john cribbs

"Row upon row of naked gorillas, hanging from inverted crosses staked to the ground, glowed wickedly in the sunlight. A mass crucifixion, awesome in all its implications, to match the Roman massacre of Christians along the Appian Way* in another equally terrible time. Zaius' scholarly blood ran cold. Ursus' face darkened. Fire and smoke, both sourceless and spread out like a blaze encompassing the world, had also appeared, seemingly from nowhere. And still the mutilated gorillas hung crucified from their upside-down crosses."

* Christians? I know Spartacus' followers were famously crucified along the Via Appia, is that what he's referring to here?

by michael avallone, 1970

We all know the first Planet of the Apes movie evolved from the book. But each subsequent sequel had a book that evolved from it.

Wait...a planet where books evolved from films?! It's a madhouse!!!!

Planet is a longtime favorite that, if I stopped to think of it, would easily rank among my favorite science fiction films of all time. But weirdly enough, I've never seen any of the original four sequels that were churned out between 1970 and 1973. Until recently, I couldn't even put their titles in the correct order. I'm not sure why I never bothered to sit down and watch them, especially considering the interesting directors involved: The Baby's Ted Post and indefatigable British journeyman J. Lee Thompson, who helmed the last two. Based on how quickly they were generated, I think I just assumed they were terrible - as Dr. Zaius warned Taylor, I was worried I may not like what I found.

But after receiving the entire blu-ray set of Apes movies on my birthday from my very thoughtful brother, I thought up a little experiment: I would read the novelization of each Ape sequel before viewing its cinematic equivalent. Therefore, my first impressions of the movies would be through the novelizations. I'm not sure if this experiment is merely nostalgic (as a kid I was always reading film-to-books based on movies I wasn't allowed to see or that were simply inaccessible at the local video haunt) or if I might actually learn something about the role of the novelization by reversing the accepted process of reading it after seeing the movie. Perhaps it's just a gimmick that I hope will bring more visibility to my flimsy series that many people would argue is a colossal waste of time to write and to read. Well to those I say, I'm a seeker too. But my dreams aren't like yours. I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than the novelization of Catwoman. Has to be.

I love innovation in my novelizations. And I don't mean the inclusion of sequences that were obviously cut out of the script or edited out of the movie - that stuff's interesting, but I truly love when the novelizer really goes off-book (or in this case, off-movie). The murky details of novelization contracts makes it difficult to discern just how far out an author is allowed to go, but I imagine it's limiting: patron saint of novelizations Alan Dean Foster likes to relate the story of how he fixed many of the script's plot problems in his version of Alien 3 (and saved Newt's life), only to have his revisions rejected by Walter Hill. Radical changes/additions to the screenplays on which they're based, as opposed to creative interpretations of the existing material, seem rare. So the more audacious the better.

Let's say, for example, the man who was hired to pen the novelization of Beneath the Planet of the Apes decided to ignore the undoubtedly conventional ending of the film and instead have Colonel George Taylor, accidental time traveler and reluctant paladin of the devastated human race, nuke the planet of the apes. "How is that even possible?" you ask. "Does he build a nuclear bomb out of some bamboo sticks and coconut shells?" Nope - the novelization would have you believe there's been a secret society of telepathic mutant zealots who've just been hanging out in the Forbidden Zone for generations, bidding their time for no reason whatsoever, sitting on the last cobalt-cased atomic weapon that must be at least 2,000 years old, just waiting for an excuse to set it off.

And at the end of the big climatic battle, Taylor - the hero - sets it off! What a wacky way to end a novelization to the first of four movies with "planet of the apes" in the title. You obviously can't nuke the planet of the apes before it's used as the setting of the next three movies, ya big goof!

It's kind of impressive that four books put out in four years based on films made by the same studio (two of the movies even directed by the same person) were written by four different authors. These authors, who we'll get into with each individual write-up, are as diverse and interesting a group as the filmmakers they got to direct the sequels. First up is prolific pulp writer and self-proclaimed "King of the Paperbacks" Michael Avallone. Avallone got his start with a series of original novels starring P.I. Ed Noon, whose adventures he'd frequently return to in titles like Assassins Don't Die in Bed and The Flower-Covered Corpse for 35 years. He was reputed to wind people up by claiming that Stephen King plagarized his work.

I'm not sure if it was his Partridge Family series or his Mannix spin-offs that he felt King ripped off, since Avallone toiled largely in the field of the tie-in. Half of his 200+ publications were based on movies and TV shows, two of his most notable being the novelizations of Cannonball Run and Friday the 13th Part 3D, an assignment most likely undertaken as a challenge to see if he could narrate that naked tale without the benefit of the movie's riveting 3-D effects.** "He could sure tell a story," mystery writer Bill Crider once said of Avallone. "He couldn't write, but he could sure tell a story."

The story he tells - or, at least, retells - in Beneath the Planet of the Apes is that of astronaut Brent, intrepid voyager into the great cosmic unknown, the last survivor of a ship that crashes on a backwards planet where ape is superior to man. Along with supermodel cavewoman Nova, he's captured by hostile gorillas along with a group of primitive indigenous humans and treated like a lowly animal by his simian captors until he escapes and discovers he's been on Earth all alon - woah. Wait a minute. This is literally the first movie. With Taylor missing somewhere in the Forbidden Zone, the plot starts from scratch with Brent, a Taylor surrogate, going through the same motions all over again. The difference is that he's looking for Taylor, having been sent to find out what happened to the original crew (well Taylor at least, he never mentions poor Landon and Dodge.)

This begs the question: does future Earth have the worst space engineers in the universe? They design controls that lead not one, but TWO spaceships once around the cosmic block and then straight back to the planet, with both crews being convinced that they're traveled millions of miles into deep space. And don't any of these ships know how to land properly? At any rate, Brent postulates that he and his crew (and Taylor's) may have come through something called a Hasslein Curve, "a bend in time" that propelled them hundreds of years into the future (I thought it was a hyperspace wormhole?) Not sure why Avallone felt the need to whip up some silly science fiction to cover what was quickly explained away through time dilation during interstellar travel in Boulle's novel when a better question to answer would be why they'd bother financing a second space expedition to go find a crew that nobody expects back for at least 700 years? Guess they just got a little impatient back on Earth.

Humbly placing myself in the role of an astrophysicist in the time that Taylor's shuttle departed the planet, I submit my own Cupcake Theory. If you put a batch of delicious cupcakes in the oven, and explain that it will be 700 years before they're ready for your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren to enjoy, don't come back in a week and ask if the cupcakes are ready yet!

Meanwhile in Ape City, an imposing gorilla named General Ursus is stirring the military into a fervor over "strange manifestions" in the Forbidden Zone. Ursus has somehow used a phantom menace in that region to fuel anti-human sentiment among the monkey populace, even though there's seemingly no connection to the docile humans of their planet. If only there was some kind of human threat - like, the talking human who caused a big ruckus in town? Why is Taylor not the reason for the sudden interest in the Forbidden Zone? Instead scouts have been disappearing into thin air, something that apparently never happened before now...kind of weird for this to occur, right after the incident with a talking human from outer space. All it would take is a single throwaway line of expositive dialogue about how they tracked Taylor to a part of the Forbidden Zone where suddenly freaky shit began to happen (Taylor having disappeared in the Forbidden Zone himself). Simple cause and effect, right? The contention between Ursus and Zaius could have been about whether they should be chasing after Taylor, just in case he did get it in his head to start a human revolution. Rather than starting all over again, the sequel could easily have leaned on the repercussions of Taylor's presence in the ape community and how its population chooses to proceed. Instead, when Brent shows up at Zira's looking for help, it's like "Oh yeah, talking humans from another world - how did we forget about that?"

Avallone apparently bragged that he wrote the novelization over a weekend, and it shows. Even though the chapters are specifically sectioned off by character name, suggesting perspective, sluggish writing becomes apparent in the first scene in Ape City during Ursus' speech. Avallone switches the perspective carelessly from Brent to Nova to Ursus to Zaius to Zira to Cornelius, confounding the mess by abruptly transitioning from one character's thoughts to another, said thoughts running from "I hope my ape wife doesn't get arrested for being obstinate" to "Holy shit, a city of intelligent apes!" One second you're wondering why Cornelius, a talking ape, would suddenly be shocked by the concept of talking the time the reader readjusts and realizes we've moved on to Brent's mindset, the human becomes oddly concerned about the political role of Dr. Zaius and his science team because now Avallone has abruptly switched back to Ursus' train of thought. This becomes a consistent problem in any scene with multiple characters.

You churn out a book in two days without editing it, there's bound to be a little repetition:

Page 54:
So Brent waited until the proper moment should come. It did.

Page 62:
"That hum. You hear it too!" He exulted, not knowing why. "We're going to follow it..."
They did.

Page 122:
He knew that Taylor would follow him. Taylor the man had to.
Taylor did.

You don't become a fan of movie novelizations without a high tolerance for lazy descriptions, over-enthusiastic action and borderline poor writing. Likewise, you don't publish over 200 books without occasionally falling back on some of these dubious techniques. In Avallone's obituary, the New York Times related the writer's playful rivalry with critic Newgate Callendar, who loved to cite such enjoyably awful Avallonian prose as: "The footsteps didn't walk right in. They stopped outside the door and knocked." Something like that is practically Richard Brautigan, and with beneath Avallone kind of won me over with this sentence, which takes place in the middle of an attack by the apes where Brent and Nova are overwhelmed, dozens of damned dirty paws all over them:

"Nova was being similarly manhandled. Gorilla-handled?"

I love it! It's almost as if Avallone, sitting there at his typewriter, actually thought about using that term only to decide Brent must have a similar bit of absurd revery as he's being roughly, uh, "gorilla-handled." And damn if ol' Bill Crider wasn't on to something: Avallone tells the friggin' story, in a way that could politely be turned unconventional. Following Brent into Ape City, he has his hero "seeing what Taylor had seen way back at the beginning." So much of the book reads like that: like a campfire story, or a prospectus for a sequel, narrated widely and pompously without any concern for narrative integrity. Like someone who just came back from seeing the movie trying to explain it to you - the disdainful infamy of the novelization! Brent can't know what Taylor saw "way back at the beginning," but the original planet of the apes was already so iconic in the minds of readers in filmgoers two years after its release, Avallone can comfortably refer to it the way the writer a fantasy novel can off-handedly cite Dorothy setting out on the yellow brick road in her ruby slippers. The relaxed approach so many writers apply to novelizations may be a chief factor in their cultural demotion, but passages like one from a fight scene late in the book - "He lashed out with a terrible left to the jutting promontory of Taylor's chin" - strike an amiable middleground between pulpy and pretentious, glorious hack writing from a bygone era.

Not that all Avallone's bad writing deserves praise, particularly the stuff that's inconsistent and uninformed. When Ursus confronts the mutant elite, a bunch of stuffy telepathic mutated humans who've been causing all the trouble in the Forbidden Zone, for the first time, Avallone reveals "a huge fat man encased in scarlet robes, an elder-statesman type in brilliant green, and a tall, lean, hooded man. These had been, of course, the fat man, Caspay and the verger." Well Ursus wouldn't know who they were, "of course!" He just saw them for the first time! And we understand who they are, the second sentence is unnecessary - oh, the fat man was the fat man? Thanks for clarifying that. During this same ape raid on the mutant's headquarters, Avallone keeps mentioning the "beauty" of mutant Albina; even an ape sergeant is fascinated - "sexually stimulated" - by her, even though it's been established that apes think humans are ugly. When Taylor finally appears during the last chaotic chapters, there's a moment where he thinks back to the beginning of the original movie: the disastrous flight, the death of the "woman astronaut" and "lobotomizing of one of the others." Come on, wouldn't Taylor remember the names of his crew, especially since it's implied in the first movie that he'd developed romantic feelings for the "woman astronaut"? Couldn't Avallone be bothered to look those names up? All this comes from the same voice Avallone adopts throughout, like someone doing a bad job summarizing a movie plot: "And then the woman astronaut dies...and this other dude gets lobotomized..."

And then, the world blows up! Like Colonel Nicholson collapsing on the plunger in the Bridge on the River Kwai movie, a mortally-wounded Taylor (Brent and Nova are already dead) sprawls across the control panel of the armed "doomsday bomb" and wipes out all life on the planet. Again, this is the kind of thing that can only work in a novelization (perhaps with a chuckle at the thought of the next novelizer having to ret-con or at least address this blatant alteration), so it was something of a surprise to watch the movie after finishing the book and discover that everything, including the ending, was exactly the same. The bizarre absence of Taylor, the recycling of the first movie's plot with a Taylor stand-in, the goofy psychic war waged against militant apes by mutant weirdos in the Forbidden Zone, the complete destruction of all life on ape-run Earth - none emanated from the bargain bin brain of Michael Avallone. Only embellished by the unrefined prose that rolled off his platen.

Avallone worked with what he was given, much like director Ted Post and screenwriter Paul Dehn. Turns out, Richard Zanuck was so desperate to get Heston onboard that he let the star dictate his own terms, two of which were that Heston would only have to work on the film for a week, and that at the end Taylor would blow up the Earth so the actor couldn't be bothered with offers to appear in another sequel. This explains why Taylor was written out of a majority of the movie, turning up only to kill everybody in an ending that Post vehemently protested yet dutifully filmed (at the time he was merely the director of Hang 'Em High, not the hot shot helmer of the Stagecoach TV remake). Taylor's leisurely hiatus from Beneath the Planet of the Apes essentially marginalizes him to a non-character, making the nihilistic ending all the more meaningless. Did they think detonating the bomb would send Taylor off on a noble act of redemption, like in Kwai? What's the redemption? Planet ended with Taylor damning all humanity for their destructive hubris, seeing in his own aggressive retaliation that he, the last repesentation of homo sapien, was no better than a wreckless animal.

The novelization seems conflicted about how to depict the advent of Taylor's holocaust. On page 108, Brent is telling Taylor about the bomb and that the mutants "intend to use it," the implication being the classic hero scenario - "We've gotta stop them." Taylor, when he hears it's the dreaded "doomsday bomb" so powerful it could destroy "not just a city...not just a nation" but "every living cell on Earth," intones: "May God help us." The clock is ticking, and these rational humans have got to get in the middle of this ape vs. mutant battle to prevent armageddon. While it's at least suggested by Avallone's narration that Taylor doesn't set off the bomb on purpose - it's the bulk of his body that falls on the button rather than his hand and there's no specific inner-monologue about triggering the device on purpose - the death of Nova is clumsily used as the catalyst for Taylor losing his mind: "I should let them all die! Not just the gorillas! Everyone! This world, whatever it was, WOULD HAVE TO PAY FOR NOVA!" This is usually the kind of angry tirade a hero comes out of after a minute of reflection. Instead Taylor proves what Zaius said in the first movie about mankind as "a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself" to be true, seemingly ignoring the allegory that was the original movie. Just kill 'em all and let monkey-god sort 'em out.***

Which isn't to say the film is a complete washout. James Gregory makes a formidable heavy as gimlet-eyed gorilla Ursus; it's just too bad he doesn't have anything to do but sneer, wear epaulettes and lead his army into the Forbidden Zone even though he doesn't know who they're attacking. Avallone accentuates a conflict that's only lightly hinted at in the film by making Ursus resentful of Zaius' popularity and derisive towards his rational thought: "The conflict between the two of them hung like unexploded dynamite in the charged atmosphere." The resentment reaches its boiling point when Zaius fearlessly rides into a vision of fire and crucified apes manifested by their mutant enemy, a "marvelous opportunity" for Ursus to show courage in front of the cowering army which he fails to seize. The kooky telepathic manipulations also make a lot more sense in the book, Avallone having Brent see two versions of his face reflected in the water when he's mentally "pushed" to drown Nova. His descriptions of the mutants is memorable, "a mockery of nature...Repulsively red and blue and pink, exposing all the ganglia and facial veins, arteries, tendons and muscles. As stripped and visible as any anatomical specimens in a medical class...totally horrible, totally and unbelievably hideous." This depiction is backed by John Landis, who worked in the mail room on the Fox lot at the time and snuck onto the set of Beneath. Presenting the preview for Trailers from Hell, he recalled that "some of the most horrific test make-ups I had ever seen...literally replusive...were all rejected for the kind of shitty make-up they ended up using in the piece. They pull back their faces and they just look...veiny."

Despite a valiant effort, even Avallone can't do anything with Brent other than focus on his confounded reaction to this crazy scenario for the first half of the book - other than coming up with "gorilla-handled," Brent dubs the world "Nightmare Planet" and goes a little nuts when he garrotes a gorilla: "Even killing felt fine and good in this godawful place!" This disorientation is reflected in the movie by how lost the poor actor seems, thrust into this mess like an understudy late for a performance for which he's never read the script. Cheekily referring to him as "Brent - almost the reflection of [Taylor],"**** Avallone pulls this replacement hero through the motions up to the point where Taylor reappears and the mutants make them fight to the death, as if they're vying for who gets to star in the rest of the movie; Nova gives the ruling, shouting her first word, "Tay-lor!!!" Brent is hastily relegated to the sideline so the starting QB can take the field, which is unfair to the character and to the audience. We're with him the entire film, and he doesn't even get to perform the final "heroic" action (at least the movie lets him kill Ursus; Avallone has him gunned down unceremoniously in the middle of the fray without contributing anything slightly valorous).

Which brings up a point: Avallone didn't need Heston to appear in the novelization, any more than he would need to go out of his way to clarify to the reader, "Roddy McDowall doesn't play Cornelius in this one." Why not simply dump the Brent character and put Taylor back where he belonged, at the center of the story? It would eliminate the question of why Earth's brightest 20th century scientists failed the Cupcake Test and launched a second shuttle. No need to waste time re-establishing the workings of Ape City or introducing old characters to this new bright-eyed, blonde, speaking spaceman who popped up out of nowhere. It would take very little revising to give all Brent's actions to Taylor, and not repeat his experiences: we'd be reading of Taylor's adventure in the former subways of New York for the first time, witness him argue defiantly with the mutants on the validity of human pacifism. Maybe expanding Taylor's role would justify his ultimate decision to set off the nuke, maybe it wouldn't - but there would at least be a chance. The novelization would have made an interesting experiment in what could have been, if a studio head hadn't kowtowed to the wims of a pampered Hollywood star.

So the author of The Satan Sleuth #2: The Werewolf Walks Tonight was either restricted from taking such liberties or simply wasn't willing to put forth the effort for a weekend writing gig. While this makes me slightly less curious about checking out Avallone's novelization of Shockl Corridor, after sitting through the movie I can at least appreciate that most of the novelization's problems are really the movie's problems. British screenwriter Paul Dehn,***** who like Pierre Boulle and Xan Fielding had worked in counter espionage with the SOE during the war, can't resolve the issues created by Zanuck's insistence that Heston be involved with Beneath any more than Avallone can. For example, he sends Brent and Nova to Ape City to find Cornelius and Zira, for no reason except to recap exposition from the first movie and so Brent can learn Nova's name (the mute Nova is the only one who saw Taylor disappear, so the apes can't offer any information as to where he might be). Going into the city to find Cornelius and Zira gets them captured, and Cornelius and Zira help the escape twice - then again, the whole point of risking going into the city instead of straight to the Forbidden Zone to seek Taylor was to find Cornelius and Zira, so...ugh. From interviews with Dehn, I can officially absolve Avallone for naming a black member of the mutant cabal "The Negro"; turns out Dehn was an old-fashioned Englishman who still insisted in using that term in the early 70's.****** Still, not sure if it excuses this line from Avallone's book: "He saw a magnificent Negro, robed all in white, his onyx face startling in contrast with his garments."

Avallone dedicates his effort to "Pierre Boulle, for his two very important contributions to the arts of Literature and Film - The Bridge of the River Kwai and Planet of the Apes," which could be read as genuine affection or optimistic hint at belletristic equality. Boulle actually handed in a scenario for a sequel titled "Planet of the Men" that basically takes the story in the most obvious direction: Taylor gathers an army of primitive humans, teaches them how to speak and handle weapons, and leads a revolt against the reigning apes. After having his leadership undermined by Sirius, his teenage son with Nova (Boulle was determined to get that kid into the film series!), Taylor finds his guerilla (heh) resistance band turned into a death squad.

Although Beneath borrowed a few elements from Boulle's treatment (young chimps demonstrating, the head of the ape army named "Field Marshall Urus," the line "The only good ape is a dead ape!" changed to "The only good human is a dead human!"), Arthur Jacobs turned it down, claiming it wasn't "cinematic" enough.******* Which is odd, since all the demands of the production seem amendable to Boulle's story: Heston would be committed to less screentime than the first movie, Taylor dies so Heston could be assured he was done with the series and things would end on a bum note about man's destructive nature (although not a completely ridiculous one). Characters from the first film would have all had something to do (even Lucius, who they completely forget about in Beneath), standing sets like the Statue of Liberty and Ape City would have been utilized further than "characters walking around there" and an interesting moral question would be raised over which species could claim dominance over the planet. There would even have been a daring heist on a weapons depot pulled off by Taylor and his team disguising themselves as apes! (With the skin of murdered apes? I'm guessing Taylor probably wasn't wasting time building Halloween stores, although the mutants of Beneath have plastic masks so who knows.)

At the end of the day, Avallone comes out on top. Despite not doing anything particularly innovative and sticking close to the script, you never get the sense that he feels beneath The Planet of the Apes. He lends the material his cheap, flashy style and gives it some sense of the literary (he even bookends the voiceover narration so it doesn't seem so random at the end like it does in the film). Of all those tangentially involved with this slapdash sequel, he certainly deserves a seat on the shuttle that miraculously survived the ludicrous destruction of the planet. It's too early in this experiment to determine if reading the book first swayed my opinion in its favor, but I kind of enjoyed it.

The novelization was translated into German and Japanese editions, which seems weirdly insensitive when you consider how it ends.

** Who am I kidding, I'm on the lookout for that one because I'm genuinely curious if Avallone actually managed to incorporate the 3D gimmick into the writing somehow!
*** Is it a coincidence that, immediately following the film's 1970 release, Heston would pull a political 180, recreating himself as a conservative and eventually going from gun control advocate to president of the National Rifle Association?
**** On his return in the movie, Taylor is clean-shaven, wearing some kind of white suit. In the book, Avallone describes him at this point as "bearded, bronzed, his great shaggy head oddly in keeping with his garments of loincloth and tatters." Is that what the script called for and Heston just strolled onto set, said "I don't think so," and did the scene in the same clothes he was wearing?
***** Dehn gets left off the cover of the book, which instead claims to be "a novel by Michael Avallone based upon characters created by Pierre Boulle." Well yeah, and characters and settings created by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, and a whole new script with new characters created by Paul Dehn...I know there's not much room on the cover but come on! (Dehn and co-plotter Mort Abrahams do get credit on the title page, but not Serling and Wilson.)
****** Per the Sacred Scrolls website: "'Negro' is a term used repeatedly by Dehn. The term had almost passed out of acceptable usage, but was not intended offensively, as he used it to specify powerful or sympathetic characters: the mutant leader credited only as 'Negro' in Beneath; the 'Negro Lawyer', a member of the Presidential Commission in Escape; the 'Negro Tycoons' in Conquest... Dehn also included in his script for Escape the suggestion that Dodge had been exhibited in a museum because of the dark colour of his skin compared to that of the primitive humans of the area - an idea not originally intended by writers Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, but nevertheless not contradicted by the filmed scenes. The script point was excluded from the movie, though it did appear in the film's novelisation."
******* I would argue that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the first sequel to the new series, even borrowed elements from Boulle's story, only switching it so it's an ape army that forms and gets out of the hands (paws) of the original leader (Caesar, who also has a mate and a disenchanted son), leading to humans (instead of apes) being locked in cages. And in DAWN, the apes raid a weapon depot.

NEXT WEEK: You want a review of the novelization of one of the greatest sequels ever made? You talk to me.