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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Planet of the Apes

This is the second time I have read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, but the first time since 1968.  It is so much different than I remembered it.  My memories of that first reading were tainted over the years by the awful movies that followed the original Planet of the Apes movie.  The first movie was not completely true to the novel, but it was at least an above-average movie that deserved its popularity and box office success.  The subsequent movies were just terrible in every sense of the word and, unfortunately for me, they tainted Boulle’s book beyond my recognition of its positive aspects.

For starters, author Pierre Boulle is as French as his name sounds, and the astronauts who embark on a special mission in the year 2500 are French, not the Americans of the movies.  Unfortunately for our French friends, however, they find themselves in much the same position as their American movie counterparts.  Their world has been flipped on its head in more ways than they can count.  They are fortunate to have landed on a planet hospitable to human life, but they find that it is a simian-dominated world, not one dominated the human tribe they soon encounter.

Men are hunted for sport and for scientific purposes by gorillas sent to gather more research specimens for the chimpanzee scientists who need them for study purposes.  Men, after all, are the nearest animal to the apes who dominate this world and that makes them very valuable to the chimpanzee scientists and doctors searching for the medical breakthroughs that will save simian lives in the future.  In a matter of hours, Ulysse Merou is running for his life, part of a group of humans being systematically slaughtered by a hunting group of gorillas and their wives.  Ulysse is one of the lucky ones; he escapes the hunters shotguns long enough to get himself entangled in one of their nets, meaning that he will become a lab specimen rather than a trophy.

Pierre Boulle
This sounds like sensational science fiction, and it is.  But Pierre Boulle manages to create memorable characters (some of them men, some of them apes) along the way, characters with personality, depth, and the motivation and reactions that make them real.  Planet of the Apes is a satirical novel, one that uses the simian society of this strange new world to reflect on the strangeness of our own 1970s world.  Within this amazing story, Boulle explores politics, social mores, authority figures, human vanity and, of course, scientific research.  This slim novel of just 128 pages manages to make the reader reflect a bit on his own world while entertaining him within the fantastic situation into which Ulysse Merou and his two comrades have been plunked. 

There is even a “Statue of Liberty” type ending for the book, perhaps the only aspect of the novel surpassed by its movie version (the ending of the first movie is still, by far, the highlight of that whole series of films).  But, I am pleased to say that, as is almost always the case, the book is much better than the movie  - and, in this case, deserves to be read as the standalone story it was meant to be.  I had fun revisiting the Planet of the Apes.

(Free trivia fact: Pierre Boulle is also author of the respected novel Bridge Over the River Kwai, which became another very successful movie.)

Rated at: 4.0
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