john cribbs


based on La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle

Welcome to Movie Shelf, a series that compares the films on our dvd shelves to the novels on our bookcases. We at the 'smoke have always been fascinated by screenplay adaptation: what a script writer takes from the original source material, what he changes, how the two different works vary from each other and what the existence of the movie itself says about the book and vice versa. All this and more will be examined in this ongoing line of articles.

The art of adapting a novel to a screenplay is an evolutionary process. Like natural progress, there is not one but many authors - lots of fingerprints on the final product - and the result is not always an upgrade, but one way or another it's something different entirely. I've always been fascinated by the evolution of the original Apes franchise which, between 1968 and 1975 - not even a decade - begat five films, a television show and an animated series, not to mention multiple expanded universe stories published in comics and magazines. In anticipation of the release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this week, I'll be launching into some summer Ape-themed articles that will exhume some of the literary material that inspired and was inspired by this iconic series, and hopefully be of use to any unfortunate human being who happens to find himself marooned on a topsy-turvy world where ape is superior to man and madness reigns.


I think I'm so educated and I'm so civilized 'cause I'm a strict vegetarian

And with the over population, and inflation and starvation, and the crazy politicians

I don't feel safe in this world no more, I don't want to die in a nuclear war

I want to sail away to a distant shore, and make like an apeman

- The Kinks, "Apeman"

Kim Novak did not write the script for The Bridge on the River Kwai.

That's hardly a disputed fact, yet it was Novak who trotted up on stage at the 30th Annual Academy Awards to accept the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay from a shiny Clark Gable and glowing Doris Day. Nobody in the audience could have been too surprised - Bridge was the evening's juggernaut, winning in 7 of its 8 nominated categories (poor Sessue Hayakawa was the only shutout, saying "sayonara" to a statuette that went to Red Buttons, a dishonor that thankfully didn't result in ritual suicide). But they were probably wondering when Pierre Boulle, a gaunt Frenchman with a receding hairline, had transformed into the perky blonde in opulent form-fitting sequin gown and high heels who had most recently appeared as arm candy for Frank Sinatra's Pal Joey. Who knows why Novak of all people was entrusted with the Oscar reception (maybe they wanted to promote the upcoming Vertigo, in which she was shot in profile next to another famous bridge?) but she handled it flawlessly, delivering Boulle's entire acceptance speech from memory:


Funny enough, this modest bit of gratitude consisted of one word more than Boulle had actually contributed to the screenplay he was winning an award for writing. Although David Lean's excellent movie was based on Boulle's bestselling novel, script duties were handled by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson (sans ampersand). Because both writers were blacklisted, Boulle ended up being solely credited onscreen despite having nothing to do with the production and not even being able to write in English. Wilson would get shafted yet again when it came time to credit the writers of Lean's Lawrence of Arabia,* a disservice only recently corrected on subsequent dvd releases. He was posthumously awarded his Oscar for Kwai in 1984, but must not have held a grudge against Boulle in the meantime since, a decade later, he agreed to revise Rod Serling's draft for the adaptation of Boulle's best-selling work of speculative fiction La Planète des singes. In fact, due to his blacklisting, Wilson lived and worked in France between 1955 and 1964, during which time Lean's film version of Kwai was released and Planète was published. Considering the novel's popularity, he may very well have been familiar with Boulle's tale of astronaut Ulysse Mérou, who lands on a planet where apes have evolved to become the dominant species over man, years before being approached to work on the film.

It's also possible that, as an expatriate forced out of his own country by ambitious leaders acting under the pretense of patriotism and supported by the testimonies of "friendly witnesses" who cooperated with the national witchhunt to save their own skin, Wilson appreciated Bridge on the River Kwai's focus on the warped ethics of wartime collaboration. Pierre Boulle, a decorated member of de Gaulle's Free French resistance movement in Southeast Asia during the war, had been captured by Vichy France loyalists and subjected to forced labor at a camp in Saigon (after escaping, Boulle joined the British Special Operations Executive, or S.O.E., operating primarily out of Calcutta for the rest of the war). The experience informed Boulle's fictional take on the construction of the Burma Railway over the Mae Klong by British prisoners of war, particularly the characterization of Lt. Colonel Nicholson who, out of a distorted sense of duty and personal integrity, ends up abetting the enemy in the building of their strategically positioned bridge. Nicholson arrives at Prisoner of War Camp 16 with a genteel air of resignation that reads as smug superiority to his Japanese jailers, so that camp commander Colonel Saito takes it upon himself to humble his high-ranking prisoner by ordering that officers must contribute to manual labor on the bridge (a demand restricted by the terms of the Hague Conventions).**

Nicholson becomes a hero to his men by defying the directive under prolonged torture and threat of execution, but satisfaction of wresting control from his captor leads to the miscalculated decision to succeed where the Japanese have failed. Nicholson allocates all available resources towards the building of the bridge, offers up suggestions from the company's expert bridge engineer, discourages acts of sabotage and even eventually commands his officers to join in the grunt work after all. Once the bridge is complete, Nicholson's vindication in accomplishing such an ambitious feat in spite of his status as a defeated detainee is so strong, he actively thwarts an Allied attempt to destroy the bridge with explosives. Boulle's Nicholson is a stubborn, delusional fool of the tallest order, but his actions indicate the author's understanding of the complicated emotions of a pompous man whose power has been taken away: that what to the individual seems like patriotism of the highest and most defiant pride would be seen as a clear case of cowardice and betrayal to everyone else. (Lt. Colonel Philip Toosey, the real-life template, was actually a much-loved officer who did everything he could to delay and sabotage the bridge's construction; not surprisingly, he and the veterans who served with him weren't big fans of the Kwai book or movie).***

Nicholson chooses to make the best of his situation: if he has to be shackled and humiliated, he figures he'll save face by showing up his incompetent warders and building a superior bridge, thereby proving himself the better man and maybe even carving himself something like a legacy - triumph in oppression! The fact that this tactic results in the exact opposite of Nicholson's intention to stick it to his oppressors - in subversively playing along with the Japanese, Nicholson inadvertently turns against his own people - plays into Boulle's irony of his character's reaction to subjugation under confinement. According to Boulle, a proud man who finds himself marginalized will actively seek to restore his status as an equal among those who would subdue him, even if it means further deprecating himself. Such is the case of Planet of the Apes' astray Earthman Ulysse Mérou who, having just set down on Suror, a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, is hunted down and thrown in a cage by the reigning primate populace along with members of the planet's primitive homosapien species. Determined to distinguish himself from the undeveloped native humans, Ulysse willingly subjects himself to the ape scientists' demeaning behavior experiments, jumping through hoops and solving rudimentary puzzles for a lump of sugar, going along with their degrading Pavlovian examinations, even taking part in a forced mating with Nova, a native woman upon whose first appearance Ulysse declares a "goddess" with "the most perfect body that could be conceived on Earth" (poor bastard!)**** Having been knocked down the evolutionary ladder in traveling from Earth to Soror, he's desperate to climb back up. While encaged, Ulysse eventually reckons that the best he can expect is to be considered a more remarkable specimen than the other "animals" around him, yet proves it by allowing himself to be domesticated like a pet:

I must now admit that I adapted myself with remarkable ease to the conditions of life in my cage. From the material point of view, I was living in perfect felicity: during the day the apes attended to my every need; at night I shared my litter with one of the loveliest girls in the cosmos. I even grew so accustomed to this situation that for more than a month, without feeling how outlandish or degrading it was, I made no attempt to put an end to it. I learned hardly any new words of the simian language. I did not continue with my attempts to enter into communication with Zira, so that the latter, if she had once had an inkling as to my spiritual nature, had no doubt since yielded to Zaius' opinion and regarded me as a man of her planet, that is, an animal; an intelligent animal, perhaps, but by no means an intelligent one.

Even after finally learning enough of the apes' language to sway the compassionate Zira to his side, Ulysse decides to reveal himself to a large gathering of scientists by means of a public speech, carried live on all the television stations, that praises his conquerors while humbly acknowledging his own "hideous" appearance and lowly stature, telling his ape audience, "I have learned more things during a few months' captivity among you than in all my previous existence." His sycophantic, self-effacing speech summons to mind, and serves as a reversal of, the one given by intelligent chimp Red Peter in Franz Kafka's "A Report to the Academy." Serving as the narrative text, Red Peter's "report" is also given at a scientific conference (of humans, of course) and details Peter's intense desire to escape captivity by adapting human behaviorisms and, ultimately, imitating human speech. Peter specifies that his motivation for "evolving" has less to do with a desire to be more human than a desperate need to get out of his cage and regain some semblance of the freedom he enjoyed in the open jungle in a world run by his human kidnappers.***** Although Peter, who now performs at a music hall, claims to be pleased by his self-initiated integration into human society, there's a hint of sadness at his betrayal of his own nature, something Boulle captures in Ulysse's own performance, during which the crowd responds most strongly to simple "tricks" he does like clapping two chalkboard erasers together. For Ulysse, who performs for apes "with an air of detachment that concealed my pride," and for Peter, concessions that make their captivity more bearable come in the form of stupid tricks performed in the hope that their dominant ape/human observers can accept them as equals, even though the desired respect is as flimsy a pretense as Lt. Colonel Nicholson's specious sense of honor.

American audiences don't characteristically root for characters who sit around in cages trying to figure out ways to please the ones who put them there. Hence the two gung ho American heroes created for each movie: Charlton Heston's Taylor, the Planet film's version of Ulysse, and William Holden's Lieutenant Commander Shears in Kwai, who has no template in Boulle's novel (which focuses on Nicholson and the bridge rather than the mission to destroy it; the character "Shears" is just another British officer). Rather than accepting their lot, Shears the jaded cad and Taylor the cynical space captain (in the book Ulysse is a journalist who's just along for the ride) are both prompted to action, more out of self interest than loyalty to nation/species although their final acts may be inspired by a newfound sense of patriotism. The two characters were designed with the intention of adding a little juice to Boulle's narratives, neither of which include daring escape attempts in the middle of the story, and Michael Wilson made both characters really similar. They're each referred to by their last name (Taylor's first name is George but nobody calls him that, Shears' first name - one stolen from another man in any case - is never revealed). They each have a member of their four-man team die upon touchdown at their target; only one of the original team will ultimately survive the mission. Both enjoy gettin' nekkid around waterfalls. Both are terrible at escaping but are aided by "native people" who they can't communicate with, the most beautiful of whom each respective hero forms an intimate relationship. And both men end up "back" at the place where their journey began, writhing on their hands and knees in defeat while being drenched in a large body of water close to wrecked or soon-to-be-wrecked metal monuments.


But mostly these cinematic creations represent the popular American response to captivity: no fuckin' way! For Kwai, it made sense to create a foil to the Nicholson character to ultimately enact the kind of heroism the British officer has only deluded himself into thinking his bridge building represents (unlike in the book, Shears' sacrifice makes Alec Guinness' Nicholson recognize his folly so that he falls on the plunger, blowing up the bridge and somewhat redeeming himself). For his part, Taylor only puts up with finding a diplomatic solution to his incarceration and indignity for so long, and he's sure not about to cozy up to the monkey menace that netted him and killed his space buddy. Whereas Ulysse is only too happy to let Zira throw a collar around his neck and lead him around on a leash out in public, Taylor is constantly thrashing about helplessly as apes noose him with neck snares or muzzle him like a rabid dog. In fact, perils that are only hinted at in the book - castration, lobotomization, execution - are explicit threats in the movie. Ulysse learns to communicate with his captors and delivers a stirring speech to an enthusiastic ape audience, afterwards becoming a cynosure of the society's attention and given his own fancy apartment and clothes. A gagged Taylor, roughly stripped of his rags, can only watch as the speech he wrote to defend himself at his hearing, which his ape attorney Cornelius is tasked to read on his behalf, is declared hersey and stifled by the tribunal before the end of the second sentence. The closest Charlton Heston ever came to delivering a speech beseeching sympathy from his simian captors was the monologue from his SNL appearance.

Throughout the movie Taylor is given the full slavery treatment and responds with appropriate indignation: it's almost shocking to read the book after seeing the film multiple times over the years and find that Ulysee's first address to the ape population is the amiable, flattering "Noble gorillas, learned oranguatans, wise chimpanzees," rather than the resentful, defiant "Damn dirty ape!" Once he's finally free, Taylor can't wait to dish out some of the same to those who degraded him, even taking pleasure in hog-tying the esteemed Dr. Zaius once he's taken him hostage:

Zira: Don't treat him that way...It's humiliating!

Taylor: The way you humiliated me? All of you? You led me around on a leash!

Cornelius: That was different - we thought you were inferior!

Taylor: Now you know better.

Even the apes who help him escape are appalled by his behavior! Ulysse wants to prove he's on intellectual footing with the apes; after that approach fails to work for Taylor at his trial he resorts to establishing physical dominance, arming up and informally declaring a one-man war on his ape oppressors. His drop on the evolutionary scale awakens something ugly within him: a natural inclination to rise up violently against the ruling order, not unlike those Taylor left behind to continue to "make war against his brother." For Ulysse, ultimately learning that the downfall of Soror's human population was due to an uneventful widespread surrender of will to the rapidly-evolving apes, in addition to the similiarly spontaneous devolution of his learned associate Professor Antelle, brings his own abdication to ape superiority into a new light. The revelation that Ulysse's forebearers (keeping in mind, of course, that Boulle's ape planet is not Earth, more on that later) merely laid down one day and allowed the primates to have the run of the planet plays into Boulle's real-life parallels. The war left France to deal with the reality of capitulation - that their own people would become puppets and collaborators to the conquering ruling order - and the shame of submission. France wasn't destroyed in the war, it was overtaken; likewise, humanity on the planet Soror didn't end in fire but in resignation. Like Nicholson unknowingly conforming to the whims of his Japanese captors, humanity essentially slides over the evolutionary chain to let apes take over, in a twisted effort to maintain some sort of dignity. And since subservience isn't something that American audiences could really understand, Michael Wilson transposed Boulle's prominently French anxieties into a very modern American concern over U.S. military incursion into foreign territory, stemming also from WWII (the U.S.' role in a potential global nuclear cataclysm in the post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki age) but also political controversies of the late 60's such as the conflict in Vietnam (a clusterfuck of which the French had washed their hands at the 1954 Geneva Conference). The denunciations of Ulysse's lack of retaliation and Taylor's overzealous response epitomize Boulle and Wilson's own agendas and explain why, as with The Bridge on the River Kwai, the American screenwriters added an explosion to Apes that never happened in the book.


* Wilson may be the single most fucked-over screenwriter of all time: his name was left off of nine films that he wrote. The C.U.S.B. (Committee on Uncovering Scumbag Behavior) unearthed this little tidbit from behind the scenes of Palme d'Or winner Friendly Persuasion: after the WGA denied William Wyler's request to substitute his brother's name in place of Wilson's, the director wouldn't even allow Wilson the use of a pseudonym (that script was also nominated for an Oscar, with no nominee listed on the ballot - it's one of the only major Hollywood films ever to credit no writer at all; Wilson's name was restored to the film 40 years later). It should also be noted that for all the Ape sequels, the Apes tv show and animated series that spawned from the original film rather than the novel, the credit reads, "Based on characters created by Pierre Boulle." Even the new movies suggest their premise was "suggested by" Boulle's book, despite Rise of the Planet of the Apes leaning on stuff from Wilson's script ("Bright Eyes," "damned dirty apes," "a madhouse a madhouse" etc.) and drawing most heavily on plot elements from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

** The film changes it to the Geneva Conventions, which did exist prior to WW2 but I'm pretty sure weren't the common reference for treatment of prisoners of war until its redrafting in 1949. Still, not technically historically inaccurate - it's just surprising Saito doesn't respond to Nicholson's admonition with, "The what Conventions?"

*** Also, the real life Saito was a sergeant-major working at the Japanese camp who treated the prisoners so well Toosey spoke on his behalf during his trial, saving him from being hanged for war crimes, and the two men continued to correspond for years after the war!

**** Exact wording: " front of a couple chuckling gorillas - I, a man, excusing myself on the grounds of exceptional cosmic circumstances, and persuading myself for the moment that there are more things on the planets and in the heavens than have ever been dreamed of in human philosophy, I, Ulysse Merou, embarked like a peacock around the gorgeous Nova in the love display."

***** Red Peter's desire to escape his cage makes "Report to the Academy" an interesting companion piece to "The Hunger Artist," which I just wrote about in my article on The Serpent's Egg. The hunger artist doesn't wish to leave his cage, preferring performance to life in the real world. Peter wants out of his cage, yet after integrating himself amongst the humans he ends up becoming a performer himself, promoting the very Kafkaian idea that identity and performance are indecipherable from one another.

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