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Planet of the Apes Essay

Planet of the Humans?

Brian Roizen

March 9, 2006

“The book was better than the movie!” – A claim almost every intelligent reader makes. While films and movies often hold the same titles, they are innately different. In other words, they are only the same nominally. While the ideas in books and movies may often be similar, the story is essentially different. The time difference between Pierre Boulle’s 1963 Planet of the Apes, and Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 film version of Planet of the Apes is not very large, which might give reason to keep the ideology and story exactly the same. However, the movie and book versions of Planet of the Apes are dichotomous so that each can have a distinctive ending.

            The split in story actually takes place from the very beginning. The reader is given the initial foreboding in the chilling words: “I am confiding this manuscript to space, not with the intention of saving myself, but to help, perhaps, the avert the appalling scourge that is menacing the human race.” (Boulle 9). After reading the title of the book, it is not very hard to guess what this appalling scourge is. Nevertheless, the story begins with a journey to a region of space that is powered by the brightest star in the constellation of Orion, Betelgeuse. Boulle begins the journey in the year 2500, and uses Einstein’s theory of relativity to explain how a spaceship traveling at the speed of light minus epsilon, can travel a really long distance in only two years, while 350 years pass on Earth. The astronauts come to a planet which bears “a strong resemblance to Earth” (Boulle 19). However, this planet is not Earth, and is thus Christened Soror. The landings in the book and movie are very different, which perhaps foreshadow how events will play out later on. The book landing articulates that the ship “came down gently and landed without a jolt in the middle of the plateau, on green grass reminiscent of [the] meadows in Normandy” (Boulle 20). On the other hand, in the movie, something goes awry, and the astronauts inadvertently make a crash landing in a large body of water. In fact, they are awoken from deep sleep by the tumultuous noise of water gushing through their spaceship. After the landing in the book, the first living organism the space travelers encounter is the beautiful golden haired woman Nova, perched above on the apex of the waterfall. In the movie, on the other hand, the space travelers are surrounded by a desolate wasteland, in which they are overjoyed to discover a isolated plant. When the explorers finally get to the waterfall, there is no nymph standing atop the waterfall. In fact, Nova only makes an appearance much later. Schaffner makes an interesting choice when he decides to downplay the role of Nova. He accomplishes this feat by bolstering the role of Taylor, played by Charlton Heston. Schaffner also chooses to give all the humans on Soror disordered black hair, including Nova, perhaps to further enhance the idea of the barbaric degeneration of the human race.

The people on Sorror may be human, but they are almost alien due to the emanation of the eyes, “a sort of void, an absence of expression” (Boulle 30). The void in the eyes of the Soror humans can only be attributed to a lack of curiosity, a quality prerequisite of any rational being. Since the humans on Soror are incapable of speech and thought, their condition is tantamount to that of animals. Boulle takes the opportunity to truly show how the roles of humans and animals have completely switched. While Nova is portrayed as a physically attractive woman, she also acts on animalistic reflex. In the film version, humans do not have this same animalistic aspect. Part of the reason is due to the barbaric style of clothes humans have in the movie. These clothes are probably the only option Schaffner had, since complete nakedness in a film would not receive much accolade. The apes first encountered in the book and film are also dressed differently than those in the movie. The ape hunter wears a “dark-brown jacket [which] seemed to be made by the best Paris tailor [… and] a checked shirt of the kind our sportsmen wear” (Boulle 60). Moreover, all the apes in the book seem to wear clothing similar to modern standards; scientists and doctors wear white coats while policemen wear the standard uniform. The movie does not keep in line with the fashion clearly articulated in the book, as gorillas wear black army uniforms, chimpanzees wear green gowns, and the orangutans wear orange overcoats.

            The differences and similarities in ape culture do not stop there. It is not a coincidence that Planet of the Apes was written by a Frenchman, and that the protagonist Ulysse Mérou speaks only French. When Ulysse arrives to Soror, he is unable to establish communication because of the obvious language difference. Ulysse’s counterpart in the movie is Taylor, whose injury to the neck disallows him from speaking. In the movie, the apes speak English, which again is necessary, as continuous subtitles would be perplexing to any viewer. The ape class structure in both the movie and book is similar. While all apes are “equal”, some are more equal than others. The gorillas are the militarists, who rely on their great physical strength. While the orangutans are “official science”, the Chimpanzees make most of the great scientific discoveries. Furthermore, the orangutans are the academics, and propagate traditionalist knowledge. Ulysse acknowledges that “we too, have had our orangutans, our falsified education and ridiculous curricula, and this period lasted a long time” (Boulle 200). Perhaps the apes can be seen in the light of being a social parody of humans. Not only are there three ape races, but ironically, there are also three human races as well. Conceivably, Boulle may have been trying to bring attention to racism, a vital issue in the 1960s. The power-seeking gorillas and the hackneyed orangutans seem to have all the power, while those who are truly intelligent are constantly exploited. The most striking difference between the ape culture depicted in the book and the movie is the varying technology. The book describes ape technology as rivaling our own. Even the style of “the houses were similar to ours; the roads, which were fairly dirty, looked like our roads” (Boulle 137). Boulle’s description contrasts greatly with Schaffner’s depiction of ape technology in the movie. Schaffner depicts the ape world as completely backwards. The homes and buildings seem to be carved out of stone, giving them an almost cave-like resemblance, which truly juxtaposes the apes with ancient cavemen. While the book acknowledges this backwardness, it is of a different kind, since the apes have “electricity, industries, motor cars, and airplanes, but as far as the conquest of space is concerned, they have reached only the stage of artificial satellites” (Boulle 154).

            The aforesaid divisions between the movie and book lead to the stunning conclusion of Planet of the Apes.  First, both the film and book each present a theory on how the demise of humanity actually occurred. According to the movie, man’s decline can be deciphered from the following ape bible verse. “Beware the beast man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, for he is the harbinger of death” (Cornelius). Clearly, man’s decline was only due to man himself. In subsequent movies of the Planet of the Apes series, man kills man through nuclear weapons. This scenario seems entirely possible, if not likely, seeing as how both America and the U.S.S.R. were in an arms race in 1968. Both countries were instantaneously ready to blow the entire world up. The weapons which man uses on his fellow man literally create the desert wasteland that is called the Forbidden Zone. After escaping the Apes, Taylor and Nova ride along the beach in the Forbidden Zone. As the horse rides closer, Taylor receives the most terrible shock of all. He finally realizes the truth when he sees the statue of liberty buried under rock and sand. Taylor had been on Earth the entire time! Earth was the planet of the apes.

            The book posits a different “truth”. Ulysse learns this truth in the encephalic section of research, where he hears an electroded woman recount the past: “What is happening could have been foreseen. A cerebral laziness has taken hold of us. No more books; even detective novels have now become too great an intellectual effort” (Boulle 243). This germ of truth is at once apparent in our own society, where laziness seems to be progressing at an alarmingly fast rate. The only thing moving faster is Ulysse’s spaceship, back en route to Earth. With the help of Zira and Cornelius, Ulysse is able to escape with Nova and his newborn son. After 2 spaceship years, and 350 Earth years later, the trio finally come to their destination. As the ship descends to Paris, Ulysse is relieved to see the Eiffel Tower still intact. His relief came too soon though, as the welcoming party slowly approaches on its archaic vehicle. Ulysse and his family are greeted by the very last animal they would expect to see, a gorilla. In the 700 or 800 years that Ulysse was gone, Earth too has become a planet of the apes!

            What hope then, does humanity have? Pierre Boulle consented that Planet of the Apes is a social fantasy. As much as we want to disbelieve his vision, there is a large germ of truth in this “fantasy”. Both Boulle and Schaffner would agree that we must stop making war on our fellow humans, and that we must stop being lazy!

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