Rear View: Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
In some cases the movies or television shows become more iconic than the book they are based on. Often times the original piece falls into obscurity and is not given the treatment as its adaptations. For a long time that was the case of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, where the first silent movie was based on a play. The play, released shortly after the book was published, omitted the science fiction aspect of Mrs. Shelly’s story, and therefore also its greatness. In this edition of Rear View we discuss the classic science fiction novel Planet of the Apes, the victim of just such a thing.
In 1963 Pierre Boulle published his work La Planète des Singes in France and was that same year translated to English. In 1968 it was made adapted for the big screen and was then indelibly made part of our shared cultural heritage. The book and the movies, both the one from ’68 and the remake in 2001, do have some similarities, but Boulle’s overall idea has subsequently become lost. One might want to argue that it has been brought back thanks to the later franchise; Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), both hinting at similar backstories.
Planet of the Apes is more of a philosophical work, like Frankenstein or Handmaid’s Tale than an adventure Sci-Fi novel. Boulle discusses man’s use of animals for experiments and supposed superiority over races perceived as lesser. Like Frankenstein the story is told through another person’s voice. The couple Jinn and Phyllis are on a retreat in space, all alone in their little space ship, when they come across a document in a container. A message in a bottle as it were. The document is found to be the tale of the French journalist Ulysse Mérou, who is detailing his journey, together with a professor and his disciple, to the star Betelgeuse. They land on a planet similar to Earth and quickly come in contact with humans of that world. Naked and incapable of speech the wild men destroy their ship and Mérou and his companions are forced to stay in their village. The following morning the village is attacked by a hunting party, described very much like the British fox hunting groups, and those who are not killed are rounded up and placed in cages. Mérou is forced to observe, from his captivity, how the bodies of men are displayed like the game of his home world, photographed and taken as trophies.
He is subjected to experiments by other apes, chiefly orangutans, conditioning ones that he quickly recognizes from his time at school. He befriends the chimpanzee Zira, and convinces her that he has some intelligence, and he learns to speak her language, as she begins speaking his. Most of the book is a description of how the apes view humans, who they see as lower on the evolutionary chain. Man can’t speak or use the same facial expressions as Mérou is accustomed to and all attempts at teaching them is met with failure. Mérou learns that the apes are divided into classes. The orangutans who are the main authority on science, the chimpanzees who are the true innovators and the gorillas who enjoy hunting, but also steal the chimps’ ideas and use it for their own gain.
The apes live in a conservative society, where the orangutans keep any form of scientific progress contained. This has also caused their world to remain stagnant. Cornelius, Zira’s fiance, claims that the ape race sprung up from nothing several thousand years earlier, but has not evolved since. This makes him ponder whether they might just have mimicked something else. Mérou’s abilities are revealed to the scientific community and is released. He spends his days assisting Zira and Cornelius in their research, until the archaeological ruins of a city is found that might just reveal the origins of ape.
There is so much to be enjoyed by reading Planet of the Apes, and especially today. The world was different in ’63 and many of the ideas and points that Boulle tried to make were probably seen as odd and dystopian. As with any good science fiction novels he expertly took the science of his time and pondered its implications for our future. But there is more to it than that. The story is an intimate reflection on how we as a society have developed and how we chose to treat those we perceive as beneath us. It is only through the eyes of a man like Ulysse Mérou that this can be made clear. What must it be like to sit in a cage and watch ones family and friends be displayed as a prize, or try to communicate in your language when all that the listener hears is gibberish.
The book Planet of the Apes deserves to take a more prominent place in the world of literature. It does make the reader think and it is still relevant today.