Fiction Affliction #2: Planet of the Apes
Like a lot of people, I had no idea that the film Planet of the Apes was actually based on a book. And that really goes to show the power of a big name in Hollywood. I always knew Rod Serling had a hand in it. I mean, that’s obvious. The movie is like a big budget Twilight Zone episode, complete with a classic twist ending. I actually thought he wrote the whole thing. I didn’t know it all came from a best-selling novel written by a French guy named Pierre Boulle, who also wrote another popular work that got the big screen treatment, The Bridge Over the River Kwai.
So, when I saw an actual book with the title Planet of the Apes on its cover sitting in the library, I almost didn’t believe my eyes. This is the curse of living in an age where literally everything is adapted from some stupid comic book or graphic novel, or a remake of a show or movie. You tend to forget that for most of Hollywood’s existence, it was books (classic ones, even) upon which everything was largely based. That’s not say that best-selling popular fiction doesn’t tickle H’wood’s G-Spot nowadays still, but it seems like most of the books pipelined into features are calculated for that exact purpose. Blame that on Michael Crichton. The guy who could sell movie rights to his books in a matter of seconds.
While we’re on the subject of movies, Boulle’s apes book makes a strong case for inspiring the largest amount of cinematic content from a singular literary source. There are currently nine Apes movies, with the tenth on the way in 2024. The franchise started with the Charlton Heston-starring original in 1968, continued with four more sequels through the early ’70s. Then there was that Tim Burton remake in 2001. Followed by the rebooted franchise films that began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring pre-sex scandal ruined James Franco and the stellar CGI services of Andy Serkis. The Apes franchise has certainly reached over a billion dollars in box office revenue, plus whatever merchandise might have been sold. I mean, you know EVERYONE is clambering for a Dr. Zaius action figure.
Hey, that’s not bad for a relatively short novel published way back in 1963.
But we’re not here to talk the Apes movies. We’re here to talk the Apes book. Which is a clever, high-concept story with some humorous sci-fi anachronisms (it was written before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon), a likable if rather bland lead character, an odd and arguably pointless narative framing device, and not one, but two twist endings.
Suck on that Rod Serling and M. Night.
This was a good, breezy book that felt like a fun science lecture delivered by your favorite professor. Not too long. Not too short. It only clocks in at a short 250 pages or so. And that’s with a LOT of white space, mind you.
The book employs a weird framing device. We meet a rich couple “sailing” through space using some form of solar power or wind as a propulsion system. Space travel is now so commonplace that the leisure class now does it for going on vacation and honeymooning. This couple, Jinn and Phyllis, somehow, inexplicably happen across a message in a bottle floating in the endless void of space.
Yes, a literal message in a glass bottle hurling through space. No matter the trillion to one odds of such an event occurring. And in this bottle is a hand-written document containing a crazy story about human astronauts who lands on a faraway planet from earth that is populated by intelligent apes. The story is written by a journalist named Ulysse (no doubt inspired from Odysseus) who was invited by a professor and a physician on an interstellar journey in a rocket ship capable of reaching near-light speed. Due to a complicated time dilation function, as the rocket reaches the speed of light, time inside the ship behaves normally, while outside centuries pass. This allows the trio of men to reach the star Betelguese. Once they arrive on a habitable planet, the astronauts find some water. They throw off their clothes for a swim. But it isn’t long before they’re accosted by a tribe of humans, who ruin their clothing and their rocket ship.
Making matters worse, a gang of gorillas come along and capture two of the astronauts (one is killed in the attack), where they are taken to a lab for study. Ulysse makes friends with Zira, a chimpanzee researcher, and her fiance, Cornelius. But the journalist’s biggest challenge will be convincing the ape world he is actually intelligent and deserving of equal rights as the apes. A tall task considering the high-ranking orangutans, led by the hard-headed Dr. Zaius, are convinced the human is just mimicking them, and really could just use a good ol’ fashioned lobotomy instead.
Ulysse eventually escapes the monkey planet with a hot (human) native girl he names Nova, whom he’s gotten pregnant during his long period of incarceration. He jumps forward in time again, and eventually arrives back on earth. Only to discover that his home world has ALSO somehow become overrun by smart apes.
We then jump back to the rich vacationing couple to reveal that they are actually apes themselves, who find the story they just read so unbelievable, that they just laugh it off and keep heading into space.
Planet of the Apes is packed with a lot cool ideas. The ebb and flow of civilization. Special relativity. Science versus superstition. The staunch bureacracy of the scientific establishment. The ethics of animal experimentation, in this case using humans to help advance medicine for apes. Genetic memory. But the idea I find the most interesting concerns mimicry behavior. As Ulysse and his ape allies discover through the process of research and discovery, the apes didn’t so much become intelligent as became sophisticated copy cats of human behavior. Or copy apes.
The book proposes the troubling existential idea that true creative consicousness, and genuine originality — that unique candle flicker that defines humanity — is itself a rare and somewhat unquantifiable thing. The apes, for all their societal advancement, are almost no better than flesh and blood ChatGPT automatons covered in hair. Though most humans are essentially the same thing. Hence the common online put-down “NPC” (non-playable character) used against simpletons who float along with the crowd, uncritically mimicking the majority. As though plugged into some kind of hive mind. Ulysee uses the example of how once a century a true work of genuis is written, and then everyone else copies it, which begets more copies.
Naturally, this eerie and disquieting realization perturbs the ape intelligentsia. And it’s understandable. No one wants to know they’re essentially a puppet. But when you take a good look around, you can’t help but realize that this kind of explains why everything tends to be so screwed up. Because real thought and developing a true individual identity are hard to do. It’s much easier to copy and go along with the current status quo. Don’t agree? Okay, what language do you speak? Do you use money? Do you wear modern clothes? If you’re working, are you saving for retirement? Are you aware of the laws in your community? If you’re attending school, why are you attending school? For a job? Because it’s what you’re supposed to do to “make something of yourself?” Okay, now stop and think about who put all those ideas in your head about those things in the first place, and whether you really ever had a choice as to whether or not you were going to follow that societal programming.
The concept of mimicry is actually kind of scary the more you think about it. It makes you doubt whether you even have a free will. Or your own mind. I’m not saying it’s all bad, or that it’s all some evil conspiracy. Most of our copied behavior is essential training that keeps us safe and alive. But it is alarming to realize how little we really think about what we’re doing as much as we’re coasting on a set of predetermined coding.
Not far behind the mimicry idea is genetic memory, also known as racial memory. Ulysee encounters a human subject who somehow is able to recount the entire history of the human/ape conflict that ultimately lead to the simian takeover by accessing traumatic memories hidden in their genetic code. It’s a rather bizarre scene altogether, and scientifically questionable. It may as well as be a psychic seance. But it’s a clever way for Boulle to provide some needed exposition to explain how the apes came to be.
I’d strongly recommend checking out Planet of the Apes. Not only is it intellectually stimulating, original, while also being enjoyable, but it’s also a classic. And I don’t know about you, but I’m always fascinated by cultural watershed works that inspire a franchise or a major milestone within its genre. Apes has that in spades.