Planet of the Apes

Spoilers for both book and film adaptations below.

Planet of the Apes /
by Pierre Boulle (Author), Xan Fielding (Translator)

Despite the popularity and resilience of the franchise, I suspect that the number of fans who have actually read the 1963 book by Pierre Boulle is relatively modest compared with those who have seen the movies. That is a shame, because, despite some significant differences between the source material and the films, the book offers us a new window into the cultural idiom of the 1960s. It also provides us with a satire of culture and technology that is timeless, if idiosyncratic.

This book has two characteristics that will likely be surprising to fans of the movies. For one thing this book is far more satirical, without becoming a farce, than is the movie. It is really only a science fiction novel in the broadest sense. Speculative fiction is perhaps a more appropriate term. Yes, it involves rockets and relativity and evolution and astrophysics, but the scientific rigmarole merely serves as a backdrop to the narrative. The truth is that the science is at best a pasteboard set in the novel. It is secondary at best, and the tale actually could have benefited from some research by the author in this regard. Not that the science in the movie is all that accurate either, but this is less distracting in a film, where the problem can be dissolved by hand waving, effects, and suspension of disbelief. This is harder to accomplish in a novel, especially when one has already been exposed to hard science authors like Arthur C. Clarke or, more recently, Andy Weir. It is perhaps a function of its era that the technical aspects of the story are less worked out than we might wish, coming from an age where science realism dominates the scene.

Perhaps this criticism is a little unfair given the state of science fiction in the early 1960s, as opposed to now, but I can’t imagine that calling apes ‘monkeys’ was likely never good practice from a scientific perspective, and I object to this careless use of language, unless it can be attributed an artifact of a poor translation or a French idiom of which I am unaware. In the latter case the fault is with the editor, but still, it is a fault.

A second difference between the book and the movie that will likely strike the reader is that the ape society presented in the book is not as backwards as is that in the movie. They are not a primitive culture so much as an imitative one. This actually turns out to be one the primary themes of the novel, and one that is hardly developed in the movies. Ape culture in the book is presented as being fully modern and contemporary to the time, but at the same time stuck, due to failure of innovation and original thinking on the part of the apes. This is a critique of culture and the humanities, as much as it is a meditation on technology and societal advancement. There is even a long passage where the author meditates upon the appropriation of literature from one generation to the next, and one gets the sense that the author is acutely critical of the derivative nature of much artistic production. It makes one wonder what the author might be appropriating, himself. The comments are wry and self deprecating in a way that almost breaks the fourth wall of the narrative.

Chimpanzee using a tool via Serious Science.

There were some other themes in the novel that intrigued me as well. The animality of the humans was an interesting aspect of the book, and the way in which they fought against the trappings of society instead of resisting the apes themselves was an aspect that intrigued me. It reminded me very much of another recent read of mine, The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. A complicated book that covers a wide swath of modern anthropology. I was reminded of one of the books theses, that so-called primitive societies might not actually be primitive by fate or failure of the imagination but by conscious choice. The connection did not go much deeper than this faint resonance, but it did open my eyes to the possibility that the dichotomy presented by the novel, that between animal and human, civilization and savagery, was not at all clear cut. After all, we may think of apes as dumb animals, but in fact they are accomplished at tool use, strategic thinking, political thinking, and levels of communication that we normally attribute to humans alone.

Ultimately there are some significant changes in plotting that were made by the movie franchise. Most important of these is that the astronauts are not on Earth when they encounter the ape planet, only after going home does the protagonist discover that, after many centuries, his home planet too, has given in to the urge to abandon creativity for the sake of comfort and allowed the ape servants to take over there as well. It doesn’t quite have the shock value of Charlton Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty buried in a radioactive desert, but it does better highlight the author’s point that at some level we are victims of our own drive towards status, luxury, and comfort. It really is a tale as old as time, and one that the ancient Romans dealt with in their literature. When does society become decadent and begin to undermine the very necessity that caused it to evolve in the first place?

Anthropology and societal development aside, however, the author seems more interested in how people can, in some circumstances, overlook their physical differences, as well as how, in other circumstances, they can become ingrained in established modes of behavior. One feature that the book shares with the movies is the stratification of ape society into different casts that fail to think outside of their particular ethnic box. This is directly adapted into the films and is a key feature of the social commentary. Less evident in the movie is how the protagonist is able to move between worlds. He has empathy for his human friends based on their physical form, this is true, but he is able to more or less enter ape society as the tale progresses and to abandon his old connections, and his human mistress, based on cultural cues. Social hierarchy triumphs over physicality, at least for a while, and this is telling. Only when the mute and animalistic Nova is learned to be pregnant, does the protagonist deign to return to her and vow to protect her from her ape captors and tormenters.

This blaming of the social system harkens back to the original reaction of the feral humans to the trappings of society, physically fighting against the clothes and technology, as opposed to the strange humans that have come to exist among them. It is the trappings of culture, the clothes, the machines, the houses, the guns, that transform our thinking as much as the social connections that we make or the empathetic response we have due to natural biological similitude. This is the reason that the apes refuse to clothe the protagonist throughout much of the book, continually remarking upon its absurdity. To do so would be to make him tacitly one of them and undermine their own stratification based on physical appearance and caste. In the end it turns out to be the clothes that make (and unmake) the man, or the ape, as the case may be.

Featured Image “Concept Sketch of Forbidden Zone – Mentor Huebner” via Invisible Themepark.

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