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An Ape By Any Other Name...

CINESCAPE compares the literary and film exploits of Pierre Boulle's amazing apes

By Tony Whitt     July 30, 2001


A French edition of Pierre Boulle's original PLANET OF THE APES novel
© N/A
When Tim Burton first announced that his version of PLANET OF THE APES would be a "re-imagining" and not a remake of the 1968 classic, many fans were outraged. I imagine now that we've seen the results of that "re-imagining," they're even more upset the two movies couldn't be more different and yet still retain the same name. But compared to the book on which the first movie was based Pierre Boulle's novel LA PLANÈTE DES SINGES the shifts in both films are even more radical, and the resemblances fairly surprising. Let's begin by looking at the story that started the apes loping...


LA PLANÈTE DES SINGES
Author: Pierre Boulle
Publisher: René Juillard
Year: 1963
Grade: B+

Journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies the misanthropic Professor Antelle and his pupil Arthur Levain on an experimental flight to the Betelgeuse system. While only two years pass aboard the ship, three and a half centuries pass on Earth. They land on a planet they name Soror and soon discover that the humans on the planet are little more than beasts. One of the humans, a beautiful young woman whom Ulysse names Nova, becomes attached to them. But they soon discover who the true dominant species is when apes come to hunt for the humans for the purpose of scientific experimentation and for sport. Arthur is killed during the hunt, and Ulysse is separated from Professor Antelle and taken to a research institute. There, he attracts the attention of a chimpanzee researcher named Zira, who notices that the new human beast seems to be mimicking simian speech and actions.

After several degrading experiments, Ulysse manages to convince Zira that he is a thinking creature, and she quickly teaches him the simian language while he teaches her French. Despite the machinations of the closed-minded Dr. Zaïus, an orangutan who represents the official science, Zira and her fiancée Cornélius encourage Ulysse to make a speech to the annual biological conference. Zaïus plans to present Ulysse at the conference as a "tame man," but Ulysse's speech convinces the assembled scientists, and he is given his freedom. He becomes a celebrity, but it becomes a hollow victory when he discovers that Professor Antelle has been kept in the zoo and has reverted to an animalistic state. Ulysse observes the horrors that his "spiritual brothers" are put through by the apes and comes to believe he has a holy mission to revitalize humanity on Soror. He becomes even more convinced when, in the course of an experiment on a human woman's brain, the ape scientists access her race memory and discover that humans were once the dominant species. Their intellect slowly devolved through apathy, allowing the apes to mimic their actions and evolve to their current state. This discovery is supported by a thousand year old archaeological dig in which Cornélius discovers traces of a human civilization that predates the simian. Ulysse becomes even more convinced that he has been sent to return the humans to their previous state.

Before he can make any plans for this holy revolution, he discovers that Nova is pregnant with his child and that the scientists, headed by the ousted Zaïus, plan to cut short the threat to simiankind that this baby and indeed Ulysse and Nova represents. Zira and Cornélius arrange to return Ulysse and his new family to his ship, which is still in orbit around Soror, so that he can return to Earth. But the outcome of the journey is not what he expects...

The most surprising thing about Boulle's novel is that it's not science fiction at all. The science fiction elements, in fact, are pretty pulpy, especially in Xan Fielding's English translation. They're a bit easier to stomach in the original French, but it's still jarring to hear Ulysse and Professor Antelle discussing the "rocket" that brings them to Soror, or how often Ulysse refers to Nova as "one of the loveliest females in the cosmos." (It's also amusing that Ulysse is so parochially French all the way through the book, even though he's supposedly from the cosmopolitan era of 2500 AD.) But LA PLANÈTE DES SINGES has more in common with the social commentary of Jonathan Swift and the scientific pessimism of H. G. Wells than any of the other science fiction published in the early '60s. Boulle's themes deal with the human pretension of believing that we are at the center of the universe and with the nature of intelligence. The apes in the book are simply humans in disguise, with human foibles and fears.

It's also an amazingly chilling satire at the same time as you're laughing at the apes' pompous statements that they are the only creatures with souls, you realize that we've heard these statements before from our own theologians and philosophers. Just as chilling are the scenes in which Ulysse watches the brain surgery experiments that allow the apes to discover their origins. This book should probably be required reading for animal rights activists Ulysse's horror at the realization that human scientists have conducted similar experiments on apes in our world is a pivotal moment in the book. But the most frightening element of all is the cause of the devolution of humanity, especially the extremely fast degeneration of the intellectual Professor Antelle: it's not a lobotomy that removes our intelligence so much as the simple lack of intellectual activity and the apathy that accompanies such passivity. Taken as a statement of social criticism, Boulle's novel serves as a warning: we could easily be superceded by another species and our civilization ended simply by our own complacency. The book suggests that what has happened on Soror could happen even to us.

The original PLANET OF THE APES



Despite the relative lack of action and the philosophical underpinnings, fans of the film series will be pleased to find echoes of this book not only in the first film but in the third, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. The producers of that film must have found the story of Ulysse Mérou's celebrity irresistible, especially given that the implications surrounding the birth of Cornelius and Zira's child in the movie are almost exactly the same as those surrounding the birth of Nova's baby Sirius. (Yes, his name really is Sirius. It's a very French book, you know.) Reading this book opens up a completely different view of both the original film series and the new film even if you have to read it in translation.


PLANET OF THE APES (1968)
Rated: G
Stars: Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, Linda Harrison, James Daly, Buck Kartalian
Writer(s): Michael Wilson, Rod Serling
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Grade: A- (as movie); C (as adaptation)

Astronaut George Taylor (Heston) heads up a team of explorers on a one-way trip into interstellar space. They crash-land on a planet where they discover humans living in a primitive state. They don't have much time to ponder this discovery, however, as the apes who comprise the dominant species on the planet come to hunt down the humans. One of Taylor's party is shot, while another one is captured. Taylor himself is shot in the throat and is taken to be studied by zoologist Dr. Zira (Hunter), who realizes there's something different about this one. Once Taylor's throat heals and he can speak again, he attempts to convince the apes that he's not a stupid beast like the other humans but it's not as simple as he hopes. Even Zira's fiancée Cornelius (McDowall) takes some persuading. Orangutan scientist and Defender of the Faith Dr. Zaius (Evans) realizes the true implications of this human's appearance, however, and attempts to have him sterilized before he can produce a new race of intelligent humans. Zira and Cornelius arrange for Taylor to escape and take him into the Forbidden Zone, where an archaeological dig reveals that apes were not always the dominant species. Taylor sets out on his own and discovers...well, you know.

Probably the biggest change between this first film version and the book and one which has affected even the "re-imagined" version is the decision of the original producers to make ape society a relatively primitive one. Rod Serling's first draft of the script was far more faithful to the book and presented the apes as being just as advanced as we are. Boulle's ape society featured advanced brain surgery, cars, planes even television. But the costs of the ape makeup and recreating an advanced technological society would have been too great. The result is that, while the book makes the point that ape society is as advanced as the human one in most ways while behind us in others, the movie implies that even at their most advanced, the apes cannot progress past a certain point. Of course, while they live in Flintstones-style houses and use wagons for transportation, they have enough metallurgical skill to make rifles and bullets...

ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES



The first film version also dilutes many of the book's philosophical themes and hunkers down in the social criticism instead but it's a social criticism that reflects a particular time period rather than an all-inclusive view of humanity. PLANET OF THE APES is far more a movie about civil rights than about the nature of intelligence bizarre, when you realize that the humans in the movie really aren't social equals to the apes in any way, shape, or form. Lines from the original film series like "The only good human is a dead human" or "All humans look alike to most apes" may mirror the racist speech of the 1960s, but to suggest that the ethnic groups under fire during that period are anything like the mindless humans in the film would itself be racist. Add to this the whole theme of youthful rebellion and never trusting anyone over 30 and you have a film that only indirectly covers the same social themes as the novel. It's no wonder Boulle himself objected to the film so strongly imagine what he must have thought of the sequels!

In other respects, the film is surprisingly faithful to Boulle's novel. The interaction between Taylor and Zira is directly taken from the book, and Taylor's misanthropic character is based on Professor Antelle and his desire to get away from the fellow humans that he holds in disdain. But showing that humanity brought about its downfall through the avoidable horrors of nuclear war and not the unavoidable dumbing down of human culture dilutes Boulle's message, even as it makes for one of the greatest moments in cinematic history.


PLANET OF THE APES (2001)
Rated: PG-13
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kris Kristofferson, Estella Warren, Paul Giamatti
Writer(s): William Broyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal
Director: Tim Burton
Grade: B- (as movie); D (as adaptation)

Astronaut Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) blasts off into a zone of unstable space to rescue a trained chimpanzee and ends up crash-landing on a planet where sentient humans are hunted by apes and turned into slaves. After earning the animosity of General Thade (Roth) and gaining the trust of human rights activist Ari (Bonham Carter), Leo escapes and soon discovers the secret of how the apes became the dominant species. With the help of Ari and human slave Daena (Warren), Leo persuades his fellow humans to rise up against their oppressors as he tries to find a way back to his own time and space.

The re-imagined PLANET OF THE APES pits human astronaut Leo against the evil General Thade



It's obvious, even without giving much more of the plot away, that the new film has just as little to do with Boulle's novel as it does with the original film. Ironically, it's far more of a film about civil rights than the first one, despite the continued watering down of the plot elements. And yet the real surprise is that certain elements of Boulle's novel that the original film ignored are taken up here. Taylor, for instance, could care less about the treatment of his fellow humans he just wants to get away from the damned dirty apes. Leo, on the other hand, acts as the same sort of savior for this pack of humans that Ulysse hoped to be in the novel. The strange romantic triangle between Ulysse, Zira, and Cornélius in the book is recreated here in the equally bizarre triangle between Leo, Ari, and Daena. But most amazingly, the surprise ending which has garnered a great deal of negative criticism and which usually causes film audiences to laugh rather than gasp in horror is the part that most directly follows the book. The biggest problem is that, since the rest of the film has so little to do with the book, tacking that ending onto this film robs the surprise of all its impact.

Mark Wahlberg teaches Estella Warren what it means to be human on the PLANET OF THE APES



We could hope that the second film could use that last scene as an opportunity to go back and incorporate more elements from the plot of the book. Unfortunately, that's not the way Hollywood works. Until someone gets enough capital (and interest) together to make a mini-series based on the novel which would be the best way to present that material to its fullest there's only one way to completely enjoy Boulle's original vision: learn to read French.

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