-- Rod Serling
This post is a kind of “re-run” of a previous post, but I thought that with the new Planet of the Apes film about to open, it was worth posting again. The original post was about the erroneous, in my opinion, comparison of M. Night Shyamalan to Rod Serling, I have altered this version just a bit to speak only of the original Planet of the Apes.
It would take only a casual glance at my writings to deduce that I’m a huge Rod Serling fan. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are tired of reading about it.
When I was a very young boy (this would have been 1969 or ‘70), I remember my father speaking with wonder and excitement about a film he’d seen called Planet of the Apes. He spoke with such joy it is possible that my love of film started at that moment.
|My Dog Trixie and I in 1970|
Serling was the creator of an early television classic called The Twilight Zone, a show known for strange happenings and twist endings. But for me what shines through his work is his love of humanity coupled with his profound disappointment that we can be a cruel, self-destructive and greedy species.
This can be seen even in his work which precedes The Twilight Zone, when he was writing for the live television dramas of the early 1950s. His work spills over with humanity. But for better or worse, because of The Twilight Zone, he has become known as the twist-ending guy.
People who are not practitioners of something are often impressed with the obvious. People who don’t act, for instance, think that crying on demand is good acting. Or that being able to do accents or memorize lines is good acting. Trained actors know different. A lot of work that people don’t notice as easily goes into great acting.
In writing, the twist ending is one of the obvious things that people are very impressed with. But what is often overlooked is that Serling’s endings were linked to the story’s theme—the reason to tell the story.
|Serling winning Emmy number four.|
Back to his screenplay for the original Planet of the Apes, which is very much like a feature-length Twilight Zone. (By the way, I used to tell people that Planet of the Apes was just a long Twilight Zone, that it had all the same structure, but people said that I was crazy. Then some guy cut a short version of the film and made it into a Twilight Zone and people were surprised how well it worked.)
Okay, back to the monkey movie. Planet of the Apes was a film where the twist blew people away.
In the opening of the film an astronaut on a starship tapes a log. In it he talks about how long he’s been away from Earth and how even more time would have passed on Earth because he and his fellow astronaut have been traveling at light speed. Then he says:
“I wonder if Man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who has sent me to the unknown...still makes war against his brother, and lets his neighbor's children starve.”
This is the theme that the entire film explores—are human beings essentially war-like, self-destructive creatures? The story never loses track of this.
So, Taylor, the astronaut, and his fellow travelers crash land on an unknown planet. At one point, as they walk through a desert looking for food and such, they have this exchange:
LANDON (heatedly): You thought life on Earth was meaningless. You despised people. So what did you do? You ran away.
TAYLOR: No, not quite, Landon. I'm a bit of a seeker myself. But my dreams are a lot emptier than yours. (pause) I can't get rid of the idea that somewhere in the Universe there must be a creature superior to man.
There it is again. Human beings are not so great.
Later, intelligent apes with the power of speech capture Taylor. On this planet, human beings are primitive brutes that cannot speak (Taylor was injured during his capture and cannot talk). One of the apes, Dr. Zaius, talks to another in front of Taylor’s cage:
ZAIUS: Men are a nuisance. They outgrow their own food supply in the forest and migrate to our green belts and ravage our crops. The sooner they're exterminated, the better.
Here it is again. Humans are self-destructive. But this time out of the mouth of someone other than Taylor. Now Taylor finds himself trying to argue on the side of humanity.
This point of view is consistently stated throughout the film.
At the end of the film, Taylor escapes the apes and this strange planet only to discover the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. He has been on Earth the entire time. Humans have destroyed the Earth. This “twist” is right in line with what the film has been saying the whole time. We brought about our own destruction by way of a nuclear war.
If the three acts can be defined as Proposal, Argument, and Conclusion, then we can look at the tape log at the beginning of the film as a proposal. And the second act as the argument when the opening statement or proposal debated. So the conclusion of the film is proof positive of what the film has been saying all along.
This is not just a trick—it is storycraft.
Serling’s stories are timeless and they matter. In the ‘60s, when he wrote the film, the cold war was raging and people felt like any minute the world might end by our own hand.
Today, although it is still a possibility, we are slightly less worried about the nuclear threat and more an environmental one. But it doesn’t matter what the method of possible destruction is, only that we may be the ones ultimately responsible.
Great stories are never just timely, they are timeless.
Rod Serling was so much more than a writer of twist endings. He was an artist and a craftsman. His writing was so good that it still inspires filmmakers today. I wonder if this new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes will employ as much storycraft. Will there be a strong underlying theme that can be seen, and felt, throughout...or will it be an excuse to show cool-looking CGI apes?