Planet of the Nukes and TV-Watchers

This is the third of four articles that were originally written for a class assignment. Click here to see Parts 1 and 2 of this series if you missed them.

The title Planet of the Apes brings about ideations of a comedy: creatures we normally see in zoo, instead walking around in clothes and talking. This highly marketable idea is probably why this title, which gives away one of the greatest shocks of the first half of the story, instead of something like Bottom of the Food Chain, which would more accurately represent the themes of the novel. This is where 1968 film differs from Pierre Boulle’s original novel, however, as while Bottom of the Food Chain would be a perfect title for the printed version, the film version finds humankind to be in most danger when is dominant.

The structure of the story is similar between both versions. Both feature a group of humans traveling to another planet. Three of them go exploring and discover that the planet is occupied by feral humans and intelligent apes. One of the travelers is shot by game hunters, one goes missing, and one (the protagonist) is captured for scientific study. The captured one struggles to communicate with his ape captors, including a chimpanzee researcher named Zira, and does so after being paired with a feral human woman whom he names Nova. Zira introduces the protagonist to her fiancé, Cornelius, and they struggle to get past the intervention of Dr. Zaius. They discover that humanity ruled this planet before apes, and the protagonist and Nova leave to form a new life. Once they do, they discover that the Earth itself has become a Planet of the Apes.

Some of the most obvious changes are caused by limitations in the film media. In the novel, the feral humans are nude, as apes are on Earth. Even when Ulysse requests clothing, he is told that if he covered up in any way he “would have looked even more ridiculous . . . like one of those tame men who are exhibited at fairs”. The film acknowledges this when Zira remarks on how Taylor uses a blanket as clothing, but in almost all scenes the feral humans are shown to wearing loin-cloths and similar garments in order to meet requirements for a family-friendly film. In fact, the scene above is mirrored in the film when Taylor protests being forced to wear a garment that has begun to smell and is told that he will draw less attention if he does.

Another limitation is language. In the novel, the apes speak a language that Ulysse is unfamiliar with. Eventually he learns to speak and write the language, and Zira learns French. However, heavily subtitled films can be a touchy subject, resulting in the apes speaking English throughout the film. Another unusual change forced on the adaptation was Nova’s pregnancy. According to Michael Wilson in Marvel’s Planet of the Apes, a version of Nova’s pregnancy plotline was included in earlier drafts of the script, but an executive at 20th Century Fox found it to be unsavory. Whether this was due to Taylor and Nova’s lack of a formal marriage or Nova’s feral status is undetermined, although the romance-like subplot in the novel at times addresses questions of potential bestiality and able-ism, without coming to a certain conclusion beyond the fact that their union produces an apparently neurotypical infant rather than a feral one.

Nova (Linda Harrison) and Brent (James Franciscus)  attempt to learn the fate of Taylor BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Expedition leader George Taylor and journalist Ulysse Mérou are very different protagonists. The name Ulysse is adapted from Ulysses, the Roman version of Odysseus: the Greek hero who experienced a series of trials during his long journey home. Taylor’s name in the film is not so symbolic; it was seemingly chosen at random after early drafts gave him the surname “Thomas”. Ulysse has a very passive personality in the novel; he is a journalist and his first instinct is to observe, even when he is struggling to assert himself as an intelligent creature. Taylor is a much more dynamic character: he actively mocks Landon early in the film and expresses a general negativity about humanity and a desire to find something better. This trait was originally expressed by Professor Antelle in the novel. Late in the novel (largely due to the pregnancy subplot that is absent from the film), Ulysse begins to see himself as a savior figure, destined by a higher being to restore mankind to power. Taylor exhibits no such mindset. This results in the novel having a protagonist whose mindset is of the need for humans to restore their superiority, while the film’s protagonist has a more negative view of humanity.

In Pierre Boulle’s novel, there are only three crewmembers, all male, which seems strange for a long-distance ship that is unlikely to report back any major scientific findings to the society that launched it. The timeframe of travel involved in both versions of Planet of the Apes means that the expedition can only ever be a colony ship. The novel makes some effort to address this by introducing a fourth (female) crew member, Stewart. However, Stewart dies due to a mechanical failure. This, coupled with comments made by Taylor that imply that she was brought along simply to breed using genetic material from the three male crew members might make this a pragmatic improvement, but one that does nothing to equalize the treatment of women in the film. One noteworthy consequence of this scene is that the only human death that is in the film but not in the novel is caused by human technology, rather than by apes.


In the novel version, Professor Antelle is a Philomath, demonstrating knowledge in a variety of fields, and Levain is shot by a game hunter shortly before Ulysse is captured. The film gives both of these traits to Dodge. It is noteworthy that Dodge is the only non-White human presented in the film, adding an element of racial sensitivity that was bypassed in the film by not specifying many characters’ ethnicities, beyond the three members of the expedition all hailing from France. The other member of the expedition in the film is Landon, who expands on Levain’s role as the character Ulysse does not much care for as well as taking Professor Antelle’s place as the character who loses his humanity while in captivity. This last element is particularly changed: While Professor Antelle seems to have devolved to an animalistic state based entirely on the conditions of his captivity, Landon is instead demonstrated to have been subjected to an anterior temporal lobectomy. Like in the novel, this surgery appears to have more severe effects than we know the surgery to have on human subjects in real life. It is also implied that Dr. Zaius knew of Landon’s capacity for speech prior to his surgery, meaning that while Professor Antelle’s regression was caused by his psychological reaction to his new role in society, Landon’s is the consequence of fear of an intelligent human.

The only other named human who is present in both versions of the story is Nova. In both versions of the story, the protagonist develops a connection with Nova. In the novel, Ulysse grows possessive of her after she is the first human he meets on Soror. He is then forced to mate with her, leading to the birth of Sirius, whom Ulysse and others believe to be the key to a resurgence of humanity on Soror. Taylor’s feelings toward Nova are more ambiguous for much of the film. He does not mate with her onscreen, though he does demand that she is freed along with him and takes her along as he escapes. While he shows some signs of viewing her as a possession, she also seems to be symbolic of a better version of humanity, in Taylor’s eyes, one without the trappings of society that he has grown weary of. He mentions that at home there were “many women” but “no love”, yet that “[monogamy] is easy on this planet”. While Boulle’s Nova is seen as the ticket back to the top of the food chain, the film’s Nova is actually a perk of leaving the more technological humanity behind.


The remaining characters are the apes. Zira does not change very much in either version, other than to adapt to what each story contains. In both versions of the story she becomes a friend and sympathetic ear to the protagonist and introduces him to Cornelius. In both versions, Cornelius is more skeptical than Zira, but is also the key to discoveries about the relationship between humans and apes. The name Cornelius is a reference to a centurion who was believed to be the first gentile convert to Christianity, which is a reference both to his discovery of humanity’s role in the origins of ape-kind and to Ulysse’s role as “savior” of humanity. In the film, this is down-played in several ways: Taylor has no vision of himself as a “savior”, Cornelius is less established professionally, and Dr. Zaius provides more information than Cornelius himself does.

Dr. Zaius receives the greatest role change between versions of the story. In Boulle’s novel, the orangutan barely speaks with Ulysse, and spends much of his time as a shadowy antagonist causing trouble from behind the scenes. (In fact, since much of this trouble is explained by Cornelius, an argument could be made for how much of this is actually Zaius’s doing at all). In the film, Zaius is directly involved, participating in a trial to determine Taylor’s fate and participating in a climax that is unique to the movie. In this version, Zaius reveals that he knew all along of humanity’s role in the raise of ape-kind, quoting scripture about how dangerous Man was.


As Chief Defender of the Faith, it seems that Zaius alone held this secret. During Taylor’s trial, when the other two orangutans on the tribunal adopt “See No Evil” and “Hear No Evil” positions, Zaius adopts the position of “Speak No Evil”; while the ape authorities refuse to hear the truth, Zaius is all too aware of it and wishes to avoid its spread. This motive (protecting ape-kind from their version of Satan) makes Zaius a much more three-dimensional and, at times, sympathetic character compared to the one in the novel.

Throughout the novel, the members of the human expedition struggle to deal with their role at the bottom of the food chain. The vast change destroys Professor Antelle’s mind, and Ulysse struggles to save mankind and restore it to its place as rulers of the planet. When the ape establishment takes action against him, it seems to be out of fear that he will truly disrupt the course of Soror’s future. In the film, this is largely abandoned. While the novel was likely written in the months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film was undoubtedly written in the years after the Crisis, when fear of nuclear annihilation was once again fresh on the minds of the public. From Stewart’s death in the opening moments to Taylor’s exclamation that “they blew it up”, fear of what humanity will do to itself is a constant presence in the movie adaptation.

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