This essay contains excerpts from prior essays written by the author, previously published in The Sacred Scrolls: Comics on the Planet of the Apes (Sequart, 2015) and Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone (Titan Books, 2017).
It’s hard to believe, but on April 3, the first Planet of the Apes movie will be half a century old. Yes, it’s actually been fifty years since the movie, produced by Arthur P. Jacobs and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, from a screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, debuted. So if you saw Planet of the Apes when it was originally in theaters, then guess what… you’re old, too. Don’t worry, though—you’re in good company.
The film was based on French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planète des Singes. Twenty years ago and change, I found a copy of that book while perusing the shelves of a dusty bookstore in Canada. My wife and I had driven to Toronto for our anniversary, and when I saw the novel upon which one of my all-time favorite filmshad been based, I had to read it. Thankfully, that copy was printed in English, as I don’t speak French… or ape, for that matter. The title had been translated as Monkey Planet, which amused me—not only because no monkeys appeared in the novel, but because the on-screen apes found the term “monkeys” highly offensive.
I was fascinated by the similarities, as well as the stark differences, between novel and film. Like the movie, the book featured a human space traveler (journalist Ulysse Mérou in the novel, astronaut George Taylor on screen) stranded on a world populated by highly intelligent apes, and offered thoughtful social commentary about religious dogmatism, bigotry, the misuse of science and technology, and how the weaknesses of the human species could bring about man’s own undoing. Unlike the film, however, it took place in a far more advanced simian society, and was set on (spoiler alert!) another planet, not Earth. It’s a wonderful read, and if you’ve never picked it up before, then you should.
I first discovered Planet of the Apes and its four sequels (Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) as a child, thanks to The 4:30 Movie, a daily film showcase that aired on our local New York ABC affiliate in the late 1970s. The 4:30 Movie introduced me to Charlton Heston’s non-Apes films, along with Godzilla, the Pink Panther series, Fantastic Voyage, Westworld (and its sequel, Future World), and many other classics, most of which now inhabit my home-video library. But none of it compared to the apes. When “Planet of the Apes Week” arrived each year, nothing else mattered.
I developed an early fascination with science fiction from watching repeats of television shows spawned before my birth—something I inherited from my sci-fi-loving mother. As I devoured one episode after another on our family’s black-and-white TV set, there was something about the sci-fi genre’s message that immensely appealed to my sense of wonder, though I was probably too young, at that point, to articulate the reasons why. It wasn’t just entertaining, though. It was illuminating.
When Star Trek showed two angry aliens, black on one side and white on the other, locked in irrational mutual hatred after eons of warfare, I absorbed the lesson that racial differences are only skin-deep. When The Twilight Zone featured a lonely man finding solace in a library following a nuclear war, only to break his eyeglasses, thus leaving him alone and blind in a building full of books, I learned more about irony and twist endings than Alanis Morissette could ever comprehend. And when The Outer Limits introduced an amnesiac with a glass hand, from a future in which mankind had been dominated by non-human invaders, I became intrigued by time travel and post-apocalyptic fiction.
So you can imagine my reaction the first time I saw Planet of the Apes in 1977 at age nine. A sci-fi film highlighting the irrationality of bigotry and war? Featuring an isolated lead character, an ironic twist ending, time travel, and a post-apocalyptic setting in which mankind was dominated by a non-human force? And written, in part, by the same guy who created The Twilight Zone? I had no choice but to fall in love.
Having been born in 1968, the same year in which the first Apes film hit theaters, I had never seen any of the movies before Channel 7 propelled me to that upside-down world through the thirteen-inch Hasslein curve that was our family television. I was hooked, and have been ever since. That final image of Taylor kneeling on the shore, damning mankind to Hell after finding the Statue of Liberty’s upper half buried in the sand, floored me. It would seem this was true for a lot of future filmmakers as well. The Empire Strikes Back, The Crying Game, The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Memento… so many great films made since then owe a lot to that now-iconic twist ending, which itself owed much to Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone.
That passion continued during my teen years and on into adulthood. Although home-viewing options were quite limited until the heyday of the video rental store in the 1980s, I was ever on the lookout for opportunities to view the Apes films, with their astounding John Chambers makeup, their resonant and distinctive soundtracks, and their jaw-dropping final scenes. And each time, I was just as mesmerized by the performances of Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, Eric Braeden, Hari Rhodes, Ricardo Montalbán, Paul Williams, and so many other fine actors.
Of course, if you’re a fan, none of this is news to you. You know, as well, that the 1968 classic spawned not only four sequels, but four additional films to date, starting in 2001 with Tim Burton’s re-imagining, and more recently Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes. You likely also know that there were two television series—a live-action version about three friends on the run from gorilla soldiers (in essence, Apes meets The Fugitive) and an animated series, Return to the Planet of the Apes, that mashed up characters from the films and the prior TV show in a technologically advanced Ape City similar to that of Boulle’s novel.
What you might not know is that the story didn’t end with what happened on screen. An array of licensed fiction, set before, between, during, and after the filmed and televised exploits, has fleshed out the mythos. These ancillary tales have mostly been told in comic books—nearly 200 issues to date and counting—though there have also been a dozen or so novelizations, a handful of original novels and, this past year, a short fiction anthology from Titan Books. (Full disclosure: I co-edited the latter with Jim Beard.)
In 2015, Jim and I proposed a project to Titan editor Steve Saffel that would be a first (though hopefully not the last) for Planet of the Apes: a collection of prose stories set in the classic era of the franchise, written by popular and respected authors from multiple genres. With a landscape spanning thousands of years, we reasoned, the possibilities for new adventures beyond the films were infinite. Titan embraced the project, which was ultimately titled Tales from the Forbidden Zone. Published just in time to help celebrate the 50th anniversary, the anthology featured a range of stories told with different voices and styles, set throughout the Planet of the Apes timeline and spotlighting characters existing and new—including those from both the live-action and animated TV series, branches of the Apes family tree that are sadly often overlooked.
Like I said, it’s hard to believe Planet of the Apes is turning fifty—and not just because it means that I too, am turning fifty. It was an indescribable honor for me and Jim to be able to help the franchise celebrate that milestone. A lot has changed since I was a child. But inside me still lives that nine-year-old who gleefully explored strange new worlds and new civilizations, who traveled through a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind, who never attempted to adjust the picture because there was nothing wrong with my television set—and who, for one week every year, stared in awe as thirteen-inch-tall talking apes inherited the Earth while humanity fell from evolution’s ladder.
Rich Handley (richhandley.com) has written books about Planet of the Apes, Back to the Future, and Watchmen, as well as licensed Star Wars and Planet of the Apes fiction, and he edited 70 volumes of Eaglemoss’s Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection. Rich co-edited Titan’s Scribe Award-nominated Planet of the Apes: Tales from the Forbidden Zone, as well asnine Sequart anthologies discussing Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Hellblazer, Stargate, and classic monsters. He has contributed essays to DC’s Hellblazer: 30th Anniversary Celebration; IDW’s Star Trek and Star Wars comic-strip reprint books; BOOM! Studios’ Planet of the Apes Archive hardcovers; Sequart anthologies about Star Trek and Blade Runner; ATB Publishing’s Outside In line exploring Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Babylon 5; and a Becky Books anthology covering Dark Shadows.