‘Planet of the Apes’

I’ve been meaning to read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963) for a while. I’ve seen the 1975 Hollywood film a number of times. It’s something of a cultural icon. But it’s always surprised me how the author of The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952) could also have written Planet of the Apes. They seem so entirely different.

Whatever you think about Charlton Heston, the 1975 adaptation, written by Rod Serling (the creator of The Twilight Zone) is a superb script — and it’s significantly different from the novel.

The book opens with a wealthy couple on a leisure cruise in space. They notice a strange object floating towards them. On closer inspection it turns out to be a bottle with a message inside. I can’t say that this old fashioned message in a bottle device endeared me to the story, but the letter within it forms the main narrative.

In this narrative, an exploration team sets out to the far end of space. They end up on planet Soror. We meet the planet’s humans who are unable to speak and behave in an animal-like way. Then we meet the apes who can speak and have human-like intelligence. The monkey world of Soror closely resembles that of 20th Century Earth.

Much of the story explores Ulysse’s experience while being examined by apes in a research laboratory. After proving his intelligence to Zira and her fiancee, Cornelius, they arrange for him to address a gathering of influential apes. Ulysse’s speech is a success and he is given his personal freedom. But, unable to protect him, or guarantee his continued liberty, Zira and Cornelius help Ulysse, Nova and their baby son to escape.

During a discussion it’s revealed that Soror’s ancient human ancestors were once the dominant species, but they became enfeebled by their increasing reliance on apes. Eventually, they were cast out into camps outside the cities where they gradually turned feral.

After successfully escaping from the monkey planet Ulysse, Nova and their baby return to Earth. They land at Orly Airport and are met by officials in a jeep, only to discover that the airport officials are apes. That part of the story ends, and we return to the rich couple on their vacation in space (the ones who found the message in a bottle). They find the story absurd, believing it to be a joke — because they too, are apes. Intelligent humans? How ridiculous! Then Jinn ‘began to manipulate the driving levers, using his four nimble hands’, and Phyllis ‘took out her compact’ and ‘touched up her dear little chimpanzee muzzle’. The novel has two shock endings, one following directly after the other.

Although the novel is quite an intellectual mind-game, as a story I prefer Rod Serling’s film version. The gloriously simple visual reveal at the end is cinematic genius, and the 1975 film seems to make more chronological sense. To put it in simple terms it’s just more satisfying.

I’ve always assumed that the 1975 film was a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, but this isn’t the case. Now, having finally read Planet of the Apes I can see parallels with The Bridge over the River Kwai. They are both post-Second World War novels about human folly.