Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes

The other day I mused and complained a bit about the current Apes reboot. Well, I can now say that I've read Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes, originally published in French as La Planète des Singes in 1963, and have some further thoughts.*

To begin with, I'm a bit surprised that the book isn't better known, because it's quite good. I can't recall having seen it for sale or heard it discussed. My copy was picked up in a resale shop in Wichita Falls, and appears to be the first paperback edition in English. It doesn't exactly stand in the line of mainstream sci-fi at the time of its writing. Actually, the style made me think of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, William Henry Hudson, and the like. Perhaps it's overshadowed by the franchise it spawned.

It's a first-person narrative, via a framing story involving a bottle with a note (!) discovered in space, and has many synoptic descriptions and musings but little dialogue. I suppose it reminds me of The Time-Machine more than anything else, especially in the darkness of the tale. It ends with a horrific twist worthy of Rod Serling, though one more appropriate (to my mind) than the one in the movie. Tim Burton's much-maligned adaptation (2001) is closer to the novel in this respect, if in nothing else.

The story was, to me, quite gripping. The surprise ending wasn't hard to guess from the outset, but that didn't decrease my enjoyment. In general the movie follows it fairly closely, except that here the planet is a satellite of the star Betelgeuse. There are three travelers, as in the movie, and their respective fates are fairly similar. The exception is Professor Antelle ("against earth"? "counter-earth"?), who reverts to bestiality in a zoo, whereas his cinematic counterpart is merely lobotomized.

Yes, I say merely. The reversion of a great mind to that of an animal is terrifying to contemplate. In the novel we're given to understand that the humans of the planet weren't wiped out by nuclear war or plague. No, they lost their lofty seat through ennui and laziness, happy to be released from the shackles of thought and responsibility by becoming animals, driven at last into the jungles by the apes they'd raised as servants. This idea plays some part in the original Apes series, but never so starkly. A woman's racial memory holds the terrifying recollection that when the ape army finally descended upon them they carried whips, not guns.

At the same time, the novel contains some very humorous satire. To wit:
"With only two hands, each with short, clumsy fingers," said Zira, "man is probably handicapped at birth, incapable of progressing and acquiring a precise knowledge of the universe. Because of this, he has never been able to use a tool with any success. Oh, it's possible that he once tried, clumsily... Some curious vestiges have been found. There are a number of research projects going on at this moment into that particular subject. If you're interested in these questions, I'll introduce you someday to Cornelius. He is much more qualified than I am to discuss them." 
"My fiancé," said Zira, blushing. "A very great, a real scientist." 
"A chimpanzee?" 
"Of course... Anyway," she concluded, "that's what I think, too: our being equipped with four hands is one of the most important factors in our spiritual evolution. It helped us in the first place to climb trees, and thereby conceive the three dimensions of space, whereas man, pegged to the ground by a physical malformation, slumbered on the flat. A taste for tools came to us next because we had the potentiality of using them with dexterity. Achievement followed, and it is thus that we have raised ourselves to the level of wisdom."
Which just goes to show how meaningful a posteriori judgments can be.

Ape civilization in the novel is represented as on a level with twentieth-century Earth. I've read that the movie's Ape City was intended to follow suit, but that budget limitations forced a different approach. I wonder what other plot elements owe to this exigency? At any rate, I've always rather liked the set design of Planet of the Apes; it kind of reminds me of the crappy churches that got built in the seventies. The mixture of different levels of civilization – horse-drawn wagons and bronze-age architecture together with automatic rifles and brain surgery – continues to fascinate, but doubtless originated in this alteration.**

Why the filmmakers decided to set the story on Earth I'll never know, unless it was for financial reasons. Certain things left unexplained – the absence of the moon, for instance – seem to come from the novel, but don't make sense in the movie. Did they start filming before the knew how the movie would end?

In the final analysis the novel is far more powerful than the original movie, which descends too often into cheap vulgarity, while the recent reboot, however compelling an action-drama it may be, hardly merits comparison. The rise of the apes in the latter is represented as stemming from human experimentation, echoing in part the incoherent backstory of the original Apes prequel-sequels. But the novel's ape revolution, which is supposed to have begun in laboratories, is due to human degradation rather than some exterior calamity or biological chance. It could happen anywhere, whenever men are willing to lay aside their humanity as too burdensome. It's a cautionary tale, not about nuclear war or tinkering with nature, but about the potentiality of losing our dignity as human beings.

Made in the image of God. That is a truth placed on the narrator's lips. Terrible things happen when man forgets it.

* Pierre Boulle, I discover, also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai.

** Apes must ride black horses. It's a requirement.

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