Note: Spoilers will be in effect for this and every edition of the Overshadowed series. Probably not such a big deal this time around, but I might as well start a precedent.
More than likely, it was the last minute of Franklin J. Schaffner and Rod Serling’s film Planet of the Apes that, when first seen by audiences more than forty years ago, cemented its status as a kind of half-camp, half-serious science fiction classic. It’s by no means a bad film up to that point (although God knows it has its moments) – and in fact, watching it again last night for the first time in several years, I was struck by how well it still works – but it’s that last minute or so, that unmistakably Serling-esque twist that people remember best. The irony of it all being that this twist kinda-sorta confuses the message that Serling seems to have been trying to deliver, and it also simplifies (or I guess I should say further simplifies, because the film was none-too-subtle before then) the original source novel, Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet, from 1963.
First, I don’t imagine that I need to tell anyone who might be reading this what Serling’s twist was. In case I do, then, it was the Earth. The Planet of the Apes was actually the Earth the whole time, and we blew it up, damn us all to hell, because right there is the Statue of Liberty, all burned and beaten, and how else do you think it got there? It wasn’t transported there, you know. Glibness aside, though, it’s still a supremely effective shock moment, and I envy anybody who might not have either seen the film, or had it spoiled for them already by jerks like me. Such people can’t be too great in number, obviously, but whatever, I envy both of them. And getting to that ending isn’t exactly a chore either. It had been so long since I’d last watched the film that I didn’t realize the opening section -- which deals with Charlton Heston, Jeff Burton and Robert Gunner, as three American astronauts who believe their ship has just crash-landed on a planet located somewhere in the Orion constellation, trying to find sustenance and intelligent life – was so long. Not a single gun-toting ape for a good half hour, and no mute natives, either. Schaffner never gets much credit as a director, but it’s rather amazing to me how gripping that first half hour is, especially given how each plot point of Planet of the Apes has been spoofed or referenced or copied almost without pause over the last four decades. Schaffner and (let’s face it) composer Jerry Goldsmith do a wonderful job of establishing an otherworldly atmosphere, and getting us to care about three guys we know nothing about, other than that one of them, Heston’s George Taylor, is kind of an asshole.
Also interesting is how closely this section – and really the whole first half of the film – matches up to Boulle’s novel. Boulle actually begins with a prologue, set in the very far future, involving a man and wife named Jinn and Phyllis (Phyllis??) vacationing in space, literally sailing among the stars in a small ship with a solar-powered sail. They notice a bottle floating through the void, which they retrieve, and which they discover contains a “message” (considering that this message turns out to be pretty much the remaining 120 pages of the novel, that must of have been one big-ass bottle. But it’s the future, so I guess that makes sense). The message was written by a journalist named Ulysse Merou, who was part of a three man mission into space to explore a planet – any planet, really – surrounding the star Betelgeuse (and where is Betelgeuse? In the Orion constellation!). Merou’s colleagues are the brilliant and world famous scientist Professor Antelle; Levain, a physicist; and Hector, who is a chimpanzee. Because why not bring a chimp with you, I guess.
And it’s right here that I’ll just come out and tell you: in Boulle’s novel, the planet of the apes – sorry, the monkey planet – isn’t Earth. It’s Soror, the planet they were intentionally trying to reach (it’s called Soror because that’s what Merou and his colleagues name it almost as soon as they set foot on the planet). Still, for a while, the novel and the film follow each other pretty much step-for-step. In both, the three astronauts soon find a natural pool of water, which leads them all to immediately strip down and go frolicking. Said frolicking attracts a beautiful and mute native woman (nude in the book, sadly not in the film), who physically appears to be quite human, and who our main character almost instantly decides to name “Nova”. However, in the book, there’s that chimp named Hector to deal with, and in the book, upon seeing this animal, Nova immediately strangles him – I actually am not even sure it’s physically possible for a slenderly built young woman to strangle a chimpanzee, but Nova pulls it off. Merou is horrified, but you and I know why she did that, don’t we?
So where do the book and the film begin to significantly diverge? Well, Levain, like Burton in the film, is killed when the apes begin massacring the humans, and Antelle’s fate, like Landon’s, is unknown for a while. Merou is not shot in the neck and rendered speechless, as Taylor is in the film. No, his inability to communicate with his ape captors is due to the fact that he speaks French, and the intelligent apes speak what Boulle simply calls “simian”. But from the beginning of his imprisonment, for lack of a better word, Merou speaks to his captors. This merely confuses his gorilla guards, but fascinates Zira, the chimp scientist whose job it is to study Merou and his fellow test subjects. She doesn’t know what he’s saying, but she knows that he is speaking, unlike any human she has ever met. As in the film, Zaius, Zira’s orangutan boss, thinks Merou is simply a gifted mimic, and that his language is mere gibberish. Zira knows better, and, with her fiancée Cornelius, sets out to prove it.
So, this is just like the film, right? Up until this point, that’s essentially true. Except in Boulle’s story, this planet is not Earth. We already know that. So the big question, for someone reading this novel after having practically memorized the film, as so many of us have, is where is all this going? And, more importantly, why is it going there? At one point in the novel, Zira explains to Merou how each species of ape on Soror functions, what their talents are, and so forth, and there are shades – some brighter than others – of all of this in the film: the gorillas are pretty stupid, but have a gift for brutishness and low cunning; the orangutans write all the books – history, science, culture – but have built nothing from, or questioned the wisdom of, any of the books written by any of the generations of orangutans who preceded them; they merely put into their own words the received wisdom of their ancestors, all of which frustrates the chimpanzees who, according to Zira, are the real thinkers on the planet. All the important medical, scientific and historical discoveries that have been made on Soror have been made by chimps, although in order to achieve real advancements for their culture through these discoveries they have to deal with the bureaucracy of the gorillas and the traditionalist pride of the orangutans, which is often a combination that is impossible to overcome.
All of that’s in the film, too, but in the book there is no Forbidden Zone, and no hidden secret regarding the fate of humankind being kept by Zaius for the protection of his own race. There’s no Statue of Liberty buried in the sand somewhere to show us the folly of war.
In the film, Zaius and the orangutans are a mixture of the Tennessee School Board during the Scopes trial, and Pope Urban VIII to Zira’s Galileo. Which muddies the film’s message a bit, doesn’t it? The orangutans' active barring of scientific progress is derided in moments like the infamous “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” shot, and the filmmakers appear to be pleading for a wide embracing of scientific discovery, no matter how those discoveries may change our lives or beliefs. But then we find out how mankind has put scientific progress to use (“We blew it up!”). Not only that, but we find out that Zaius isn’t a close-minded idiot after all. He’s not Pope Urban VIII, or a backwards town that wants to suppress the theory of evolution. He knows everything! It was all there on those scrolls! He only wants to keep the citizens of…ah, Earth, I guess…ignorant because he knows where scientific progress will lead them (they’ll blow it up). So is this a confused message, or a complex one delivered through a narrative that is littered with red herrings? I’m going with the former, because I doubt Serling wanted to appear to advocate for the suppression of any kind of knowledge.
What are Zaius’s motives in the novel? He doesn’t have any, really. Once Zira and Merou prove him wrong – via a long speech, delivered by Merou, in the simian language he has subsequently learned, to an astonished crowd of ape scientists – Zaius gets demoted by his superiors, disappears from the novel, and Merou becomes a celebrity and citizen. Zaius doesn’t believe that Merou is anything other than an animal because he actually is stupid and close-minded. And he’s stupid and close-minded because he’s an ape. In Boulle’s novel, Cornelius and Merou discover, through evidence found at an archeological dig, that, in fact, evolution on Soror worked this way: mankind was at one point the dominant species. They discovered that apes were very close to humans, both in biology and intelligence, and, as Merou points out Zira’s human counterparts on Earth are beginning to do, set about training the apes to behave more like humans. Which they do. The apes, we find, learned through mimicry (which, remember, is all Zaius thought Merou was capable of) to the point where they were able to realize they didn’t like being subservient to man, and revolted. As the apes grew more intelligent and powerful, over the centuries (millennia?) the humans grew more animalistic, pushed out of society and into the natural world. So the apes attained dominance, but having based their learning on mimicry, their society has grown stagnant.
Boulle’s themes don’t stop here -- for a 128-page book, Monkey Planet is surprisingly rich. For instance, in the film, Heston’s Taylor goes from being an arrogant misanthrope I didn’t much care for, to a man fighting for his freedom and dignity, to a man who realizes he really did love his planet and his species, now that he realizes that they’re essentially gone. In the novel, Merou’s character follows an almost opposite path. Merou starts out as a kind of likably bland hero. As in the film, he bonds with Nova, at first for spiritual comfort. He’s eventually forced by the ape scientists into a sexual relationship with Nova, but, while he’s humiliated at first, he does grow to enjoy it, and they develop a kind of domestic affection together. But once Merou begins to get through to Zira, he begins to see Nova as the apes do: as an animal. He, Merou, is an intelligent being, like Zira, and it is with her that he begins to identify, not with Nova, who he gradually comes to regard as an annoying pest with whom he does have some residual affection. Still, it becomes easy for him to treat her cruelly, and to think of her in very unflattering terms. One chapter ends with Merou and Zira, who have been away from the cage Merou shares with Nova, strongly connecting both intellectually and emotionally:
My heart overflowed with gratitude. I yielded to the soulfulness of her expression, managing to overlook her physical appearance. I put my hand on her long hair paw. A shiver went down her spine and I discerned in her eyes a gleam of affection. We were both deeply moved and remained silent all the way back. When she returned me to my cage, I roughly rebuffed Nova, who was indulging in some sort of childish demonstration to welcome me back.
Boulle subtly touches on the casual cruelty that mankind shows to animals, both in order to gain knowledge (Soror’s humans serve as guinea pigs in neurological experiments they’re not going to survive) and because we just naturally feel superior to them. This is the main reason, if not the only reason, Soror’s apes originally revolted. (And yes, there’s the same sort of weird attraction between Merou and Zira in the novel as there is between Taylor and Zira in the film, and it goes about as far, and ends almost exactly the same way.)
There’s also a moment when Merou is touring ape culture with Cornelius, who takes him to, among other places, their version of the stock exchange, whose members, Merou can’t help but note, are behaving at their most ape-like, as he, an Earthling, recognizes that idea, which is a point that feeds into Merou’s theorizing about the origin of the apes on Soror. He realizes that mimicry could account for all of it:
Basically, [human] industry consisted of manual laborers, always performing the selfsame tasks, who could easily be replaced by apes; and, at a higher level, of executives whose function was to draft certain reports and pronounce certain words under given circumstances. All this was a question of conditioned reflexes. At the still higher level of administration, it seemed even easier to concede the quality of aping.
And, of Soror’s stock exchange, Merou notes:
It needed all my previous acquaintance with the apes to convince me that these were rational creatures. No one in his right mind who watched this circus could escape the conclusion that he was witnessing the frolics of madmen or animals gone wild. Not a glimmer of intelligence could be seen in their eyes, and they all looked alike. I could not tell one from another. All of them were dressed in the same way and wore the same mask, which was the mask of madness.
Schaffner and Serling may have had trouble putting asses in seats with that sort of thing, but it’s digging a bit deeper than the finger-wagging and bad puns that make up the majority of their film’s satirical element.
Finally, we come to the end of Boulle’s book. Without getting into too much detail, Merou is forced to flee Soror. The apes fear what a race of intelligent humans means for them, so, with the help of Zira and Cornelius, he is able to get himself, Nova and their new-born son (oops) back to his ship and begin a journey back to Earth. In the original trip from Earth to Soror, two years passed for Merou and his colleagues, while, of course, centuries passed on Earth. More centuries have passed by during Merou’s return. Can you guess what he’s greeted with when he, Nova and their child finally touch down? Yes, it’s a planet that has barely advanced beyond the technological achievements of the era of his original departure, and it is dominated by intelligent apes. After all, why not? We on Earth know how close, intellectually, apes are to us, at least potentially, and yet we treat them with the kind of disregard that we would never show to other humans (well…very generally speaking, anyway). So, if it could happen on Soror, it can happen here.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I was inspired by Boulle’s novel to also finally watch Barbet Schroeder’s 1978 documentary Koko: A Talking Gorilla, about Dr. Penny Patterson and her attempts to communicate through a shared language with a young gorilla. I found the film to be absolutely fascinating, and I had to wonder if a gorilla who cannot only feel a preference for a red sweater over a yellow sweater, but to express that preference, as Koko does in the film, is doing something beyond simple mimicry (which, following Boulle’s thinking, might actually make things worse for us down the road). I also find it curious that it took an actual ape dealing with trained scientists, and a filmed document of their work and experiences, to make people even briefly consider the question, not of the humanity of apes, but -- as Patterson phrases it with a weird kind of oblique clarity – the personhood of apes. I’m starting to think that Boulle was a genius.