In one of Hollywood’s greatest unrealized “what if” scenarios, the legendary Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) was hired to write the original screenplay to help bring Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, La Planète des singes, to the big screen. Only Serling’s script was never used, at least not fully, though vestiges of what might have been – including the plot’s basic structure and characterizations – would survive in the final version of the 1968 classic The Planet of the Apes.
And yet, despite four direct sequels, two television series (one animated), Tim Burton’s 2001 remake and a new trilogy of films featuring outstanding motion-capture from actor Andy Serkis, Serling’s script lay untouched, just waiting to be rediscovered. For whatever reason this task has fallen to, inexplicably, comedian Dana Gould, best known for his work with Ben Stiller and tenure on The Simpsons. He may seem an odd choice to resurrect Serling’s unused work, but the new graphic novel The Planet of the Apes Visionaries proves he was the right one.
An illustrated retelling of Serling’s original screenplay, Gould (with artist Chad Lewis + spectacular cover by Paolo Rivera) comes just as the film celebrates its 50th anniversary, paying homage to both Serling’s original concepts and what would eventually become one of the most beloved movies of all-time. As such, this graphic novel cannot exist entirely on its own merits – that genie’s out of the bottle. The general plot is familiar: a spacecraft of humans land on an ‘alien’ planet, discovering its inhabitants consist of not just fellow humanoids, but ape-like creatures who appear as evolved as they are.
What follows from this point can be thought almost as an experiment in evolutionary storytelling, a forking of ideas as to how Boulle’s original concept could have been told. Gould’s visually exciting tribute works best as a companion to the groundbreaking movie that began our love affair with all-things-apes in the first place.
To fully get the most from Planet of the Apes Visionaries it helps to be familiar with two similar, yet very different interpretations of the source material. The first, of course, is the original 1968 film starring Charlton Heston and featured John Chambers’ iconic, Oscar-winning makeup + designs for the various apes, chimpanzees and gorillas. Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton) helped craft the rarest of things; a movie as close to cinematic perfection as we’re likely to see, a confluence of talent that struck at exactly the right time and place. It’s become so beloved that even its flaws and imperfections are celebrated,
The second would be the original 1966 test footage that featured Heston as Thomas (not Taylor), with Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Zaious in the character’s original makeup and prosthetics performing a read of Serling’s original dialogue. Robinson would bow out from the project, citing health reasons, though he would reunite one last time with Heston in Soylent Green, which proved to be his final screen credit. James Brolin and Linda Harrison played early versions of Cornelius and Zira, though both sported makeup that looked more like René Auberjonois’ Star Trek character Odo than anything ape-like. As Roddy McDowall would eventually assume the Cornelius role and Kim Hunter the Zira one (to say nothing of Harrison’s sexbomb loincloth recast as Nova), we definitely traded up.
Despite only lasting a few minutes, the test footage showcases enough conceptual artwork and design elements that it served as the basis for Gould and Lewis’ aesthetic choices, a wise choice as this further emphasizes what the original film might have looked like had Serling’s script been realized instead of the designs that would earn John Chambers an honorary Academy Award.
BOOM! Studios could’ve scraped the DeviantArt barrel for talent on the cheap (goodness knows few franchises are as furry-friendly as POTA). Instead, we have artist Chad Lewis rendering Serling’s original concepts in a classic 60s-era look that perfectly matches the mood and temperament of the material, as EC’s Wally Wood might have drawn them during the actual period.
That you probably won’t recognize the redesigned characters from their cinematic versions works in the book’s favor, allowing us to accept this interpretation on its own terms. As the book’s visual centerpiece, the Ape City, is presented here as wonderfully transgressive – so close to our own world, yet different in ways that would make sense for their species (such as crosswalks with handlebars), or delightfully perverse moments like Capuchin humans tethered to their ape masters. Lewis fills the backgrounds with lots of incidental details that make it fun to go back and spot what you might’ve missed.
Other times its just seeing the utter banality of this species-flipped universe that are most interesting, such as crowded auditoriums or zoos, which also serve as reminders of how many of Serling’s smaller ideas would be reworked in later Apes films, such as Thomas being trod out to throngs of unbelieving spectators (see 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes for this scene, only flipped).
To be honest, after reading through POTA Visionaries I can’t help but feel the right choices were made at the time, at least in service to the original film. As a storyteller, few could match Rod Serling’s innate ability to capture the very essence of the cultural zeitgeist, and his take on POTA had everything he’d managed to showcase during the original Twilight Zone episodes; wildly creative and ambitious, with just the right mix of melodrama with the unexplained.
This may have worked on television, but less so in film. Ultimately, his script was rejected. Instead, the studio would hire acclaimed screenwriter Michael Wilson (uncredited due to his blacklisting during the height of McCarthyism, he helped bring another Pierre Boulle classic to the silver screen, The Bridge on the River Kwai) to rework Serling’s ideas into something more manageable, i.e. filmable.
In this respect Serling was in good company; Boulle, whose original story would help birth the entire franchise, actually wrote a direct sequel to the film that was also rejected. Called “Planet of the Men”, it would have Taylor (Heston’s character) recovering from the shock of realizing that ape planet was Earth all along, eventually leading a human rebellion against their ape overlords. As with Serling’s script, it was deemed ‘unfilmable’ at the time, though some ideas would reappear in later Apes films, albeit in slightly altered form.
The original Planet of the Apes film has survived all attempts to remake and/or replace it over the years, yet no challenger has proven to be as singularly loved – or culturally relevant. Arriving just in time to celebrate a half-century of ape domination, Planet of the Apes Visionaries is an excellent companion to not just the original movie, but the entire franchise. At long last, we get to see how Rod Serling’s post-Twilight Zone screenplay might have looked had 20th Century Fox put his words to celluloid. Dana Gould/Chad Lewis’ exemplary graphic novel proves just how malleable this story can be, as all great stories are – even ones with anthropomorphic apes. Especially ones with anthropomorphic apes.