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Planet of the Apes was considered unfilmable


The Planet of the Apes The franchise has always faced headwinds in getting its various entries to theater screens. The need for elaborate special effects and the difficulty of making its often complex political overtones work within the confines of a sci-fi show can make production difficult in the extreme. After a long hiatus, punctuated by the ambitious failure of Tim Burton’s adaptation in 2001, the franchise was only saved by the surprise success of 2011. The Ascension of the Planet of the Apes with actor Andy Serkis.

These issues go back to the beginning of the franchise, when the filmmakers struggled with the difficult source material: Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel. The printed page is much more forgiving than the cinema screen in some respects, and indeed, making that leap seemed almost impossible. No one thought the original 1968 film could succeed, let alone Boulle himself.

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According to the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, the author himself was not the work’s biggest fan initially. He considered it “second tier”, and along with his previous novel The Bridge over the River Kwai already adapted into an award-winning cinematic classic in 1958, it didn’t need to prove the merits of its screen work. The prospect of a film version of his novel hit him like lost money: no one would want to see it.

Moreover, the novel itself used a structure that was very difficult to adapt. A framing narrative depicts a pair of astronauts who find a message in space describing the events of the story, which ends with not one, but two ironic twists: the author of the message returns to Earth after having visited the titular planet, only to find it’s also run by clever apes, and the two astronauts reading it turn out to be chimpanzees. It works much easier on the printed page, where selective details are easier to arrange, and surprise twists require much less effort to achieve the desired effect.

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On top of that, the futuristic simian worlds depicted in the novel required considerable expense. This included the buildings of a modern monkey town, vehicles like helicopters and automobiles, and the monkeys themselves, which had never been portrayed in this way on screen. Previous films used real monkeys, adopted expensive stop-motion effects in the style of King Kong, or relied on crude and unconvincing costumes. Richard Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox who had the final say on whether the original Planet of the Apes was made or not, correctly assumed that if the audience didn’t believe the clever monkeys on screen were real, the whole movie would fail.

This problem was solved by the revolutionary make-up effects of John Chambers, who had designed facial prostheses for wounded soldiers during World War II. He produced a series of masks and bodily prostheses that – along with strong performances from Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter – made the prospect of intelligent apes oddly plausible. Screenwriter Michael Wilson solved the problem of an advanced ape society – something that had hampered previous screenwriter Rod Serling’s ability to produce a screenplay – by making it more primitive, using wagons and horses instead of vehicles more elaborate (and expensive).

As a result, the film became not just a hit, but a success: aptly achieving the irony and social commentary of Boulle’s book while convincingly portraying “a planet where apes evolved from men”. Boulle’s skepticism was well founded and might have proved true in less inventive hands. It took a number of ingenious decisions to overcome what seemed like impossible challenges and create a lasting film franchise in the process.