Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series Planet of the Apes Analysis
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543
Readers of this novel who have only seen the 1968 film version starring Charlton Heston will be pleasantly surprised by the relative subtlety of the society that Pierre Boulle limns. Even though the metaphors are occasionally strained, obvious, or both—the planet’s surface is described as “green grass reminiscent of our own meadows in Normandy,” Nova’s vocalizations sound like the cry of “young chimpanzees”—Boulle’s parallels are rarely unreasonable.
The most problematic aspect of the book is its relationship with science and scientists. While this book is Boulle’s major foray into science fiction, little attention is paid to scientific knowledge, even as it was in 1960. The exception—the difference between subjective time on the ship and time passage in the universe, so that while Merou’s experiences only take him about three years, nearly seven hundred years pass on Earth—also serves the narrative purpose of allowing apes to have evolved on Earth.
Boulle disregards science whenever it might conflict with the story. The planet on which Merou’s party lands, especially the descriptions of its orbit and its climate, are improbable at best. Even more doubtful is the likelihood that Merou and Nova would be able to procreate. In each case, however, the reader should willfully suspend disbelief; the center of this novel is social conceits, not scientific veracity.
The portrayal of the scientists themselves is the weakest part of the novel. The apes are clichéd: Zira is identified because she wears a white laboratory coat and Dr. Zaius is the stereotypical image of a crotchety old scientist, pontificating when he should be listening. Professor Antelle fares no better. Merou eventually discovers the professor caged in the zoo, apparently uninjured but not speaking and unwilling or unable to show any hint of his legendary intelligence.
Of the apes themselves, it must be noted that the sole description of their hierarchy is provided by the chimpanzees, who accordingly claim the highest value for themselves. While the gorillas provide the strength and the orangutans the administrative skills, the chimpanzees consider themselves to be the most intelligent of the races, even as some white Europeans or Chinese people have at times in their history considered other humans inferior. For adolescent readers especially, the resulting cliques will strike a familiar chord. Indeed, if there is an overwhelming theme to Boulle’s novel—one emphasized by Jinn and Phyllis’ self-satisfaction—it is that superiority is at best a transient thing.
That “talent will tell” is revealed in the relationship between Zira and Merou. From Zira’s initial reaction of researcher to subject until their final moment when she does not kiss him despite her desires because he is “really too unattractive,” they develop an intense enough relationship that Cornelius confides that his own relationship with Zira is likely to improve with Merou’s departure. Anyone who has ever felt like or been treated as an inferior will be heartened by Merou’s transformation in Zira’s eyes from beast to beloved, even though their final moment is disheartening. Planet of the Apes, for all of its virtues, is ultimately a novel of frustrations and near-misses—but one in which the importance is in having made the effort, not simply in the results alone.