Ape Hit

For a while, it rivaled Star Trek as an obsession among geeko preadolescent boys (like me) of the '60s and '70s: Planet of the Apes, the sci-fi franchise that started in this country with a 1968 film and eventually spawned four sequels, a TV series, a cartoon, comics, board games, coloring books, toys and models.

The true origin of Planet of the Apes, however, was none of the above, but rather a brief novel of 1963 by Bridge on the River Kwai author Pierre Boulle: La Planete des Singes -- sometimes translated as Monkey Planet, now known in English by its popular title. I remember what a disappointment that book was to me as a kid -- it starts out as a good adventure yarn, but pretty quickly the monkeyshines turn to social satire.

Recently, though, I reread the book, which, after years out of print, has just been reissued by Ballantine as a mass-market paperback in connection with Tim Burton's new movie version of the tale. It was a much better read this time -- a swift and Swiftian piece of sci-fi-naive. Boulle's social points are obvious, even sophomoric, but his wry, whimsical, quietly unnerving imagery sticks with you.

It begins with one of the most charming notions in sci-fi -- a married couple of interstellar pleasure cruisers finds a bottle floating in space. The manuscript within is the account of a Frenchman who travels to a distant planet, where he finds humans in a state of inarticulate bestiality, dominated by apes who live in a roughly 20th-century society. They have television, cars, airplanes and a stock exchange, and they keep humans in zoos and experiment on them in laboratories. They also have bigotry and classism, between the ruling-class gorillas, the establishment-academic orangutans, and the freethinking chimpanzees.

To put it mildly, most of these subtleties did not make it into the American incarnation of Planet of the Apes. But that's part of what makes it fun to read now -- there may be no more improbable source for a pop-culture phenomenon than Boulle's "monkey see, monkey do" apocalypse.