PLANET OF THE APES
Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner
One cannot approach science fiction in film and television without considering the influence of Rod Serling, the famous creator of 'The Twilight Zone'.
At the age of thirty, Serling was a rising television writer. In the early fifties, television was a rapidly growing phenomenon in the US. Many of the popular shows were live dramas - TV plays. They needed new material constantly, and it was a great time for Serling. He wrote over fifty television plays in only a few years.
When Serling wrote 'Patterns' in 1955, it was just another of his many scripts, and he didn't even watch it when it was broadcast live. But critics called it a 'creative triumph'. He followed it up with 'Requiem for a Heavyweight', which cemented his position as one of the most talented writers in the new, exciting medium of television.
But, Serling became increasingly frustrated by censorship and sponsor demands.
He wrote of his play on Southern racism,
"The script was gone over with a fine-tooth comb by thirty different people, and I attended at least two meetings a day for over a week, taking down notes as to what had to be changed. By the time 'Noon on Doomsday' went in front of a camera, the only problem recognizable was that of a TV writer having to succumb to the ritual of track covering so characteristic of the medium he wrote for. It was the impossible task of allegorically striking out at a social evil with a feather duster because the available symbols for allegory were too few, too far between, and too totally dissimilar to what was actually needed. In a way it was like trying to tell a Jewish joke with a cast of characters consisting of two leprechauns."
In an interview with Mike Wallace, he said,
"I don't want to fight anymore. I don't want to have to battle sponsors and agencies. I don't want to have to push for something that I want and have to settle for second best. I don't want to have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what a television writer does if he wants to put on controversial themes."
The solution to Serling's frustration was 'The Twilight Zone'.
Over the next five years, Serling wrote 92 episodes (out of a total of 156), and maintained creative control. Many of the episodes were thinly veiled attacks on prejudice, bigotry, sexism and racism.
He fought social injustice through his writing his whole life. In 1975, four months before he died, he was still concerned with the ills he saw in society.
"I'd love to be able to write an in-depth piece of what causes men like Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman and all the rest of them not only to run, but what causes us to vote for them."
Serling was clearly a great choice to adapt Pierre Boulle's futuristic novel 'Planet of the Apes' into a film screenplay.
He faced one major challenge;
The book was told as a diary found by two vacationing space travelers, Jinn and Phyllis. The diary was written by a French astronaut who lands his spacecraft on the 'Planet of the Apes'.
The twist at the end of the book was that the reader Phyllis, after finishing reading the diary, 'took out her compact and, in view of their return to port, touched up her dear little chimpanzee muzzle.'
The whole device only worked in a written form. If one filmed Phyllis, one would see clearly that she was an ape from scene one.
Interestingly, Serling had tackled this problem in his 'Twilight Zone' episode 'The Eye of the Beholder', in which a plastic surgery patient is recovering from an operation to correct her hideous deformity. Only at the end of the episode do we see as she is unbandaged that she is in fact quite beautiful, and it is the doctors and nurses that have strange, deformed, pig-like features.
In 'The Twilight Zone', visual tricks could be used to conceal the faces of the medical staff throughout the episode, but this clearly would not work in a full-length feature film.
A new ending had to be found, and Serling likely was inspired by his own Twilight Zone episode 'I Shot an Arrow Into the Air', in which the space travellers cross a mountain ridge to see a sign saying 'Reno, Nevada, 97 miles'.
Screenwriter Michael Wilson was brought in to do a rewrite on the script. He had done so on many films including 'It's a Wonderful Life', 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', and 'Lawrence of Arabia', and was given co-screenwriter credit.
What Serling brought to 'Twilight Zone' and to 'Planet of the Apes' was the use of science-fiction as a morality story.
By taking a glimpse at the nightmare of a future which has been shaped by our current deeds, there is the possibility that in some small way, viewers will adapt their behaviour to avoid such a future.
'Gattaca', 'Planet of the Apes', and 'Rollerball', all playing this month are examples of films which present a 'ghost of Christmas future' so that we, like Scrooge, may change our ways.
Science fiction films are sometimes seen as childish mass fodder, with aliens, ray-guns, spaceships and little plot. But, Serling showed us that the science-fiction genre has perhaps the toughest and most noble aim of any film genre - to change the world!