From Script to Screen: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

By Jeff Legge · November 22, 2017

Few films in the last decade have surprised audiences quite like 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Emerging out of left field, and undergoing a last minute title change just prior to release, movie-goers had no real reason to expect that this latest attempt to reboot the iconic franchise would be anything other than a cash-grab.

While the trailer intrigued with a take that appeared to fall somewhere between a prequel and a reboot, it did little to recapture the sweeping, classic feeling of the Charlton Heston original. Where were the humanoid apes? Where was the post-apocalyptic landscape and large scale conflicts?

Instead, the film presented us with a handful of characters facing an ethical dilemma in a world not too different from our own. Andy Serkis’ Caesar (the only obvious tie to past installments) appeared decidedly more simian than the apes of yore, and the central focus between James Franco’s Will Rodman and his Alzheimers-stricken father (John Lithgow) seemed out of place.

Of course, any and all doubts were squashed almost immediately upon the release of the film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes released to critical and commercial success and went on to launch an entire trilogy of new films culminating in last summer’s masterful War of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar’s arc throughout the three films represents some of the most accomplished storytelling to come out of Hollywood in recent years, brought to life in extraordinary detail by motion-capture wizard Andy Serkis.

While many maintain a nostalgic fondness for the 1963 original (it’s hard to top that final shot), there’s little doubt that the Caesar-trilogy represents the narrative pinnacle of the franchise.

And it all started with Rise, with its clean, efficient storytelling and character-driven focus.

That’s why we’ve decided to take a deep-dive into one of the film’s most memorable scenes – the confrontation between Caesar and their abusive zookeeper played by Tom Felton. Our goal? To compare the scene as scripted with its final version in order to better understand how writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver crafted this impressive sequence.

Take a look at the video below:

It’s a pivotal moment for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the scene culminates with a crowd-pleasing indication Caesar’s intelligence: his first words – not to mention a “damn dirty apes” easter egg for the fans. On a more thematic level, it marks the first step in the ape rebellion that will go onto to define the film’s third act, along with the trilogy as a whole. In fact, if the three films taken together as one whole have a single inciting incident, this is probably it.

What’s even more interesting is just how much dialogue was cut of the final version. Follow along with the video, and you’ll notice that Tom Felton’s Dodge had a good deal more to say on the page than he does on the screen. Perhaps the script underwent revisions prior to shooting. It’s also possible the dialogue was recorded and then cut during the editing process. Either way, it’s a reminder that – as a general rule – less is more when it comes to dialogue.

On the page, Dodge’s incessant taunting of Caesar helps to ground us in the scene, but it’s likely that it would’ve felt intrusive in the final version, which is better served as a dialogue-lite exercise in nail-biting tension punctuated by a single cathartic “no”. 

Taking the “less is more” approach even further, the script does a wonderful job at describing the action using simple, economical terms. There’s nothing in the way of flowery prose or elaborate, multi-sentence descriptions. Instead, were given just enough to build an image, without the words themselves getting in the way. In other words, it’s what a screenplay should be: an effective, precisely structured blueprint.

Download the script for Rise of the Planet of the Apes for free here.

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