Now You Can See Rod Serling’s Version of “Planet of the Apes”
Finding out that Rod Serling was a screenwriter on the 1968 sci-fi classic “Planet of the Apes” often surprises his fans. And yet, as soon as they think of that legendary shock ending, it makes perfect sense.
Note, however, that I said “a” screenwriter. Although he was the first to begin the hard work of adapting Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel to the big screen, he would not be the only one.
That’s certainly not because the producers were unhappy with his work. Far from it. Serling worked on several drafts in the mid-1960s before bowing out of the project.
And even though the final product bears numerous changes, the basic story — including, yes, the ending — is the same. And we can thank Serling for that.
The history of how “Planet of the Apes” went from page to screen is a long and complicated one. It’s not my intention to delve into that here. It could fill a book all its own, frankly.
My focus is simply what would interest just about any fan of Serling and this famous film franchise: What if they had filmed Serling’s version with none of the changes made by screenwriter Michael Wilson?
That’s not to say Wilson wasn’t a talented writer. The man behind “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (also based on a Boulle novel) and other classic films was obviously no amateur when it came to screenplays. Still, Serling was a perfectly capable writer. What was the difference between the two versions, and why were Wilson’s contributions deemed necessary?
The main difference is one of tone. The other consideration was, quite simply, the budget — which, as so often happens in Hollywood, had to be trimmed considerably.
Serling, taking his cue from Boulle, depicted a modern ape civilization. Had his version of the script gone before the cameras, you’d have seen apes in clothes any human being would wear, walking around big cities, driving cars, etc. — basically our world, but with apes and humans having switched places.
Obviously that switch IS what we get in the completed film. But to make it a more economical shoot, the producers put the apes in a more primitive city (a “Flintstones” village, as some have called it). They’re walking or riding horses. It’s all a bit simpler.
Wilson was also responsible for the jokey dialogue we get — things like “I never met an ape I didn’t like,” and “Man see, man do.” Sight gags like the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” tableau are his as well.
Now, like millions of other fans, I enjoy the film we got, so I’m not necessarily complaining. But as a Serling aficionado, I wish we could have seen the film as Serling wrote it.
We don’t have that (yet, anyway — couldn’t someone film it anyway?). But we have the next best thing: a graphic-novel adaptation of his script called “Planet of the Apes Visionaries” by Dana Gould and Chad Lewis.
There we can “read” the movie (and in less time than it would take to watch). We see that the basic structure is the same. We start with Taylor (here named Thomas) and his fellow astronauts landing on a strange world and wondering where and WHEN they are —- and end with Thomas gobsmacked before a familiar green statue.
Some details are the same, like Taylor/Thomas giving us an orienting narration at the beginning. One of the crew doesn’t survive hyper-sleep, as in the final film. But there are some notable differences. They have a sort of Land Rover to drive around in — at least before it gets caught in quicksand and disappears. In the film, they watch as their ship sinks in the small lake they landed in before setting off on foot.
As in the film, they find primitive humans and are pursued by ape hunters. But here the apes arrive in helicopters, not on horseback.
Also as in the film, Thomas is rendered mute (temporarily) during his capture, delaying the moment when the apes are shocked to discover that he can talk. But that moment doesn’t come with a growl about “damn dirty apes,” but with a simple “I can speak” message scrawled in blood on the wall of his cage. And the moment when they finally hear him speak comes as he’s being wheeled along on a hospital gurney.
The biggest difference, as Gould notes in his afterword, is the reveal of the ape city. As Serling described it in his script: “The truck moves slowly down the street. It passes stores with ape mannequins in the window; chimps and monkeys walking back-and-forth on the sidewalk; a gorilla policeman directing traffic; past a movie marquee with a large picture of two monkeys in a passionate embrace.”
There are more differences, of course, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Even if you’re the world’s biggest fan of the 1968 film, I believe you’ll find this alternate version fascinating. You may even like it better. I know I do. It’s certainly more cerebral and less cutesy than the film.
Serling never got to see his initial script filmed. Now, though, through the pages of a professionally drawn graphic novel, we can. Or we can at least get an idea of what it would have looked like. We can turn the pages and take a trip to that strange dimension where apes rule and man is displayed in his “natural habitat”.
Hmmm, I guess Homo sapiens AND simians are alike all over …