A Novel by Pierre Boulle a.k.a La Planète des Singes or “Monkey Planet”
It was not until very recently that I was made aware of a VERY important part of the venerable Planet of the Apes franchise that I was not aware of. I don’t think I was alone in not realizing that the entire story of the original Planet of the Apes movie was, in fact, an adaptation of a French novel from the early 1960s! Written by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai), the book would go on to spawn nine feature films, a TV series, a cartoon, books, comics and much more. La Planète des Singes or “Monkey Planet” is very different than your typical science fiction story of the time. Yes, like most other 60’s stories, it is an ambitious tale of a space-faring future, where humankind had outgrown their own planet and started to explore the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Once you exhaust that, however, the book is a far more intelligent look at what could face mankind when we reach to the stars, but those very same stars reach back. Honestly, I would love for THIS version of the story to get adapted in some way in the future, a distinction I make because this is entirely similar to any of the subsequent media properties it spawned, and the differences actually add a lot to the story. Now that I’ve read this book, I feel like I have a greater appreciation for the original film, and to a much much much smaller degree the incredibly underwhelming Tim Burton re-imagining that came out in 2001. I say this because I was always left wondering “how in the hell did Tim Burton came up with such a nonsensical ending that he did!” This was until I actually read this book and realized that there was a concerted by whomever wrote the screenplay to try to combine the vastly different endings from both this book and the original film into one.
“In the not-too-distant future, three astronauts land on what appears to be a planet just like Earth, with lush forests, a temperate climate, and breathable air. But while it appears to be a paradise, nothing is what it seems. They soon discover the terrifying truth: On this world humans are savage beasts, and apes rule as their civilized masters. In an ironic novel of nonstop action and breathless intrigue, one man struggles to unlock the secret of a terrifying civilization, all the while wondering: Will he become the savior of the human race, or the final witness to its damnation?”
First and foremost, this book is far more straight-forward, believable, and scientifically reasoned than any of the films. When it’s all said and done the films based on Planet of the Apes ended up being action movies to a degree. However, the majority of this book is basically detailing a series of scientific experiments the apes perform on humans on the Planet Soror (Latin for Sister) in the Betelgeuse System. That’s right! Our hero, French journalist Ulysse Mérou, doesn’t just end up on Earth in the future, or whatever the hell Tim Burton’s movie was traying to say, he is one member of a three-man scientific mission to an alien planet and they actually do go there. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a twist ending, it’s just not that one. removing all of the complicated time travel or temporal distortion nonsense from the plot is quite refreshing and I honestly like it better this way. Also completely unseen in any film is this book’s frame story which revolves around a couple of space-travelers, Jinn and Phyllis, who are seemingly wealthy and able to afford a top-of-the-line solar sail craft and explore the outer reaches of space at high speeds. They come across a mysterious item floating out in the airless vacuum – a glass bottle with a long manuscript inside – the very book you are now reading by Ulysse Mérou.
Once on the planet, the crew is shocked to learn that this planet does, in fact, have humans on it, or at least a near exact parallel race that looks identical to humans, albeit with one large flaw – they are not intelligent in any way. I’m not saying that they are simply backwards, or even just mute, we are talking about a race of creatures that act as if unintelligent animals. Their first encounter is with the gorgeous girl, to which they name Nova, who joins them in a small pond as they are bathing. She has no emotion, speaks in grunts, and is fearful, if not entirely hostile, to the most miniscule thing, such as Ulysse smiling or laughing. It is as if they have been transported to a time so far back in human prehistory that humans have evolved physically somehow without having ever attained any sort of culture. That is when we see the other main players of Planet Soror, The Apes. Much like in the film, the human camps are raided by Apes, who treat the human hunting as sport. These creatures are described as Gorillas wearing almost Regency-Era clothing, evoking the sort of class and sophistication of nobility throughout human history on their routine fox-hunts.
Any surviving humans are caged up (Ulysse and Nova to name a few) and transported to an urban biological research facility, to which Ulysse recognizes similar conditioning methods being used on captured humans that humans use on primates in captivity. Ulyse is not separated from the apes merely by a plot point revolving around him being temporarily injured in such a way he cannot speak, to where they feel that he is a non-intelligent being just like the other humans on the planet, he is separated by a colossal language barrier. He picks up on words here and there, but is never really given the chance to learn too much about what is going on. He almost gives in to life in captivity, ends up accepting a mating “assignment” with Nova, and basically spends months breeding with a creature that has no real mental capacity he can relate to him. He does, however, impress the scientists of this planet, both the Chimpanzees who are the actual scientists, and the Orangutans who are somewhat like scholars and take the work of the Chimpanzees and use it to write endless books on the same subject over-and-over-again. Dr, Zaius is here, but not nearly as in the forefront as the film, and assumes Ulyse is just good at mimicking the apes. A scientist named Zira, however, thinks differently and is the one that Ulyse finally “comes out to”, they learn each other’s languages and a plan is concocted to make Zaius look like a buffoon at a conference and prove his own intelligence.
The next big narrative difference is here, because the apes somewhat accept Ulyse and he becomes somewhat of a celebrity, much like how captured Native Americans ware paraded around in European capitals during the Age of Exploration. He is allowed to work somewhat on his own as a colleague of Zira and her husband Cornelius, on matters of scientific study including trying to figure out why humans are “dumb” and an archaeological dig. This is where the backstory of the planet comes into play, as it is revealed that a human city has been found, and the ruins basically prove that humans were smart at one time. This information would utterly upend people like Dr. Zaius, so great care has to be taken to avoid divulging too much. This is where my one true annoyance with the book comes into play, as Cornelius has somehow figured out a way to tap into a human’s “ancestral memory” to learn about the fall of man. This is done by way of an unfortunate test subject that can be put in a trance whilst hooked to machines and recite a story about how humans made their ape companions “too smart” through mimicry which led to a “slave class” being created. The humans, in what I can best describe as “Wall-E Syndrome”, got so lazy that they eventually handed their lives over to The Apes, and The Apes ran them out of their own cities. This explains why Ape culture is stagnant, for example Dr, Zaius and his kind writing the same books over and over, because The Apes are actually just doing excellent impersonations of the humans of their distant past.
This does set up an interesting discussion about what it means to be “primitive” and whether or not the humans actually lack the mental capacity to “be smart”. The reverse of this is shown when Ulyse visits a zoo and sees one of his crewmates in a human pen acting just like the other primitive-minded humans. He tries to convince his old friend, and mentor, that it is okay to stop the charade until he realizes that his crewmate is not himself anymore and has truly lost his mind to animalistic tendencies. The book doesn’t go into too much detail, and I’m sure one could see parallels to what is shown in the book and what happens with unsocialized children (feral kids) and attempts to “civilize them”. It is shown much later that Nova is actually able to learn to speak and act just as earth humans do from mimicking Ulyse and trying very hard on their long space trip back to Earth. Oh yeah, they have to escape Soror and head back at one point, but I’ll leave that to the readers. This theory is interesting, despite seeming scientifically unsound in real life, but ends up being the backbone of the book – as well as something COMPLETELY removed from the films. I just wish all of the above revelations were not learned through such a silly Deus Ex Machina as a man hooked to a machine that has “ancestral Memory” powers.
I mentioned the ending being a twist as well, and while I won’t spoil the whole thing, it does share a bit with the ill-fated Tim Burton film, as Nova and Ulyse make it back to Earth only to find Apes there as well, basically showing the rise of Apes is somehow inevitable. This is only half of an interesting double-twist that I won’t spoil from the end of the book, and it’s different enough that it’s worth experiencing a somewhat similar take as to what many are familiar with. Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des Singes is not a perfect book, but it honestly might just be my favorite iteration of this story. It fits together better, has more heart, and makes more sense than any of the films, and despite some pseudo scientific nonsense, is actually a pretty clever book. If you are a fan of this series and have not read the original novel, I highly recommend it!