Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Monkey Planet and its film adaptations

I quite like the Pierre Boulle novel sometimes called Monkey Planet in English (a lousy translation of the title: Planet of the Apes is much closer in structure to the original French, which was "La Plan├Ęte des singes" -- and although "singe" is both "ape" and "monkey" in French, they are two different words (and types of primates!) in English. One wonders how careful Xan Fielding was in doing the translation of a book that's all about apes when this distinction was utterly lost on him).

Sadly, Fielding's is the only English translation; he got the job of translating this science-fiction novel because he'd previously translated Boulle's earlier novel The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Boulle himself did not speak or write English, by the way, so his having won the Oscar for the screenplay of the movie version of The Bridge on the River Kwai is a sham; the actual screenwriters (Michael Wilson -- who went on to co-author the original Planet of the Apes script with Rod Serling -- and Carl Foreman) were blacklisted, although they received belated Oscars posthumously.

The 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, is much closer to the Boulle original than is the Tim Burton "remake." The 1968 version resembles the original novel in characters (Zaius, Zira, and Cornelius all figure prominently), in setup, in plot line, and in being rich social comment (albeit on different topics; Boulle's target is mostly the stuffiness of academia and the inefficiency of bureaucracies; Wilson and Serling, in their screenplay, go after religious fundamentalism and racism).

The Tim Burton remake has almost no points of similarity with the Boulle, and the Wilson/Serling ending ("it was Earth!") and the Boulle ending ("it could happen here, too!") actually are very similar dramatically, although, yes, the Burton has echoes of the Boulle in its (otherwise awful) very last scene, too.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At January 16, 2008 2:34 PM , Blogger S.M.D. said...

I rather like the original Ape movies, but I would say the Burton remake wasn't entirely awful. The problem is that it was trying desperately to redefine the original source material only to end up with a movie that was pretty visually, but wasn't anything special otherwise. The ending was sort of 'meh' in that you see this character go through all this struggle to free the people only to end up being captured, presumably to be imprisoned in a modernized Ape world. The story is sort of okay, but it's not special. What does make the film interesting is what it does visually, which the original didn't and, possibly, couldn't do.
Those costumes and the effects of the ape movements and the like were rather fantastic and try to show more of the origins of the ape-men. But it's a prime example of why visuals aren't enough to make a movie. Lord of the Rings, however, I would say is quite the opposite...

Great post! I'd like to read the original book in English some day.

At January 16, 2008 2:48 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

The Ape Lincoln bit at the end of Burton's film totally sucked, but if they'd ended the film earlier -- with the big reveal that the god the apes worshipped was a crock of sh*t (wonderfully pointed out when the second coming of their Jesus happens, and it's a dumb, unintelligent grinning chimp who gives them a thumbs-up sign), I think it would have been remembered as a subversive film that made a powerful point about religion.

But (a) that was lost in the shuffle when the stupid shock ending was added on, and (b) it was a few years ahead of its time, before Richard Dawkins and others made such statements into mainstream bestseller fodder; people probably either missed the message or said, "Nah, that CAN'T be what they're saying!" :)

I liked a number of things about the film, and visually it IS a tour de force. But for my money, the first, third, and fourth original PLANET OF THE APES films are much, much better (and are among the finest SF films ever made).

At January 16, 2008 3:19 PM , Blogger S.M.D. said...

Yes, I mean, it looked kinda cool, but at the same time, it's sort of been done and it's a well known joke, so it's really impossible to take the thing seriously.
Ah, I agree about the best place to end it. I had hoped that he would have just stayed there, or maybe he would have figured out that he couldn't get back home. When you look at the end the guy has it all. He's freed the humans, become a hero and has proven to the apes that all they've done to man is actually sort of misled and stupid, and he's also got the hot girl. Why would any man in his right mind leave? I can understand the need to return to family and perhaps they tried to show that he actually has a family, but at the same time, it seems to me that his mission isn't done on the planet, and with the magnetic clouds or whatever they turned out to be were unstable to begin with it seems you wouldn't want to just barrel through. So in some ways the character doesn't actually learn anything from the start of the movie when he boldly went where humans only let chimps go in the first place...and you can feel free to hit me for that poorly initiated Star Trek reference.
I didn't see the new version in theaters, so I saved some money that way at least, but certainly the originals are classics. I need to watch them again. It's been at least 15 years, maybe more, and I was a kid then.

At January 16, 2008 9:57 PM , Blogger Nicholas Collins said...

I actually liked the fifth film. I liked the way it showed how Caesar wanted humans and apes to be able to live with mutual respect, and didn't really want apes to simply dominate humans. Of course, we know that his idea doesn't pan out, which makes the message of the first film all the more tragic and saddening.(In my opinion, anyway)

Now, if only Hollywood today would combine the amazing special effects technology they have with science fiction screenplays that are well-written, we could have some all around superb science fiction films. That rarely seems to happen, though, which is too bad.

At least these days with DVD we can collect our favorites at home. I can watch "Forbidden Planet" or the original "Planet of the Apes" or "The Day the Earth Stood Still" when I feel like it. Older films, yes, but good writing stands the test of time, right?
And I don't care if the effects aren't as good as what can be done now, I'd rather watch the old classics than something with better special effects than actual story.

At January 17, 2008 12:42 AM , Blogger S.M.D. said...

Hollywood makes one of two horrible mistakes in the SF genre of films (and fantasy I suppose). First, it sacrifices good writing for flashy special effects or really good visuals. The new Apes flick would be an example and I think the worst offender is Eragon. The book is decent. It's not great literature by a long shot, but the story is easy to follow and entertaining for kids. Kids don't know that much about cliches or familiar tropes. For them, it's a flashy fantasy tale with dragons and magic. But the movie was such a massive failure. Horrible acting, a poorly paced film, poor writing and horrible dialogue, and a bunch of flashy special effects that did look really good, but didn't hold the film up.
Then Hollywood does something else. It makes films in which there is a decent story and then overloads it with so much CG it's just too much. Star Wars (the new ones) is a great example. The story is decent. It's easy to follow and it fits right into the world and while there are some problems, the basic skeleton of the story is very strong. But Lucas sacrificed so much of the magic of the originals by filling these ones with so much CG junk and failing to utilize some more effective methods like miniatures and the like (such as in LOTR, which proved to be so amazing). You have to have a balance. Besides, Star Wars really doesn't need that much CG. It can work really well with miniatures and reduced CG use...
I Am Legend is another example. Great movie, but why did they need CG for the monsters?

We just need balanced movies these days. Good writing and good use of special effects. You don't need a lot to make an SF movie work.


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