Friday, 21 October 2011

"Planet of the Apes" by Pierre Boulle

Year of Publication:  1963
Number of Pages:  200 pages
Genre:  Science-fiction

This French novel has become a modern classic of science-fiction.  In the year 2500, journalist Ulysse Merou joins two scientists on a voyage from Earth to the star Betelgeuse.  Due to the effects of time dilation, the journey takes only two years for the travellers, but approximately 800 years pass in "real time".  Arriving at their destination, the astronauts set down on an Earth-type planet which they dub "Soror".  They also discover human inhabitants, however here the humans are savage and animalistic, lacking even the most rudimentary intelligence.  Instead the apes are the dominant species (namely gorillas, chimpanzees and ourang-outans) and posess an advanced, technological civilization.  What's more, they see humans as little more than a dangerous, if occasionally useful, species to be hunted down for sport and to be experimented upon.  Trapped in a research facility, Ulysse desperately attempts to prove his intelligence to the ape scientists.  However, there is a very real danger that if he is successful the apes will view him as even more of a threat.  A threat to be studied and destroyed.

This is an enjoyable science-fiction adventure story, but also serves as a witty and thought-provoking satire.  The ape civilization is roughly equivalent to human civilization in the early sixties, with the same level of technology.  The book deals with the relationship between humans and animals, for example the humans are at the same level of development as apes are on Earth, and the experiments which strike Ulysse as so barbaric are really no different from the experiments that were carried out on ape subjects at the time the book was written.  It also examines science, society and evolution and the way intelligence can either be developed or degraded.  Boulle was involved with the French Resistance during the Second World War, and there are themes dealing with surrender and collaboration in the novel.  Despite some heavy thematic material, the book is always fast-paced, frequently exciting and often very funny.

The novel was adapted to a hugely successful movie in 1968, starring Charlton Heston (much to the surprise of Boulle himself who regarded the novel as unfilmable).  The 1968 film spawned five sequels, comics, books and a short-lived television series.  In 2001 the book was filmed again, this time with Tim Burton directing, and with much less success.  The 2011 film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, serves as a prequel to the story.  The films are only very loosely based on the novel.  In the novel the apes are much more technologically advance than they are in the films.  Also the satire is toned down quite considerably in favour of science-fiction action thrills.  Another difference, is that in the novel Ulysse, initially at least, tries to be accepted by the ape society, while in the 1968 movie Charlton Heston introduces himself to his primate friends by famously yelling:  "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty apes!"


  1. Great review! :-) I'm quite tempted to read this now...

  2. Thank you! It is a good book. I liked it a lot more than I expected to.