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Let's Reminisce: Planet of the Apes: The (accidental) making of a media franchise
By Jerry Lincecum
Sep 13, 2017
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When one reviews his/her life story, often it becomes apparent that a small decision or action sets off a chain of events resulting in HUGE results.  The same is true of the classic film entitled Planet of the Apes (1968).  It was based on a 1963 novel by French author Pierre Boulle, La Planete des Singes, translated into English first as Monkey Planet and then as Planet of the Apes.  Boulle considered this novel a “minor” work of social satire: he wrote it in 6 months, after the "humanlike expressions" of gorillas at the zoo inspired him to contemplate the relationship between man and ape.

Like Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, Boulle used the framework of travel to a foreign land, and he didn’t think of his novel as science fiction.  But film producer Arthur Jacobs hired Rod Serling (creator of The Twilight Zone) to adapt it as science fiction, and when the movie burst on the scene in 1968 movie audiences embraced it (the timing was right, with men orbiting the earth and a lunar landing imminent).  It broke box office records and earned several Academy Award nominations, giving a big boost to the careers of Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter.

Predictably, the success of that first film resulted in the making of four sequels between 1970 & ’73, and each of them was popular with audiences (though panned by critics).  There were also two TV series in ’74 & ’75, and episodes from them were later repackaged as TV movies.

In 1999, 20th Century Fox commissioned a new script and director Tim Burton was hired to “re-imagine” Planet of the Apes.  With a budget of  $100 million, his version opened in 2001 and was again successful.  By this time the movie had given rise to what is now known as a “multi-media franchise,” with all kinds of merchandising tie-ins (comics, books, video games and toys).

A new “reboot” film series began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014 & War for the Planet of the Apes (currently showing).  All told the films have grossed over $1.8 billion, against a combined cost of $567 million.  The success of this media franchise established a new model, with studios developing films specifically to generate multi-media franchises (that earned mega-millions in profits).

The classic film group I belong to screened the original film last month, and our discussion revealed the extent to which it explored issues and themes that characterized our society in the 1960s.  Boulle’s book had depicted a voyage to a distant planet where speechless, animalistic humans are hunted and enslaved by an advanced society of apes.  But some apes were more equal than others within the simian society, however, as gorillas, baboons, and chimpanzees competed for dominance.  Eventually it was discovered that humans once dominated the planet until their complacency allowed the more industrious apes to overthrow them. The novel's central message was that human intelligence is not a fixed quality and could atrophy if taken for granted.

Rod Serling’s script added themes emerging in American society of the mid-60s, such as generational conflict (“Don’t trust anyone over 30!”), Civil Rights unrest, and Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust.  The finale, in which the protagonist comes upon a ruined Statue of Liberty and realizes he has been on Earth all along, became the defining scene of the movie (as well as the entire series), and also one of the most iconic images in 1960s film.  The sequels develop the idea of a cyclical pattern in which apes and humans alternate being the dominant species (versus the underdog which audiences identify with).

If you’d like to join the Classic Film Group in Sherman, we meet on the second Wednesday of each month at the community center of Covenant Presbyterian Church at 6 p.m.  Our next film, on Sept. 13, is The Graduate (1967), another social satire that proved to be far more popular and consequential than its creators expected.   However, it did not become a billion dollar media franchise.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at jlincecum@me.com.