Monday, March 31, 2014

Evolution and Adaptation of "The Planet of the Apes"

         Everyone has a list of movies that they watched repeatedly as a child. And I grew up with peasant-vision TV, so in my case, I really mean repeatedly. My taste in pop-culture today is a hybrid of old man Mosley’s subtle affinity for science fiction, and the limited selection of a small-town video-rental store. It’s these movies, and their respective (and inevitable) modern Hollywood reboot or adaptations, that I enjoy re-visiting – learning new things about my childhood movies.

            Planet of the Apes (1968) is one of those films. Today, the original Apes film series is regarded as an artifact of the late 1960s and early 1970s, embodying countless issues of that radically changing social landscape: nuclear proliferation, racial discrimination, Vietnam War protest, the suffrage movement, religious reformation, resource scarcity, etcetera[i]. The overarching theme that a race obsessed with self-preservation, especially at the expense of another’s, is doomed. Despite these themes being both directly and indirectly expressed in the earlier films, some critics still criticized Planet of the Apes (1968) as follows: “Perhaps the next reincarnation of the film will explore more of the deep social and political issues evident in Pierre Boulle’s original story”[ii]. The “original story” the critic refers to is Pierre Boulle’s 1963 French science-fiction novel, “La Planète des singes,” of which the 1968 film is an adaptation. 

         In our culture it’s common practice for critics to rag on an adaptation for changes made to fan’s beloved source material. Granted, the average viewer of 2010’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes may barely be familiar with the 1968 film, and wouldn’t give a damn that (ultimate virgin fan-boy voice) “ummm, technically the original French novel by Louise Boulle doesn’t have a character like James Franco’s . . .” Hell, even when Tim Burton’s 2001 reimagining of Planet of the Apes starring Marky Mark was released (and subsequently forgotten), it wasn’t fidelity to Boulle’s original novel that the film was criticized for lacking. “In most reviews, Boulle isn’t even mentioned, and the 1968 film is regarded as the ‘original' [iii]. Many aspects of the second filmic adaption that surpass the 1968 version in terms of fidelity to the novel were poorly received, some even met with contempt. “The process of ‘interpretive doubling’ only includes that which has occupied a pivotal place in the cultural imaginary.”

         The Planet of the Apes films prompt us to question, if there are more than one adaptation of a story, than to what “original” are we supposed to compare an adaption? In their collaborative essay, “On the Origin of Adaptations” Gary R. Bortolotti and Linda Hutcheon (biologist and literary theorist, respectively) challenge pop-culture consumers to quit judging literary and filmic adaptations by the degree to which they are differ from an “original,” but rather by the degree to which an adaptation thrives over time in new and different environments – ingeniously comparing cultural adaptations to the biological adaptations of living organisms:

What the recognition of the homology between cultural and biological evolution can provide is an alternative means of deciding what we could consider the success of an adaptation —that is, not as simply faithful or unfaithful (aka good or bad) in relation to a ‘source.’ Instead, the ‘source’ could perhaps be more productively viewed as the ‘ancestor’ from which adaptations derive directly by descent. As in biological evolution, descent with modification is essential [iv].

         Bortolotti and Hutcheon claim that in the short run, a story told in a stable environment will not mutate – not evolve. But the same story adapted for consumption in a different environment (an Americanized adaptation of a foreign film) or adapted during a time of cultural change in an environment (the expansion of what previously would have been minor terrorist plot in an adaptation made post 9/11), or adapted into a different medium (a film adaption of a videogame) will inherit mutations that can help it thrive in that new environment, resulting in an adapted story. In the long run, the stories that continue to adapt/be adapted will survive.

         It’s an intriguing comparison, one that the authors themselves acknowledge imperfections with: “a potential problem in the study of adaptation (and adaptations) is not realizing that what we end up seeing are the survivors. Failed attempts are eliminated in both biology and culture”[v]. Using Oliver Lindern’s aptly titled “ ‘An Entirely Different and New Story’: A Case Study of Tim Burton’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ (2001),” one can view the 2001 film as this missing link between biological and cultural homology – a failed adaptation. In his resourceful analysis, Lindern points to aspects unique to Burton’s reimagining (Limbo the orangutan human slave-trader, and the taboo  inter-species erotica love triangle)

to unearth Burton’s ever-occurring anti-capitalist/anti-materialistic theme, one “which arguably, seems to be a far less pressing issue to the average viewer in 2001 than the theme of nuclear war in Schaffner’s version 33 years earlier” [vi] and “thus, in the viewer’s process of ‘interpretive doubling’, to use Hutcheon’s phrase again, the 2001 version appears as a weaker and less meaningful production” [vii]. In biology the ability to reproduce is essential to a species survival. Since this weaker and less meaningful production failed to garner the demand for a sequel, the application of an unecessary theme acts as a useless mutation – a failed adaptation in the evolution of The Planet of the Apes.

           The release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and its subsequent critical and financial success (resulting in the production of an immediate offspring: this summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) ) provides us with an example of successful adaptation. But why did 2010’s adaptation succeed where 2001’s failed? I would argue that Rise of the Planet of the Apes reasserts the series as an innovative and successful vehicle (phenotype) for conveying the theme (genotype) that Planet of the Apes stories do best: that self-preservation at the expense of others that “trying to control things that aren't meant to be controlled” [viii]  will give birth to our demise (in this reimagining it is a dangerously unstable cure for Alzheimer’s that causes both a human plague and the ape’s increased intelligence and eventual “rise”). Where Bortolotti and

Hutcheon are right to say, “descent with modification is essential,” there are limits. Some vehicles are best suited for certain narratives, and some narratives are more responsive in certain environments. The Planet of the Apes stories perfectly illustrate the fall of a selfish human race, obsessed with his own survival, by having him replaced by his oft-viewed barbaric relative. Forcing an adaption to drop this theme when the conditions do not warrant it, is just as counterproductive as forcefully preventing any changes at all (fidelity discourse).

         And what an important theme it is: that we as humans have a tendency to preserve and replicate what we enjoy, in hopes that in perfect replication we can gain more of what we love. We correlate hatred of a failed change with hatred of change itself. If we value our species’ survival, should we strive to maintain it exactly how it is in its current form, and at any cost? Certainly not – survival requires adaptation. So if we enjoy a movie series, why should we strive to create and judge reboots and adaptations based on fidelity to originals?


Alonso, Jesus Cora. “Planet of the Apes and the Anxieties of White Americans over Racial Supremacy. Popular Texts in English: New Perspectives. (2001): 213-135. [i]215.

Bortolotti, Gary R, and Linda Hutcheon. "On The Origin Of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse And 'Success'—Biologically." New Literary History 3 (2007): 443-458. [iv]446, [v]449.

Boulle, Pierre. La Planète des singes. Trans. Xan Feilding. n.p.: New York : Gramercy Books, 2000.

Lindner, Oliver. “ ‘An Entirely Different and New Story’: A Case Study of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001).” Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation: Literature, Film and the Arts. (2012): 117-131. [iii]126, [vi]123, [vii]129.

Planet of the Apes (1968). By Michael Wilson and Rod Serling; Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner. Perf. Charlton Heston, et al. Prods. Arthur P. Jacobs. Distrib. 20th Century Fox. (1968)

Planet of the Apes (2001). By William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Mark Wahlburg, et al. Prods. Richard D. Zanuck and Ralph Winter. Distrib. 20th Century Fox. (2001).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2010). By Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Dir. Rupart Wyatt. Perf. James Franco et. Al. Prods. Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Distrib. 20th Century Fox. (2010). [vii].

Webb, Gordon. “30 years Later: Rod Serling’s ‘Planet of the Apes.’ Creative Screenwriting. (5:4) (1998): 37-44. [ii]44.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Ethical Zombie: Are Zombies Moral Persons?

*This post contains Walking Dead Season 2 and Warm Bodies spoilers*

Walking Dead is back for another exciting season and, as a result, I’ve got zombies on the brain. If you didn’t know it already, I wrote my undergrad thesis on the American zombie. In grad school, professors tend to ask me (rather, they question me) about it, curious to know why the living dead are so appealing to the masses. One professor in particular, an ethicist, really got me thinking when he asked about the ethical questions I had to address while writing my paper. I was pretty sure of myself and arrogantly explained that I had to talk about cannibalism, murder, rape—the usual problems in post-apocalyptic society. After I finished listing off ethical dilemmas in zombie narratives, my professor asked what I thought about the moral status of zombies themselves. Are zombies moral agents? Can they comprehend the complexities of moral decision making? Well, as it turns out, I’m not entirely sure.

On the surface, the obvious answer is no. Zombies are instinctual creatures. They aren't really even animals—more like a virus—and most American zombie writers tend to see it that way. Zombies aren't deserving of moral thought, because they simply aren't persons anymore. 

Robert Kirkman, author of the infamous Walking Dead graphic novel series, demonstrates that we live in a post-zombie world. That is, we live in a culture that's aware of the canon surrounding zombies and zombie stories. We know what zombies are and we know how they act. That’s why most zombie stories assume that we already know zombies are bad, and the characters within zombie stories know it, too. Few contemporary zombie stories begin with characters hesitating to kill zombies—they already know that zombies must be shot in the head, for example. When Walking Dead protagonist, Rick, wakes up from his coma, he comes upon several (un)dead beings. Although he can’t know that the world has been populated by the walking dead, he seems to quickly pick-up on this fact and immediately begins killing zombies willy-nilly. He doesn't wonder if they are thinking, living beings and he doesn't feel guilty after he defends himself against them. This approach to zombies is fairly common. I’m a self-proclaimed Zombie Scholar and even I accepted (without any investigation) that zombies lack personhood. But recent zombie narratives are beginning to address the question of zombie personhood as well as the ethics of killing zombies.

In season 2 of Walking Dead television series, Rick’s good-looking group (seriously, how do they all look so fresh?) settles at a farm utopia. All is fairly peaceful until Rick discovers that Hershel, the owner of the farm, has been storing live walkers in his barn. The series is heavily skewed to Rick’s point of view and so Hershel is made to look like an idiot for keeping walkers—among them infected family members—alive (well, as alive as walkers can be). But his reasoning isn't that crazy. He argues that walkers are suffering from an illness and that someday someone might discover a cure. Well, he’s correct, isn't he? In our society, we don't execute the sick/contagious or the violent (at least not in Canada). We try to rehabilitate and cure them so that they may eventually rejoin society. Of course, we keep violent persons locked away from the general public—just as Hershel does—until they 're able to safely participate in society again. 

Season 2 reinforces this ethical debate about personhood by including an abortion subplot. Lori discovers that she’s pregnant—the child might be Rick’s or it might be Shane’s, she’s not sure. With her marriage and survival at risk, she must decide whether or not to abort her fetus. After all, she doesn't have access to a hospital or medical care of any kind and, even if she did, a new baby would severely handicap her group. While Lori carefully ponders the ethicality of ending her pregnancy (even while her life and marriage are at risk) and eventually decides to have the baby, the “abortion” of the barn zombies isn't afforded such thoughtful deliberation: the personhood or potential personhood of zombies is easily dismissed when it comes right down to it.

The 2013 film, Warm Bodies, ridiculous as it was, doesn't appear to accept this common understanding of zombies. That is, it doesn't accept without question that zombies are—pardon the pun—“brainless.” Rather, it proposes that true human love can actually cure zombiehood. I often wondered why Warm Bodies would make such a corny assumption about the nature of zombies. Today, I suspect that this film’s underlying message reflects and reveals how much anxiety surrounds the existential question of personhood and humanism within zombie flicks. Zombie stories, like cyborg narratives, complicate the idea that the essence of humanity, the soul, exists. A zombie virus appears to immediately strip the human body of all personhood, leaving it as dead on the inside as it is on the outside. Undoubtedly, it makes us uncomfortable to think that our “essence” (our soul, if you will) could be so easily disemboweled—and perhaps that’s why zombies scare us. It really is no mistake that zombie narratives have little room for God or religion other than to imply that God has abandoned humankind altogether. Warm Bodies fights against this anxiety by arguing that the most essential human quality of all, love, can restore personhood and humanity. Interestingly, in Warm Bodies, once the zombie is able to love, it is also able to communicate through human language, another supposedly and uniquely human characteristic. Warm Bodies ambitiously takes the nihilism inherent in zombie narratives and reestablishes the idea of the human soul, making a pretty unscary and naive zombie movie that hipsters and romantics digested with ease.
Fact: Most zombies attend church regularly.
While both zombie narratives offer different (though entertaining) approaches to the question of “the ethical zombie,” it’s clear to me that both approaches are flawed. The contemporary resonance of the zombie narrative means that there is a culturally shared message, desire, and/or fear about zombies. In other words, zombie stories mean something to us at this time in our western society—if they didn't mean anything to us, they wouldn't be so popular. This culturally shared message, desire, and/or fear in turn suggests that zombie narratives deserve thoughtful investigation, because they’re saying something important about our culture today. Thus, zombie personhood deserves close ethical scrutiny within and without zombie narratives, not a quick, fiery death or a campy resolution.