Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Pierre Boulle- Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes
Vintage
 Pierre Boulle
1963

"I racked my brains to discover some sense in the events I had witnessed. I needed this intellectual exercise to escape from the despair that haunted me, to prove to myself that I was a man, I mean a man from Earth, a reasoning creature who made it a habit to discover a logical explanation for the apparently miraculous whims of nature, and not a beast hunted down by highly developed apes.”

Somewhat randomly pulling Pierre Boulle's original piece of sixties science fiction from the shelves, a quick examination led me to realise that this was an intriguing prospect in terms of looking at a franchise in relation to humble origins. Planet of the Apes, as we know it today, is a firmly established Hollywood money-maker with a selection of classic soundbites and images cemented in pop-culture history, each much parodied; one of the first things I think of when I think of Planet of the Apes is the image of Troy McClure in the lead role in 'Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off!', from the classic Simpsons episode A Fish Called Selma. Since then there have been two attempts to reboot the franchise, but despite that Charlton Heston is still the man most associated with the title, thanks to the original five movies. I haven't seen any of them.

It's one of those things where I've been so often assaulted with parodies of them (well, the original) that I feel like I've experienced it quite enough as it is, and I've been put off by the apparent cheesiness; the hokey, cheap-looking ape costumes, the terrible, sub-Shatner acting ability of Heston, and the sheer lunacy surrounding the whole thing. I think in that respect, the themes and cultural presence of the movie franchise in my eyes made, on quick judging-the-book-by-the-cover analysis, the book seem that much more appealing. When you simply look at the details of the novel without the larger context, it gains a huge amount of literary hipster credentials.

Translated from the French (because I am but an ignorant Englishman), Pierre Boulle's most famous future sci-fi franchise phenomenon novel is essentially a philosophical (but not overly so) adventurous pure science fiction concept that uses adventure and mystery to explore a few basic social issues; essentially turning the world upside-down to look at it from a different perspective. The plot itself moves along quickly, thrillingly, towards a thoughtful, logical conclusion (with a final twist at the very end, and it doesn't involve the Statue of Liberty), evoking stylistic similarities to many earlier luminaries of the genre.

I couldn't resist this picture.
Ulysse Mérou travels across the universe in a time-manipulating space shuttle with two science companions, to the star system of Betelgeuse, where the team discover the planet Soror, a planet with a breathable atmosphere strikingly similar to Earth. Upon landing, they discover numerous human beings living savagely in the forest, with no language, society, or intelligence. Before getting much of a chance to study the undeveloped humans, the party is attacked by a, wait for it, a pack of seemingly-intelligent, talking, clothes wearing, congo-dancing damned dirty apes. Ulysse is captured, plays dumb, and is taken to civilisation and placed in a cage at a research facility. Still hiding his true intelligence, Ulysse takes the opportunity to observe the apes, but can only guess so much without communication. In an act of narrative fortune, however, Ulysee makes a connection with a chimp scientist named Zira, and is able to learn some monkey-talk and bring his presence out into the open.

It was from this point especially that the gap between this novel and the story as it exists in modern media became most apparent. Earlier on in the novel I felt that the pacing and style of Bouelle's prose and story most reminded me of Arthur Conan Doyle, in particular The Lost World and his other Professor Challenger stories. Then I remembered Boulle's countryman Jules Verne and his famous adventure stories, and Boulle's fantasy origins became more tangible. Still though, this novel was written in the mid-sixties, and betrays its period style through the contemplative philosophical musings related to the analogous events of the novel. When Ulysse finally begins to explain himself to the ape civilization (at the most appropriately dramatic time), rather than continue along the lines of danger and adventure by having his life threatened or worse, Ulysse is rather quickly accepted into society, and spends much of the rest of the novel working with the apes, contemplating the meaning of this odd reverse species arrangement.

This considered pace secured my admiration for the book, elevating it up there with the best science fiction I have yet to experience, such as the work of Arthur C. Clarke, and Daniel Keys' Flowers for Algernon. Like the best of its genre, Planet of the Apes uses a deceptively outrageous formula to ask searching questions about the human race, but does so with style and mystery the eggs the reader on to complete it. It's at strange odds with the uber-serious tone of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the most recent film, with the irony being that the franchise is far  from considerable as a philosophical allegory for the standing of man amongst the animals of Earth. Still, perhaps the biggest compliment I can give this novel is that despite its weightier overtones it still feels fresher and more exciting as a pure story than the massively engorged, cash-injected twenty-first century temple of decadence movies. Highest recommendation of its genre.