Title: Planet of the Apes
Author: Pierre Boulle
Publisher: Vanguard Press
Audiobook Narrator: Greg Wise
The world of Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite media franchises of all-time. I don’t remember when I first saw the film, but it left a mark on me because the premise behind it was so fascinating. A planet where apes are in control, and man is the animal? I loved this idea when I first heard about it, and because the original film handled it so well, it had me hooked after one viewing. I reviewed the entire original film franchise a few years ago, but never got around to reading the book until now, and my obsession with the Planet of the Apes has returned in full force!
Pierre Boulle’s original novel tells the same general story as the film. A group of men from Earth travel through space to visit another galaxy 300,000 light-years away. Once they reach this distant galaxy, they notice a planet that looks remarkably like Earth, including buildings and roads. They decide to touch down on the planet, and name it “Soror”, meaning “sister” in Latin, due to its resemblance to Earth. When they land, they discover that the air is safe to breath, and the water is drinkable. It doesn’t take long for them to run into Nova, who is a beautiful young woman that Ulysse, our main protagonist, quickly falls for. Shortly after, they encounter the true rulers of the planet: the gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees.
Interestingly, the entire novel is actually framed as a written letter from Ulysse. The novel starts and ends with a couple vacationing through space. They encounter a message in a bottle that they’re able to reel in to their ship. The letter itself is actually from the year 2500, but the novel doesn’t really give a present date, so it’s hard to say how that relates to the couple’s time period. This is an interesting idea, but I was immediately concerned it would change so much of what I knew of the film that I wouldn’t like it. Fortunately this wasn’t the case at all since it does a nice job of giving a frame of reference for Ulysse’s story, rather than changing it too much, which is exactly what I was hoping for.
I was actually surprised how closely the events of the film followed the plot of the original novel. Of course there are differences, mostly in the pacing of the film versus the novel, but the overall arc has very similar story beats. This is definitely an instance where one could read the book or watch the film first, and enjoy both equally, as I did.
There are some differences between the two sources I would like to touch on, but I won’t mention any that could be considered spoilers for either. The first is that, in the film, the apes speak English. Here, though, they speak their own language, which Ulysse is forced to learn. I liked the way Boulle handled this, but it did put a lot of the focus on Ulysse’s time in captivity as opposed to the action of the film. I loved this because I found it utterly fascinating, but others might find it a bit slow.
Another change is in the relationship between Ulysee, who has proven himself a special specimen, and Dr. Zira, the chimpanzee scientist that works with him. I loved these two here because there was clearly something more personal than what is presented in the film. Boulle manages to make the romance between them not only normal, but incredibly subtle, which is why I appreciated it so much. I marked out entirely when she even gives the equivalent line of “but you’re so damn ugly” when a kiss is proposed. The book handles this theme so much more maturely than one would expect, and it was beautiful. Unfortunately, there was no “take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape” equivalent here, but Ulysse is a strikingly different character type than Charlton Heston’s Taylor.
Ulysse’s time spent on Soror is so much more impactful in the novel than in the film. This is necessary due to the language barrier that Ulysse has with Zira and the other apes, and allows for so much more to happen while Ulysse struggles to get back home. This also helps to build the relationship between Zira and Ulysse. Surprisingly, the time that Ulysse and Cornelius spend together is much different, with a more professional and less-friendly tone to it. Again, though, this makes sense to the story that Boulle is telling.
The climax of the novel is more of an emotional one than the action-packed shootout of the film, and I loved it. The build to this moment works so well. The conclusion that most might expect – does Ulysse make it home or not – is, frankly, glossed over. We get none of the action of that moment, but this feels intentional by Boulle as there is so much more at stake here than Ulysse. That said, some may be a bit letdown by this moment.
Greg Wise narrates the audiobook, and he does a terrific job with the material. Once he started introducing different voices for the other characters, his talent shone even brighter. For example, I loved the passionate sentimentality of Zira versus the clinical professionalism of Cornelius. Wise is a fantastic narrator, and I would be happy to listen to another audiobook of his in the future.
Rod Serling and Michael Wilson crafted the script for one of my favorite films of all-time back in 1968. Now I see where the bulk of their inspiration came from with this novel. All of the race relation issues and social commentary of the film can be traced back to this original novel, which is exactly why I found it so fascinating. This is not better nor worse than the film, but an excellent companion piece. I’m glad I finally got around to this wonderful novel as it has given me an even greater appreciation for all things Planet of the Apes, and I cannot recommend it enough to fans of the film franchise.