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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Planet of the Apes

by
Pierre Boulle


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Planet of the Apes



Title: Planet of the Apes
Author: Pierre Boulle
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963 (Eng. 1963)
Length: 268 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Planet of the Apes - US
Planet of the Apes - UK
Planet of the Apes - Canada
La Planète des singes - Canada
Planet of the Apes - India
La Planète des singes - France
Planet der Affen - Deutschland
Il pianeta delle scimmie - Italia
El planeta de los simios - España
DVD: 1968 film version - US
1968 film version - UK
DVD: 2001 film version - US
2001 film version - UK
  • Originally published in English under the title: Monkey Planet
  • French title: La Planète des singes
  • Translated by Xan Fielding
  • There are two film versions of Planet of the Apes: Franklin J. Schaffner directed the 1968 film, starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, and Tim Burton directed the 2001 version, starring Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, and Helena Bonham Carter

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Our Assessment:

B+ : somewhat simplistic, but for the most part well done and a surprising and good read

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes (first published as Monkey Planet) is the basis of two films (and several sequels) and a TV series, and the book is completely overshadowed by these. It's too bad: it's solid and worthwhile science fiction novel that has stood up remarkably well (Boulle wrote it more than four decades ago), and is well worth reading in its own right.
       Planet of the Apes begins with Jinn and Phyllis sailing across space in their small craft on holiday and eventually coming across a bottle drifting in the void -- a bottle that they get on board, only to discover a manuscript in it. It is the manuscript, an account by the journalist Ulysse Mérou, that makes up the bulk of the novel, though the book closes with Jinn and Phyllis again, after they have finished reading it. This framing device is among the book's weakest parts -- the ridiculous note in the bottle idea, especially -- and there's little surprise about Jinn and Phyllis' identity either, but at least Boulle doesn't waste much time on it.
       Mérou's manuscript is considerably more interesting. He begins his account in 2500 when he set off in a spaceship with two companions, the brilliant Professor Antelle and his disciple, a doctor named Arthur Levain. Accelerating to near the speed of light, they plan to traverse a huge part of the universe, expecting to be underway for some two years (though relativity dictates that centuries will have passed on earth by the time they return).
       Their journey is a success: they reach their destination, and find there an Earth-like planet. Leaving their craft in orbit around it, they take a launch down to the planet -- and find it is very much like earth, the air breathable, the temperature tolerable, etc. Soon enough they also encounter humans -- or at least creatures that look like humans. Living in the wild, unable to speak and disturbed by some aspect of these interplanetary visitors (like their clothes), these homo sapiens don't seem to have evolved to quite the same extent as the earthlings:

we had to do with inhabitants resembling us in every way from the physical point of view but who appeared to be completely devoid of the power of reason.
       Soon enough the visitors do encounter intelligent life as well: no surprise, the apes rule. Gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees, capable of speech and living much like humans did on earth in the late 20th century. Mérou and the professor are captured in a big ape round-up, their companion killed. Put in a cage, Mérou tries to size up the situation -- and convince his captors that he is a rational being, not a mere animal. As it turns out, not everyone among the apes would want proof that humans are capable of thought .....
       It's a pretty riveting story, though Boulle makes things tougher for Mérou than they would logically appear to be. Worse is the underlying premise, that this local strain of humans is incapable of truly acquiring knowledge (rather than just learning a few tricks) -- with Boulle going so far as to transform Professor Antelle into such a mindless creature. (Boulle is thus, for example, forced to keep his story (unbelievably) devoid of human babies and children until near the end, unwilling to show how or why they should not be capable of learning, under the proper conditions.)
       Mérou's abilities are, eventually, discovered, and he wins over some of the apes. His existence is, however, also seen as a threat, since the apes treat humans just as humans treat apes (and other animals) on earth, doing medical experiments on them and the like. Occasionally, Boulle moralises too obviously, veering towards animal liberation pontification (the problem here being not the message but the artless presentation), but this reversed world is intriguing enough to hold the reader's attention.
       Eventually some history is unearthed as well, and it becomes obvious that the man-ape relationship was once very different on this planet as well; unfortunately, Boulle can think of no other way of bringing this information out into the open than by dredging up the "memory of the species" in one human specimen, a third-rate pulp sci-fi device that's simply ridiculous (too bad, because what actually happened is otherwise well-conveyed).
       Finally, Mérou flees and returns to earth -- where, of course, there's a nice surprise waiting for him .....
       Seriously flawed, Planet of the Apes is nevertheless an entertaining and often gripping read. Boulle simplifies a few too many ideas in the book, but the action is still compelling, and the basic idea an excellent one.
       Well worthwhile.

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Links:

Planet of the Apes: Reviews: Planet of the Apes - the film (1968): Planet of the Apes - the film (2001): Pierre Boulle: Other books by Pierre Boulle under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Pierre Boulle (1912-1994) is best known as the author of Planet of the Apes and The Bridge over the River Kwai

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