A Brief History of Planet of the Apes

On May 10, 2024, director Wes Ball’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes hits theaters. It’s the latest installment of a cinematic cycle of films that began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

The sci-fi franchise about intelligent simians who took over our planet is actually much older though. It dates back to 1963 with the release of French writer Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des Singes (translated to Planet of the Apes in the United States). From there, it spread to films, television, toys, comics, video games and eventually back to films.

The history of the Planet of the Apes franchise is a long and storied one, and in this blog, we’ll examine some of it. Along the way, we’ll offer links to various Planet of the Apes media you can check out to get yourself ready for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes novel is where the franchise began, but the series, as we know it, didn’t take actual shape until the release of the 1968 20th Century Fox feature film adaptation by director Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans. The film’s script changed many of the details of Boulle’s novel; the ape civilization was much more primitive, and it was actually located on an Earth that had been devastated by nuclear war—not some distant planet.

The second film, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes from director Ted Post, put the focus on a new human protagonist played by James Franciscus, but Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans reprised their simian characters. Heston made short appearances at the beginning and end of the film.

Because of Beneath’s somewhat apocalyptic ending, 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes, directed by Don Taylor, took a different approach than the previous films. McDowell and Hunter returned as Cornelius and Zira, but they time traveled to modern day Earth where they are first embraced as celebrities before becoming fugitives.

Director J. Lee Thompson’s 1972 follow up, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, takes place in a near future where humans have turned apes into slaves. McDowell returned for his third appearance, but as a new character—Caesar, the son of Zira and Cornelius. Caesar is also the star of the fifth and final entry in the original Apes film cycle, 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes (also directed by Thompson) where he tries to build a better world for both apes and humans in the aftermath of a nuclear war.

In 1974, the Planet of the Apes franchise moved from films to television when CBS launched a series which followed two astronauts and their ape companion as they navigated the hostile world. It was an expensive show to produce. So, when poor ratings started to come in, CBS cancelled the series after 14 episodes. That wasn’t the end of the Planet of the Apes franchise’s stint on television though. In 1975, CBS begin airing Return to the Planet of the Apes, an animated series. The final episode of that low-rated show aired on November 29, 1975.

The next 25 years found the Planet of the Apes franchise in a perpetual state of developmental purgatory, which it finally escaped in 2001 with the release of director Tim Burton’s “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes starring Mark Wahlberg as a human astronaut transported to the titular world. The movie was successful but met with mixed reviews and Burton found the production difficult. As a result, no new Planet of the Apes films were made for another decade.

2011 saw the release of director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the kick-off chapter to the latest cycle of Apes films. This movie, starring James Franco and Brian Cox, reimagined the story of Caesar from the original films. In this movie, he’s a chimpanzee (played in a motion capture performance by Andy Serkis) bestowed with genius level intelligence and the ability to talk through genetic modification. He enhances others of his kind and leads an ape escape/rebellion into San Francisco’s Redwood Forest as a pandemic begins to ravage human civilization.

2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves, is set a decade after the events in the first film. Human society has collapsed and Caesar has established a colony for his genetically modified apes. Tensions within the colony and outside it are exacerbated when a group of humans from a nearby settlement enter the apes’ territory. Serkis returned as Caesar and the film’s human cast included Jason Clark, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman.

The conflict between Caesar’s forces and the human military explodes in Reeve’s follow up film—2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes. Serkis once again played Caesar and Woody Harrelson played his archenemy, the Colonel, a mysterious and despotic leader of the human forces. The powerful and action-packed film brought the story of Caesar’s life to a close, but not the tale of his legacy.

That’s because May’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is set 300 years after the events of War. In that time, ape civilizations across the globe have begun to flourish while the remaining human population has regressed into primitive, feral groupings. Against that backdrop, a young chimpanzee named Noa (Owen Teague) sets out on a quest to end the tyrannical rule of an ape leader, Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), who has perverted the teachings of the legendary ape freedom fighter and is enslaving other ape clans.

Film and television aren’t the only visual mediums that have been used to tell exciting Planet of the Apes stories. The franchise has been well represented in comic books and graphic novels. The previous rights holder, Boom! Studios, published a multitude of comics set in both the continuity of the original films and the new cycle. A number of them are available on hoopla, which also has the most recent graphic novel published by Marvel Comics (who currently holds the comics rights), Planet of the Apes: Fall of Man, which is set during the current cycle of films.

Boom! also published a number of Planet of the Apes crossover comics where the intelligent simians met characters from other franchises and series. These wild and fun crossovers include ones with the original Star Trek series and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan.