Tag Archives: Time Travel

Planet of the Apes – The Novel, by Pierre Boulle

414895I 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.

They clearly felt that having all the humans naked was a bit much for the movie

They clearly felt that having all the humans naked was a bit much for the movie

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.

Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter - they couldn't bring themselves to kiss in the book (though they almost get swept away by emotion), but they couldn't get over how ugly the other looked

Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter – they couldn’t bring themselves to kiss in the book (though they almost get swept away by the their deep bond), but they couldn’t get over how ugly the other looked

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.


Posted by on August 9, 2016 in Books


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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Movie and Book and What If It Was I Who Had Traveled Back in Time?

A_Yankee_in_the_Court_of_King_Arthur_book_cover_1889Some time ago, I read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and recently watched the 1949 film of the same name with Bing Crosby. The movie is quite a bit more light-hearted than the book, with Bing Crosby singing his songs with his trademark easy-going humor. The book is oddly serious at times; it starts out as a biting and often hilarious parody of chivalrous fiction, specifically the Arthurian legends, only to end with an exceedingly bleak indictment of modernity.

In the book, the man who goes back to King Arthur’s time, Hank Morgan, is from Connecticut and was a supervisor at a weapon’s factory. In the movie, Bing Crosby’s Hank Martin is a blacksmith. What both these men have in common, however, are some basic skills, the ability to build modern devices, often weapons, but also other useful devices (like a safety pin). And in both versions, Hank is handy with a lasso and can bring down a knight in a joust without having to resort to actually wearing armor and using a lance. They also both use their special knowledge of an approaching eclipse to pretend that they are wizards who can make the sun cease to shine and Crosby’s Hank has matches and a piece of glass to create fire.

Mark Twain wrote his book in 1889 and in his book Hank Morgan is clearly more enlightened than King Arthur and his knights. He introduces baseball, democracy, shows the king his realm and the suffering and slavery within. But all his knowledge is ultimately of no use. He restructures the kingdom, only to have it all undone when he takes a trip and Arthur discovers Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair and the kingdom disintegrate into war. When Hank comes back, the people have deserted him and he and a faithful few are besieged by knights. He puts up electric wires all around his refuge and every last knight is electrocuted en masse (because of their armor). The besieged are surrounded by a wall of fried knights and cannot get out because of their own electric fence and the electrocuted men. It is truly an appalling end and although the war was brought about by medieval ignorance (a big theme in the book), it seems as if Twain negates his parody with such utter destruction, which critics have often likened to what was to come in the trench warfare of WWI. Superstition and ignorance versus soulless machines, but it is the final scene that really stays with the reader.

connecticutyankee2The movie, made in 1949, completely omits the bleakness and is sheer good-humored, Technicolor fun – the kind of film where people seem so happy to be living that they have to sing.

Bing Crosby’s Hank Martin is still more enlightened than the medieval people, but mostly because he’s more cool (Bing Crosby generally plays people who are very cool and sing cool songs). Crosby sings, woos Alisande (Rhonda Fleming – known as The Queen of Technicolor for how well her red hair filmed in color), shows the musicians how to play cool music, has a wizard battle with Merlin, hangs out with Sir Sagramore (William Bendix), lassoes Sir Lancelot, takes King Arthur (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) on a trip to see his kingdom and makes a gun. He does die at the end, but he is translated back to the future and meets Alisande’s descendent (or possibly her reincarnated self).

I watched it with my Nana, who remembers seeing it when it first came out. She was walking to school the next day and met her friend, who had also happened to see the film that weekend. She recalls that there was no one on the street and the two of them walked to school, all the while singing the film’s most infectious song “Busy Doing Nothing.”

In some ways A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court makes me think of The Court Jester in its medieval comedy, jousts, and fun with medieval language, though Bing Crosby’s character has things a little more together than Danny Kaye’s.

I was also rather struck by the fact that they chose to set the beginning of the film in 1912 as opposed to the 1940s. I think they did this so that he could reasonably be a blacksmith and therefore have some useful skills when he was sent back in time. And that got me thinking. Many people in American have such specialized and specific knowledge that if we were to be sent back in time, we might be of no earthly use in the past. I wondered, if I were sent back in time, what could I do? I could never build a gun, let alone a safety pin.

Bing Crosby at his blacksmith's ship, sharpening a sward with William Bendix

Bing Crosby at his blacksmith’s ship, sharpening a sword with William Bendix

I can play the piano, but pianos hadn’t been invented yet. Not even the harpsichord was in use (which wouldn’t be until the fourteenth century). And I couldn’t build one. I could, possibly, explain our modern musical notation to them and musical theory. Music in the 6th century (when Arthur was king) was monophonic, which means a single line of melody, and was generally vocal. I suppose I could try to scare the living daylights out of people with my harmony, though I am not sure if I would survive such a performance.

One thing I’d have is my phone. (Bing Crosby had matches on him when he was sent back, I would probably have a cellphone). I could play alarming music and shine the screen at people until my battery died.

I could also teach sanitation, washing hands and such, but I couldn’t really help with the plague or other diseases. Nor do I think writing or blogging would be especially useful. My best bet might be to employ my mediocre juggling skills and become a court jester.

What would you do if you were sent back into King Arthur’s day?

For anyone interested, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can be seen on youtube.


Posted by on November 14, 2014 in Fiction, Movie Musicals


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