Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Screenwriters are the great unsung heroes of Hollywood. Without them there would be no story to tell, no movie to make, yet some of the most ardent film buffs would be hard-pressed to connect such masters as Frank S. Nugent, Ernest Lehman, I.A.L. Diamond, or Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett with beloved movies they wrote (respectively: The Searchers, North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot, and It’s a Wonderful Life). If I rattled off the writers who’ve contributed over the years to the Planet of the Apes franchise, you’d probably draw a blank on all of them except Rod Serling—who was, of course, a TV personality, introducing his own and others’ stories on The Twilight Zone.

This phenomenon seems particularly relevant when considering the Apes cycle, because few of the directors involved could remotely be considered auteurs. (The only ones who come close are Franklin J. Schaffner, who did both the original Apes movie and the Oscar-winning Patton, and Tim Burton, who directed the 2001 remake starring Mark Wahlberg.) Pierre Boulle’s dry SF novel Monkey Planet, optioned by producer Arthur P. Jacobs in the early 60s, bears little resemblance to the sharply satirical script that Serling and screenwriter Michael Wilson cooked up for Planet of the Apes (1968). And no one deserves more credit for keeping the original series going than Paul Dehn, the British poet and screenwriter (Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) who dreamed up the highly imaginative scenarios for the first three sequels.

In fact, the inordinate credit given to Serling for the first movie is only the exception that proves the rule. I can hardly count all the times I’ve read online that Serling devised the shocker ending, in which Charlton Heston stumbles upon a half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizes that he’s been on earth all along. Yet that immortal image was concocted by Jacobs and producer Mort Abrahams, who happened to see a poster of Lady Liberty while discussing the script over lunch at a delicatessen. As Serling confessed to an Apes fan magazine shortly before his death in 1975, little of his writing actually wound up in the movie; his chief contribution was the heavy philosophical debate between the Heston character and Dr. Zaius, the orangutan leader who considers humans a threat to the planet. Most of the final screenplay was penned by Wilson, who added such comic touches as the three orangutan judges miming “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” and the gorilla soldier remarking, “Human see, human do.”

Back then, before the era of Lucas and Spielberg, movie sequels were generally treated as quick-buck, low-budget enterprises, and when Dehn inherited Planet of the Apes, his marching orders were to get as much mileage as possible from the existing sets and costumes. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), generally regarded as the worst of the original series, recycled the first movie with its story of a second astronaut who crash-lands on a futuristic earth, runs afoul of the apes, and discovers a subterranean community of nuclear mutants who ultimately blow up the world. This definitive end-stop was dictated by the producers, who didn’t expect the sequel to do much business and never conceived that a third movie might be made. But Beneath the Planet of the Apes connected at the box office too. Dehn recalled, “Four months later, I received a telegram that said, ‘Apes exist, sequel required.'”

As Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can’t go home again, especially when home has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. But then Dehn had one of those light-bulb moments, which not only permitted the series to go forward but also breathed new life into it. In Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), the chimpanzee scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) manage to pilot the Heston character’s spacecraft back through time and arrive on earth in the present day. Essentially Dehn was telling the original story for a third time, but turning it on its head: now the apes were the strangers in a strange land, hunted by a sinister Washington bureaucrat (Eric Braeden) who considers them—and Zira’s unborn child—a threat to humanity. Grosses for the Apes movies were declining steadily, from $32 million to $18 million to $12 million for the latest installment, but Dehn’s narrative innovation made the stories cheaper to produce, because the line items for sets, costumes, and especially the expensive ape makeups were much smaller.

Most movie franchises are completely out of gas by the fourth episode—The Phantom Menace, anyone?—but Dehn outdid himself with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), the most provocative entry since Planet of the Apes. Two decades after the previous movie, a space virus has killed off all the dogs and cats on earth, and humans have replaced them with apes that have gradually become slaves. Caesar (McDowall again), the grown son of the assassinated Cornelius and Zira, leads an ape revolt that leaves Los Angeles in flames. The violent climax was directly inspired by the urban race rioting of the 60s, particularly the Watts riots of 1965, and the movie became a surprise hit at urban grind houses. “I was at a theater in Long Beach,” recalled producer Frank Capra Jr., “which was predominantly African-American, and it was a very enthusiastic audience complete with people yelling at the screen, encouraging Caesar and all the rest.”

Dehn invested these last two installments with a good deal of empathy for the ape characters, and the time-warp gimmick allowed him to dig further into the social implications of the series’ premise. He was also a damn good writer—Caesar’s mock-Shakespearean soliloquy in the final scene is a little masterpiece of pulp poetry: “From this day forward, my people will crouch and conspire, and plot and plan for the inevitable day of man’s downfall, the day when he finally and self-destructively turns his weapons against his own kind. The day of the writing in the sky, when your cities lie buried under radioactive rubble. When the sea is a dead sea, and the land is a wasteland, out of which I will lead my people from their captivity. . . . We shall found our own armies, our own religion, our own dynasty! And that day is upon you now!”

I skipped the Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes because I couldn’t bear to see the original movie degraded. But when 20th Century Fox took another stab at rebooting the series with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), a loose remake of Conquest, you couldn’t have kept me away with a phalanx of mutants and a doomsday bomb. Married screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa came up with the idea after Jaffa began collecting articles about chimpanzees who had been raised in human households. He was especially interested in the period “when the chimps become teenagers, which in chimp years is about seven or eight years old. During that time the chimps become bigger and stronger and really are not meant to live in a home. A lot of the attacks you read about are during this time of development.” In their version of Conquest, Caesar is one such adoptee, born with supersimian intelligence after his mother is treated with an experimental anti-Alzheimer’s drug.

Part of the pleasure of watching a remake—actually the only pleasure, if you ask me—is noting how the writers have transplanted the story to a new era, and on that count Rise is one of the best remakes I’ve ever seen. It preserves the basic story arc of Conquest, yet the racial overtones are discarded in favor of the more contemporary issue of animal rights. In the original movie Caesar is grieved and frightened when his human protector, a circus owner played by Ricardo Montalban, dies trying to shield him from the government, but eventually the ape matures into a great leader. The remake succeeds in re-creating this emotional journey with its early scenes of Caesar bonding with a young neuroscientist (James Franco) and his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (John Lithgow), and its later scenes in which the ape, removed from the family and incarcerated in a grim primate shelter, angrily comprehends his real place in the human world.

Rise became a gigantic summer hit, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which opened last weekend, seems on track to do the same. But this time Silver and Jaffa have taken as their model Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), the last and, after Beneath, the weakest of the original series. Written by John and Joyce Corrington (another married couple), with a final script polish by Dehn, Battle was a ham-fisted pacifist parable, set in a postnuclear world where Caesar and his minions have founded their own society out in the wilderness. Silver and Jaffa have appropriated its basic story, in which Caesar clashes with a belligerent gorilla who wants to exterminate the surviving humans, and it doesn’t play any better the second time around. After Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which grossed a piddling $8 million, Arthur P. Jacobs called it a day; by contrast, Silver and Jaffa have already been announced as producers of another installment, scheduled for summer 2016. This time they’ll be facing something even more terrifying, and thrilling, than a world ruled by apes: a blank page.