Saturday 27 January 2018

Your Move, Darwin #0: The Planet of the Apes (La Planète des Singes, 1963)

So. Welcome to Your Move, Darwin.

I've been meaning to do this for a while, a survey of the Planet of the Apes series, ever since I wrote about the first one and realised just how much I love all of the Planet of the Apes films. And it's kind of a departure for me because it's not open ended, it's nine films and a TV series with only a handful of episodes (and maybe the Saturday morning cartoon, although I might skip that, except, who am I kidding, of course I'm not going to skip it, because it's genuinely interesting) and then I'm done. And it's all the one franchise, the one unfolded text.

Planet of the Apes is the only Hollywood franchise I'd care to look at in this way. It's more interesting and perverse than any number of Star Treks and Wars and Avenger Leagues and films where Liam Neeson Gets Angry About His Kidnapped Family, and even the dismal franchise-plagued Hollywood of the last few years produced a triptych of films that made you think, how the hell did anyone in Hollywood agree to this? Did they know?

And of course it began with an adaptation of La Planète des Singes, a satirical novel in French by Pierre Boulle, whose other best known work was The Bridge on the River Kwai, also of course filmed. The book was always called Planet of the Apes in the US; in the UK the title was translated as Monkey Planet. Singe, the French word, means both "ape" and "monkey" and Xan Fielding's translation,  which is showing its age, tends to go for "monkey", and both are decent translations of the title, I suppose. But I'm going to call it The Planet of the Apes, with a definite article, since there's already two films and a TV show that I'm going to write about without a "the" and besides, it's literal.

Anyway, What's mainly perverse about the adaptation is how a nine-film franchise came out of it with a central concept that grew legs (and came down from the trees) and survived continual reframing and development. How it evolved.

I suppose that what I was interested in when I finally got hold of the novel was how the source material became the film. And what survived, and whether the spirit of it endured. Or, if it didn't, if that was a bad thing.

Well, let's see. Phyllis and Jinn are starfarers from an advanced civilisation, out on a pleasure cruise. They find a manuscript in a bottle, floating in space. It's in French, but they've been to Earth and one of them knows French, and they settle down to give it a read. It's from a man named Ulysse Mérou. And Phyllis and Jinn offer a sort of commentary on the early chapters, before fading into the story's background entirely. But they'll come back at the end, for the coda, because that's how nested stories usually work (see Frankenstein, for instance, which is a right Russian Doll of a book). 

Mérou is a journalist, and he joined a one-way mission through space accompanied by a scientist, Professor Antelle, and a young doctor, Arthur Levain. And no, even in 1963 an exploratory rocketship wouldn't have a crew with a GP and a journo, especially a journo who knows he's never coming back to Earth – they're casualties of relativity, you see, and their three year journey takes 700 years of relative time. So immediately the scientist, the young doctor and the journalist are here for the purposes of parable. They are here because it is through their reaction to what they find on a Planet of the Apes that the story must be told.

So the three of them wind up on a distant world, which they christen Soror (because it's a sister to Earth), and it's now, if you know that first film, things start to look familiar.

The travellers meet mute humans who steal their clothes; there's this one pretty one who Mérou takes a liking to, and whom he calls Nova; then a bunch of hunting gorillas with guns and beaters swing by, Arthur's shot dead, and Mérou and the Professor get separated. Mérou winds up in a zoo where he becomes the special project of an animal behaviourist, a chimp called Zira. Zira is engaged to an archaeologist called Cornelius.

The apes are divided by social caste into chimps, gorillas and orangutans. One orangutan, Dr Zaius, is not impressed by Mérou's intelligence. He think he's been trained. And when the Professor turns up again, he's as mute and dumb as the native humans.

It's not exactly the same. Boulle naturally assumes that no one speaks Earth languages on a far-off planet, so Mérou has to learn the chimp language. Zaius isn't hiding any great truths, he's just an old fool. Cornelius is a relatively minor character. And then there's the whole issue of what Mérou gets up to when he's in the cage with with Nova, and the morality of that.

And the consequences of that.

But unlike the dystopian escape plot the film offered, the novel takes a different direction. Mérou doesn't try to escape. Instead he delivers a speech at a big conference, humiliating Dr Zaius, and making himself an overnight sensation.

And what's interesting here is that this turn of plot, ignored by the original film for something more visceral and immediate, isn't unfamiliar if you've seen the sequels. What happens to Mérou is more or less what happens to Cornelius and Zira in Escape from the Planet of the Apes: although Cornelius and Zira are initially feted, the establishment turns nasty because Zira is pregnant and because of the secret of the Planet of the Apes: the apes are going to get smart and take over.

Mérou, as Taylor will, goes on an archaeological expedition where he discovers that on the Planet of the Apes, the apes got smart and took over after aping the humans, who eventually got stupid (like the Professor did, as opposed to what happens to Landon in the movie – the implication is that the Professor has somehow caught it from the other mute humans). And then we discover that Nova is pregnant, and establishment apes are disturbed lest the child turns out to be a smart human like the father.

The final part provides the inspiration for the way the 2001 movie ends: Mérou escapes with Zira's help and, taking Nova and his newborn son with him, flies back to Earth. Of course he does, he's called Ulysse, and the whole point of calling a character the French for Ulysses is that he's going to have an odyssey, and an odyssey ends with a homecoming. So, taking another three years of his time and 700 years of Earth time, Ulysse Mérou flies back, bringing up his son, who is indeed smart, on the way. Mérou hopes to warn the Earth that the apes will get smart and take over, and of course when he gets there, the first thing he meets is a gorilla in a uniform, because he's centuries too late – the apes already took over.

And the coda is that Phyllis and Jinn, from a time even further in the future, finish reading Mérou's document, and then they shrug and say to each other how terribly far-fetched it is, because they're chimps as well, a fact which has been hinted at from the beginning.

And obviously I'm mostly interested here in how the book relates to the movies. And what most surprised me is how much the movies keep coming back to it. Obviously, big chunks of the story end up in that first movie, but then Escape from the Planet of the Apes mines it for unused plot elements too. It makes sense that Tim Burton's attempt might homage the ending, but even War for the Planet of the Apes comes back to the idea that the humans somehow catch their mute stupidity from each other (and in the newest films both the smartness of the apes and the mute stupidity of the humans is due to a literal contagious disease).

The biggest difference between the spirit of the book and that of the films is the human protagonist, Mérou. He's not a can-do astronaut, a scientist or a post apocalyptic survivor, he's just a journalist, and realism aside it matters that he's the sort of man who is sure of his smartness and resourcefulness. But while the original Ulysses was never at a loss, Ulysse Mérou only thinks he's not.

Mérou congratulates himself for working out things the reader has already grasped and assumes all the way too that he's much brighter than any of the apes around him, even though they're clearly doing just fine, having gotten rid of many of the social divisions that earth people have – they're much more advanced than the apes in the movies. He's unimpressed that they haven't advanced as quickly as the humans did, but again, the apes won! They evolved, and the humans didn't. And for all that he looks down on Zira for being a chimp, even while feeling sort of fond of her... Mérou is the one who bred with a dumb animal.

And we're all animals, and animals are spiritual, conscious beings, but Mérou doesn't get that, because he's not as smart as the chimps. He conforms to the worst stereotype of a journalist: he has opinions on everything, and knows very little.

People are apes, and apes are people. And Ulysse Mérou is so hung up on Darwinian differences he can't see that. In that respect Mérou more or less conforms exactly to the example of that original traveller to the kingdoms of the topsy-turvy, Lemuel Gulliver.

And that's really the point of the book. To show that if the apes get smart and take over, things wouldn't be tremendously different, and maybe even they'd be a bit better, and maybe we don't deserve to live in that world anyway, and maybe it's a way to show us something of ourselves, because we're apes too. And it's a theme that's survived nine movies (of wildly varying quality, as we shall see), a theme that's robust enough to endure any number of evolutions, and it does evolve. It evolves constantly and yet it always maintains its spirit.

It evolves to stay the same.

Your move, Darwin.