BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Astronaut/Reporter Ulysse Mérou struggles for intellectual freedom among a society of Apes on another planet.
PROS: Classic sf feel; fast-paced; interesting situations and portrayals; not the ending I was expecting having only seen the 1968 film.
CONS: Clunky translated narrative; questionable science at times.
BOTTOM LINE: Well worth the read even if you think you know how it will turn out.
Planet of the Apes was one of my first science fiction films and I loved it. I will be watching it again soon and I wanted to see how it stood beside the book on which it was based: the 1963 French novel La Planète des singes (literally translated as Monkey Planet) written by Pierre Boulle in 1963.
The structure of the story is a first-person narrative of tag-along space traveler and reporter Ulysse Mérou and is bookended by leisurely astronauts who find his message. Ulysse Mérou was part of a three-man spaceship crew (the others were leader Professor Antelle and physician Arthur Levain) that set out to explore the star Betelgeuse, and in doing so land on the Earth-like planet they name Soror. There they find that men are reduced to living as primitive savages, living in the jungles and unable to speak. The sight of these talking outsiders sparks curiosity and fear in the natives, but not as much fear as imposed by the ruling species of the planet: apes.
The ape civilization of Soror is made up of three components: the gorillas are the brawn, the chimpanzees are the intellects, and the orangutans are the purveyors of “official science” or status quo. Thrust into this world, Ulysse, now separated from his companions, must convince the apes that he is not a talented animal, but a thinking intelligent being who deserves equality among them. Ulysse, who does not speak their language, eventually manages to convince two chimpanzee scientists (Zira and her fiancée Cornelius) that he is indeed intelligent. The hard part is persuading Zaius, an Old School orangutan who thinks Ulysse’s unique abilities are nothing more than parlor pet tricks.
The main strength of this book is in portraying apes as the planet’s dominant species. This reversal of roles is one of the classic tools that science fiction uses to hold up a mirror up to our own society, and in this respect, Planet of the Apes works as a cautionary story on an evolutionary scale. While here on Earth we may see apes as animals, the society of the apes on Soror is fairly advanced. Their level of technology allows for cars, aircraft, and even satellites, for example. Perhaps even more impressive is that there is equality among apes, even though the three races have their definite roles in society. But they also experiment on humans for the benefit of science, and therein lay the danger: if Ulysse cannot prove his intelligence, he will eventually be subject to medical experimentation. This fight for intellectual freedom and social acceptance is the driving thread of the book.
Worth noting are some minor quibbles that, while making a small impact overall, made Planet of the Apes feel slightly rough around the edges. Foremost was the prose which was clunky at times. Is this edition (2000 Gramercy) the only translation of Boulle’s French original version, I wonder? Also, some of the science was questionable; particularly the ability to stimulate the recall of species memory, which provided convenient plot advancement at the expense of believability. Also, why do the travelers take it in stride that human life would exist on another planet?
But these anomalies only detract from the reading experience in a small way. Planet of the Apes is well worth the read even if you think you know how it will turn out. The book ending is different than the 1968 film version (not sure about the 2001 Tim Burton film version) in some necessary ways, and I’ll talk about them when I review that film.