he makes sure that the misc-en-scene is very good, whether Thomas is in the desert, the jungle, or the city. When Thomas gets to the city, the art takes off, as Lewis creates some almost noir panels to give the book a paranoia feel, which works well with Thomas’s plight. His apes are wonderful, too – he gives them hair that becomes mustaches on some faces and beards on others, without forgetting that they’re apes. Zaius is drawn with a kindly face (he’s much nicer in this comic than he is in the movie), with an avuncular air about him as he tries to puzzle out what’s going on. Zira is definitely feminine, which Lewis achieves by giving her slightly less facial hair, a slightly more rounded face, and features that are not quite as flat as the males. It’s very well done. He also does a great job making the apes look and act “human,” which makes their few “animalistic” scenes even more disturbing, as it’s obvious that Gould and Lewis are comparing them to humans when they, too, become “animals.” Lewis is very good at walking that thin line between “civilized” and “savage,” and he’s able to show both sides of the ape society. The final scene, where Thomas is confronted with the truth of his situation, is very powerful – not as operatic as the movie, but in some ways more emotionally wrenching. Lewis needs to handle the subtlety of the script, and he does so very nicely.
If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the broad beats of this comic, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from picking it up. It’s less of an action movie (although there is action) and more of a rumination on what makes us civilized, which is a hoary old theme but one that works in skilled hands, and Gould/Serling does nice work with it. Even if you’re not a fan of the Apes franchise, this is a fascinating comic to read, so there’s no reason not to click on the link below and check it out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆