Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Likely Story: Planet of the Apes...the novel

I'd forgotten that Pierre Boulle's novel (in French: La Planete des Singes) has a framing device. It's a pretty good novel, I think. Boulle himself didn't much care for it. He also wrote Bridge over the River Kwai.

Planet of the Apes, 1963.

A couple is taking a pleasure cruise through the cosmos when they find a "message in a bottle" sort of thing. They read the manuscript inside, and it's the story of a man named Ulysse Merou, who was on the first manned interstellar flight. He and two other men went to a planet near Betelgeuse, on which they land. It's habitable for humans, and they soon find humans. Unfortunately, the people there are human in shape but not in mentality; they're animals, plain and simple--they can't talk. Soon, they're attacked by apes. Ulysse is captured and caged.

Soon he starts communicating with a receptive chimp named Zira, and eventually learns the apes' language. He demonstrates his intelligence before the apes at large, and is treated well for a while. We learn that Zira's fiance Cornelius is investigating ape origins, and the three go to an archaeological site that is older than anything apes have found. Ape history goes back about ten thousand years. At this site, they find evidence that ape civilization was preceded by a human civilization.

Cornelius eventually finds a way to make other humans talk through some weird brain science, and this somehow allows him to tap into racial memories through a woman. This reveals, luckily, exactly what they want to know about their history: namely, that human civilization did precede their own, and that humans began keeping apes as pets and servants, and that the apes slowly gained sapience, and eventually, over time, deposed humanity. Interestingly, when apes learned to talk, the first thing they did was refuse the humans' commands. It's easy to imagine this being Cornelius's story from Escape that the first ape word was "No" (dramatized in Rise).

Eventually the novelty of a talking man wears off among the apes--especially the orangutans. Ulysse has impregnated Nova, and she gives birth to a boy who shows all the signs of sapience. This of course poses a threat to the apes, and the orangutans and gorillas will certainly do something drastic in response. Zira and Cornelius conspire with some other chimps to get the new family off the planet, back to Ulysse's orbiting space craft, and back to earth.

Twist: Earth is now dominated by apes!

The novel ends with the couple finishing the manuscript, and commenting on how it's not plausible because of the intelligence it ascribes to humans. We learn what we've suspected all along: that the vacationing couple are chimps.

If a picture's worth a thousand words, how come there's so much more in a novel than in a film? A novel like Apes, which must be 80,000 words at the most, would only be worth 80 pictures. Film is thousands of frames--and each frame a picture--flickering at 24 per second, for, let's say 90 minutes. That's 7,776,000 pictures. Yet a novel feels richer. Without reducing things to raw data (pictures do take up a lot more space on a hard drive than the thousand words they allegedly represent) I have to say that we must call into question the meaning of "worth."

What I'm getting at is that the novel of Planet of the Apes feels so much denser than the film--any of the films. I love these movies; I'd go so far to say that I like them more than the book on which they're based. But they don't have a human mating dance (yep, that's something that happens in the novel), nor do they have the various speculations about the course of evolution. The narrator and characters in the novel assume a telos, a natural progression of evolution with a species dominating the planet even if they don't assume a specific end point. There's also a lot of discussion of the nature of ape as a verb--to imitate--and its relationship to the apes' sapience. The apes of the Betelgeuse planet are, strangely, stagnant when it comes to their culture, science, and development. It's implied that they haven't advanced since taking over for the humans ten thousand years before Ulysse's arrival. They can imitate, but not generate, if that makes sense. Some chimps are showing their intellect, but it's not many, and they're considered outliers by the orangutans and gorillas; they're not altogether trusted.

This stuff just doesn't fit in a movie very well.

I'm rambling on and on without end, so I think I'll continue this tomorrow.

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