Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Planet of the Apes (1963)

     I have to wonder what it would be like to be able to read Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes (1963) in its original French.  Knowing only enough of the language to be able to fumble my way through the label on a package of cheese (this actually was useful at the previous job), it would be impossible for me to be able to handle something as simple as a picture book in French.  Actually, in most any language other than English.  Still, there is an air of something – a kind of self-possessed importance – that permeates the book, both in the overstated purposeful way that space-faring journalist Ulysee Mérou carries his indignation and in the general attitude that Boulle seems to have towards mankind's achievements in general.  In my limited experience, this feels very French.
     From the format that apes the Victorian through Pulp-era adventure stories to the experience of a learned man stranded amongst alien others (and cared for by a wise and kind female), much of Planet of the Apes comes off like a refutation of the points made in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915).  The French are not renowned for being progressive (as a society) in regards to gender roles – see Sartre's commentary on how women tricked men into running the world – and Boulle repeatedly hammers home the superiority of man the gender (perhaps man the species as well, at least when compared to apes).  Naming the planet Soror (Latin for sister...thanks, Wikipedia!), Boulle is not trying to hide the parallels.  Instead, he paints a horrific vision of general society and what happens when one is pulled from the top level of civilization.
     Other than struggle with his commentaries on humanity, the false promise of feminine progressiveness, and the existential quandaries that come from being forced to doubt one's place in the universe, Boulle manages a rather decent piece of low-action adventure science fiction.  I suspect that enough of the rhythm of the language is lost that is seems more pedestrian in English, but that is a guess.  I'd like to think it was more profound, more earth-shattering in its unique vision when it first was published.  It seems that Boulle wants to hint at and dance around the issues rather than confront them, even in an oblique manner.
     Now, I am extremely biased on the subject.  Franklin J. Schaffer's Planet of the Apes (1968) is one of my all-time favorite films, one that is direct and forceful in the many commentaries it fires at the audience.  It also has a much more American hero, one who is easy to hate while impossible not to view as humanity's most unlikely champion.  That isn't what is embodied in the novel, and while part of me knows this is for the best, it left me feeling that Boulle did not completely capture the possibilities of his own story.  At the same time, the many people who have adapted the "Apes" movies and TV series did their best to draw out the elements Boulle included.  Indeed, the much despised shock-ending of Tim Burton's version of Planet of the Apes (2001) – one Kevin Smith stupidly claimed as having originated – is presupposed in the novel.
      Planet of the Apes will never replace the 1968 film in my heart.  But I am glad that I took the time to read it.  There is something worthwhile buried within it, sure, but it is (even as a translation) a fine book to read to break up the more serious titles.

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