Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Planet of the Apes: Lexicons and Conspiracies

With all the Planet of the Apes festivities around these parts lately, from my retro review series to my thumbs-up of the new flick to my Q&A with the screenwriters, I figure now is as good a time as any to give a big shout-out and hearty recommendation to two tomes that any dyed-in-the-wood Apes-o-phile would do well to add to their collection.

First up is From Aldo to Zira: Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes, written by Rich Handley and published earlier this year by Hasslein Books (get it? Hasslein? Love it.). This mammoth encyclopedia -- unauthorized, but authoritative all the same -- compiles every person, place, and thing in every iteration of Apes (the Pierre Boulle novel, the original movies, the TV shows, the comic books, the '01 remake, etc.) into a simple A-Z listing. The kind folks at Hasslein helped me get ahold of a copy last month, and it was hugely useful to me as a way to quickly cross-check facts and make sure I'd gotten my info straight as I set out on the laborious task of analyzing and reviewing each of the films.

If there is one complaint, it's that Handley may have ended up being too thorough, going so far as to include separate entries pertaining to unfilmed scripts and unused comic pitches (there's even an entry about Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan due to a rejected "Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes" story for Dark Horse). While it's hard to delineate a clear line of "canon" for a property like this, which barely maintained consistency within itself from film to film, it muddies the waters even more to throw in so much "unofficial" information. While I would have liked to know more about these rejected or unused ideas, I think they would have been better served as parentheticals within other entries. 

Still, this is a very small quibble about a book that's clearly a labor of love. The amount of effort Handley (who also wrote a similarly-themed Timeline of the Planet of the Apes a few years ago, which attempts to place every contradictory depiction of the Apes franchise's many futures into a single chronology) put into this text boggles my mind. I used to think I was a hardcore Planet of the Apes junkie, but Lexicon makes me realize I'm really not much more than a piker. I remember how back in my Apes fanzine days (which I mentioned here) I had to scrape and crawl to find even the tiniest Apes factoid, and now there are books like this practically overflowing with them. I wonder what my fourteen-year old self would say if he had this at his disposal in those far off days.

Another great book I wanted to shed a spotlight on is Archaia's Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes, written by Andrew Gaska, with illustrations by a host of top talents. Hitting shelves the same week Rise hit theaters, this is a fiction novel set "between the scenes" of the first movie, with the goal of telling a compelling story while also spackling over the narrative cracks that I spent so much time calling out in my reviews. As far as I know, although there have been several Apes novels published over the years, this is the first one that's actually set in the universe of the original film series (as opposed to novelizations of the films and two TV shows, and a couple of prequels to the Tim Burton film).

While, as a general rule, I tend to avoid licensed fiction (having been burned by a few too many subpar Star Trek books in my teens), Gaska won me over with a strong storyline that nicely plays in parallel to the events of the first film, tracking wayward astronaut John Landon -- Chuck Heston's traveling companion in the first half hour -- from his cornfield capture to his fateful, unfortunate encounter with the business end of a surgical scalpel (in a scene that's as unsettling as anything in the actual film). Oddly enough, speaking of my Apes fanzine, this was one of those stories I'd always wanted to tell, but lacked both the skills to pull it together and the financial independence to keep publishing, so it's great to see it realized, and realized so well.

But Gaska does more than just use his page count to fill us in on poor, lobotomized Landon. He also manages to make all the time travel hugger mugger of the first three movies, which the filmmakers were clearly making up as they went along, feel absolutely consistent within itself, arriving at a solution to the question I posed in my earlier review of why there would have been a rescue mission for a one-way journey that made me perk up an eyebrow and say, "Hmm. That totally works." He also explains how doomed chimp Milo, who journeyed back in time with Cornelius and Zira in Escape, could have found and retrieved Taylor's sunken spaceship and made it fit for time travel.

Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes is meant to be the first of two books by Gaska, with the second one (unscheduled as of now) presumably taking us into Beneath the Planet of the Apes territory and leading up to the big boom at that movie's end. If it's anything like his debut, I look forward to what he has in store for us next. Conspiracy and Lexicon are both available now, and I recommend them heartily whether the new movie is your first exposure to the brand and you want to delve into its past life, or if, like me, it's just reignited your old school Apes fandom.


Abdul-Halim V. said...

I'm going to have to check out Conspiracy... assuming I can find a cheap copy. From your description it sounds similar to the comic series Revolution... which we've exchanged words on before (in terms of trying to untangle the time travel inconsistencies). I've only read the original novel and I don't think I've ever seen any others.

I know what you mean about licensed fiction except I've had more positive experiences with Star Trek books. (I'm a big fan of Spock's World, some of the other Romulan novels, Spectre and Vulcan's Heart) I think that the problem is that when the writers are forced to stay within the parameters of the franchise it is harder to tell really interesting, suspenseful stories. (no major surprises, major characters can't die, reset button is pushed by the end). In my experience the Star Wars novels suffer from this alot (although I do like the first two Darth Bane books).

Actually in terms of the Apes franchise, both the live action series and the animated series had the same issue... no big story, just astronauts being chased by gorillas, being helped by chimpanzees, being preached at by orangutans, and zapped by the occasional mutant.

Zaki said...

I'd actually give the animated show a slight edge on the live action series in terms of being truer to the general mood of the first film. Even through limited animation and the limitation of being Saturday morning kiddie fare, it still managed to tell some pretty interesting serialized stories in a way that preserved the tone of the franchise. Certainly, it was enough to get me interested in APES in the first place!

I definitely think you'll be very pleasantly surprised by CONSPIRACY. As I said, it weaves together the first three movies in a way that feels virtually seamless with what the films actually present, as if they had it planned out all along.

Anonymous said...

A cheap copy? It's only $16.48 at Amazon for a nice hardcover with great color illustrations. Seems pretty cheap to me....