I have not seen any Planet of the Apes movies, but I’ve been intending to go on a Planet of the Apes watching spree – from 1968 to 2014. However, before I do so I wanted to read the novel that begat such a long-lived franchise.
Planet of the Apes was published in 1963 and was authored by Pierre Boulle (who also penned the novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai in 1952). He was a Frenchman who worked as a spy for the British during WWII, but was turned in by a Vichy Frenchman and spent two years in a prison camp until he escaped.
Most people know the basic idea of the story. Space/time traveler/journalist Ulysse Merou travels through space from Paris with an eccentric, brilliant professor and his assistant to the distant star of Betelgeuse. They leave fully knowing that when they return to earth, thousands of years will have passed. But when they arrive on the planet (Soror) that circles the star, they find things to be rather different than they expected.
The planet is very much like earth, except the humans are like animals and apes are the sentient beings – the orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of Planet of the Apes. I had my dim notions gleaned from references to the movies, but the book proved somewhat different. At first I thought it was a satire of human civilization…the airs we give ourselves, the assumptions of our own natural superiority, the behavior we consider natural, but seems grotesque when carried out by another species of animal.
The apes cut off the hair of humans and wear it in their hats, they hunt humans, they conduct scientific experiments on humans. Even the idea of humans wearing clothes strikes the apes as absurd, just as humans see no need for apes to be attired. Poor Ulysse is reduced to walking everywhere stark naked.
They even have their own stratified society, with chimpanzees being historically persecuted and gorillas historically the aristocrats of society.
The humans on Soror, on the other hand, are like animals, with no spark of intelligence. Ulysse is startled when he meets a gorgeous woman, whom he calls Nova, who he finds physically attractive, but with no soul to respond to him other than has a pet mind responds to an owner.
On the other hand, he forms a deep spiritual bond with Zira, a female chimpanzee scientist. He convinces her of his intelligence through geometry and they bond closely, though they cannot get over the physical repugnance they feel for each other’s appearance. He cannot help feeling physically attracted to Nova, but it is only with Zira that he finds emotional and intellectual communion.
Oddly enough, I found it difficult to really imagine Zira has a chimpanzee while reading, because she is presented as so warm and human. I’m curious to see how much of this would-be romance subplot makes it into any of the movies.
But by the second half of the novel, I realized that the point of the story was not satire, but a look at how the barrier between being savage and civilized is wafer thin. The professor who had traveled with Ulysse becomes so accustomed to captivity and being treated as an animal that he reverts to animal-form. All spark of comprehension and higher feeling is completely extinguished and he acts just like all the other humans. Even Ulysse finds it startlingly easy to drift into a kind of complacence.
While held captive with the other humans – before it is realized that he is on their intellectual level – he finds himself being taken care of, falling into habits of wanting to please the chimps to earn food, trying to match their expectations and just generally letting himself go. He is only saved from this by Zira.
In fact, Zira’s scientist fiance – Cornelius – discovers that chimpanzees did not evolve into sentient beings first on Soror, as was previously believed. Instead, he discovers that humans were the dominate species on earth, but taught apes to imitate them. Through imitation, they learned intelligence and while they grew more intelligent, humans grew lazy and unmotivated, slipping gradually back into primitivism while apes took over the world.
And that is Pierre Boulle’s central point: civilizations inevitably die away, people grow lethargic and contented, happy to be taken care of, losing all motivation and desire to push forward and instead slip backwards. It’s de-evolution. In the book (unlike the 1968 movie) there is no nuclear war or folly that brings about the demise of humans, but merely the natural course of nature. And the same thing is destined to happen to the apes, the author suggests.
There is a twist at the end of the book, but it is not the twist of the movie. There is also a framing story: two lovers floating around space who find a message in a bottle that contains Ulysse’s story. There is a kicker to this framing story, but I don’t want to spoil it.
Over all, I found it a fascinating book. The tone is initially lightly-ironic, sometimes mocking. But there is also an increasingly grotesque horror that pervades the book. I am curious to see how the movies compare with this book…and it’s message.