Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best reboots of a franchise in the last ten years, and it’s mostly because of the fine work by the screenwriters, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Their story strategy is similar to that used by the writers of some of the other top reboots, like Casino Royale (The Bond series), The Bourne Identity, Batman Begins and Star Trek. In each case the writers went with the origin story, and they placed primary emphasis on character.
The origin story is almost always the most popular in a franchise, first because it allows the audience to share in the creation of the mythology, and second because it has a shape that later sequels often lack. Origin stories also give the author the chance to execute what may be the single most important element of good storytelling, to make plot come from character. This gives the audience a double pleasure. They get to see the hero succeed in the plot. And they get to see the hero undergo character change, to grow as a human being.
There are many ways that you make plot come from character. Perhaps the most important, and the main technique used in the successful reboots listed above, is to give the hero a weakness and need. To those of you who are familiar with my Anatomy of Story Masterclass, this may seem obvious, since weakness-need is the first of the seven major story structure steps that are present in every great story. But until the last ten years, you simply didn’t give the main character of an action or myth movie a weakness-need of his own. Conventional wisdom said that for maximum box office the hero had to be completely heroic, without flaws of any kind. Of course, conventional wisdom was wrong.
It is precisely because Batman is the most seriously flawed of all superheroes that he is the best and most popular character. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the initial hero, scientific researcher Will Rodman, has a unique weakness, in that it comes from a strength. Because he cannot kill the baby ape, he brings the genetically altered animal home with him, and from that good intention he takes all of humanity with him on the road to hell. This good-heartedness, combined with an arrogance that is common in the master scientist, is a weakness-need the audience can easily relate to, and is the wellspring from which the entire plot flows.
Another key to the success of the script for Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes from how the writers played with their genre. Unlike the original Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a science fiction story, though it has some important science fiction beats. It is a horror story, and it relies on techniques used in the first and greatest horror story of all time, Frankenstein.
In the Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction Class, I talk a lot about how you transcend your genre form, since this is the single biggest factor in making your script stand above the crowd. One of these techniques in horror is to flip the hero and the opponent. Put another way, at some point in the story the monster becomes the hero. The ape, Caesar, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not the typical monster we see in the average horror story. But he is the Other, and horror stories are really about the inhuman, or non-human, entering the human world.
Frankenstein is a misunderstood masterpiece, primarily because of the powerful but highly simplified 1931 film version. Frankenstein is not about creating life. It is about creating a human being. Mary Shelley was writing “natural philosophy” in fictional form, and that meant among other things tracking in great detail the steps of a living but clean slate body becoming a fully feeling and thinking human being.
This is precisely what writers Jaffa and Silver do in the best section of the film. When Caesar is incarcerated in the ape refuge (prison), we watch as he moves up the ladder of understanding and uses his human-like knowledge and insight to become the ape leader and free himself and his fellow apes from human captivity.
The second major story element of Frankenstein is the betrayal by and rebellion against the father. This too is a key step in Caesar’s development. For a boy to become a man, and a unique individual, he must rebel against his father. Will pays the owner of the refuge so that Caesar can come home. But Caesar refuses; he already is home. This is not only the key step in the hero’s character change, it is the first step in the apes’ rebellion against humans.
One last technique that is crucial to the success of this script is a technique that James Cameron used in Titanic. The loss of over fifteen hundred people meant that Titanic would likely be a disaster film, a sub-form of the action genre. But disaster films are notorious for lack of character definition. Characters are simply fuel for the fire. And that means the audience doesn’t feel for the characters when they die. So Cameron made the first two thirds of the film a love story, the most intimate of all genres. Then when the disaster hit, the loss of the characters, and the love between them, was truly painful.
Similarly, most of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an intimate story of fathers and sons. Will uses the drug to save his father from the terrible decay of Alzheimer’s. He loves Caesar as a son, and will do anything to protect him. With these powerful personal bonds as a foundation, the final action sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t just one of a number of set pieces but the emotional climax of the story.
Few writers get to reboot a major Hollywood franchise. But everyone must face the daunting challenge of turning a winning premise into a well-executed script. If you focus on the seven major structure steps and master your genre form so well that you transcend it, you have the best chance of writing a script that has popular and critical success.