Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Planet of the Apes

Pierre Boulle Planet of the Apes (1963)
I was never a massive fan of the films although I liked the first one well enough. As it happens my first commissioned book cover was for The Planet of the Apes Chronicles by Paul A. Woods, essentially a collection of vaguely scholarly essays about the films, television series, and so on; at least I assume they were vaguely scholarly as I probably skipped a few of them. Nevertheless, Boulle's novel struck me as worth buying when I chanced upon a copy, it being sufficiently interesting in itself regardless of the films it inspired, even just as a piece of science-fiction history.

Although there were quite a few significant changes made to the story between this original novel and Charlton Heston shaking his fist at the Statue of Liberty, most seem well-made for once, given that Planet of the Apes is science-fiction by a fairly liberal reading of the term, having more in common with Gulliver's Travels than The First Men in the Moon. In fact, you might be better off reading it as a prequel to Will Self's Great Apes than as formative to the Charlton Heston vehicle. For starters, Boulle's apes are more technologically advanced than their cinematic descendants, and at least have technology sufficient to send experimental satellites into orbit, some with human test animals inside. Beyond this they're pretty much in the tradition of Victorian tables turned caricature, wearing suits, puffing away on pipes, driving cars - whatever Boulle thought would best shock us into taking a long, hard look at ourselves and the institutions of our society. Ape civilisation here is rigidly divided as a parody of the class system with gorillas as an arrogant aristocracy, orang-outangs as the stubbornly scientific class, and chimpanzees standing in for more or less everyone else.

Despite the bold text represented by this mirror image of ourselves as apes, and despite a lively and readable prose without too much in the way of fannying around, whatever Boulle was trying to say often seems oddly ambiguous with his focus shifting from animal rights to the absurdity of the class system, even taking a parodic swipe at the stock market at one point. Ultimately the statement is a broad one concerning human vanity and the misplaced faith we have in our own institutions. The conclusion is radically different to the one we saw on the screen, although it has to be said that the film actually makes more sense of its story in being significantly less reliant on coincidence and with less convoluted purpose. By contrast, Planet of the Apes with all of its laboured twists and raised eyebrows is of such Swiftian thrust as to count as a Surrealist novel. It's also a very good book, possibly just not the one you might have expected it to be if you've ever heard of Roddy McDowall.

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