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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

“Strange alteration in me, to degree of reason in my inward powers…” : Caesar as Simian Satan -- Milton’s Paradise Lost & Behn's Oroonoko as the original sources for (The Rise & Dawn of) The Planet of the Apes

Before you go to the multiplex next weekend to catch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, those of you with a literary inclination may want to read this post first—it may just add an extra portion of viewing pleasure to learn about its surprising literary pedigree.

In Book 9 of Paradise Lost by John Milton, Eve quizzically responds to Satan, who has taken the shape of a serpent and has astonished her by speaking (flatteringly) to her:

Thee, Serpent, subtlest beast of all the field
I knew, but not with human voice endued;
Redouble then this miracle, and say,
How camest thou speakable of mute, and how
To me so friendly grown above the rest
Of brutal kind, that daily are in sight?
Say, for such wonder claims attention due.
To whom the guileful Tempter thus replied.
Empress of this fair world, resplendent Eve!
Easy to me it is to tell thee all
What thou commandest; and right thou shouldst be obeyed:
I was at first as other beasts that graze
The trodden herb, of abject thoughts and low,
As was my food; nor aught but food discerned
Or sex, and apprehended nothing high:
Till, on a day roving the field, I chanced
A goodly tree far distant to behold
Loaden with fruit of fairest colours mixed,
Ruddy and gold: I nearer drew to gaze;
When from the boughs a savoury odour blown,
Grateful to appetite, more pleased my sense
Than smell of sweetest fennel, or the teats
Of ewe or goat dropping with milk at even,
Unsucked of lamb or kid, that tend their play.
To satisfy the sharp desire I had
Of tasting those fair apples, I resolved
Not to defer; hunger and thirst at once,
Powerful persuaders, quickened at the scent
Of that alluring fruit, urged me so keen.
About the mossy trunk I wound me soon;
For, high from ground, the branches would require
Thy utmost reach or Adam's: Round the tree
All other beasts that saw, with like desire
Longing and envying stood, but could not reach.
Amid the tree now got, where plenty hung
Tempting so nigh, to pluck and eat my fill
I spared not; for, such pleasure till that hour,
At feed or fountain, never had I found.
Sated at length, ere long I might perceive
Strange alteration in me, to degree
Of reason in my inward powers; and speech
Wanted not long; though to this shape retained.
Thenceforth to speculations high or deep
I turned my thoughts, and with capacious mind
Considered all things visible in Heaven,
Or Earth, or Middle…

While rereading the above passage (for another reason entirely) earlier today, I was struck for the first time by the extremely strong thematic parallel--- a nonhuman animal’s intelligence suddenly raised to a human level by ingestion of a mind-enhancing substance ---- between Milton’s 17th century Biblically-inspired epic poem, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the 2011 high-concept resurrection of the 1968-75 film series.  Like many of the newer film’s fans, I found the character, and the performance, of Caesar particularly compelling, and have been looking forward to seeing the sequel, but I had never previously imagined that the simian Caesar has a very surprising literary “ancestor”.

I quickly confirmed my hunch that this parallelism was not a coincidence, when I read the following Wikipedia summary & synopsis of the 1963 novel from which all the films are derived:

“Pierre Boulle (1912 – 1994) was a French novelist best known for two works, The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952) and Planet of the Apes (1963)….In a frame story, a frivolous couple sailing alone in space, Jinn and Phyllis, rescue and translate a manuscript from a floating bottle. The manuscript was written by journalist Ulysse Mérou, who in the year 2500 was invited by wealthy Professor Antelle to accompany him and his disciple, physician Arthur Levain, to Betelgeuse. Because they travel close to the speed of light, time dilation causes centuries to pass on Earth during their two years in transit. They reach orbit around a temperate, lushly forested planet they name Soror (Latin for sister). They launch a shuttle to land on the surface. They can breathe the air, drink the water, and eat the fruit. Attracted by a lovely golden naked woman they call Nova, they swim below a scenic waterfall. She is frightened by their pet chimpanzee, Hector, and she strangles it. Her tribe, who comport themselves as dumb animals, wreck the newcomers' clothing and shuttle [etc.]….”  END QUOTE

As soon as I read about space travelers  “attracted by a lovely golden naked woman” “below a scenic waterfall”, it was obvious that Boulle really did have Satan (who, in Milton’s proto-scifi epic, does travel a long way through space to reach Earth, where he zeroes in on the naked Eve in Eden as the target of his diabolical seduction) and Eve very specifically in mind. 

It also appears to me from the rest of the Wikipedia synopsis of Boulle’s novel that he was a very sly and serial alluder to English literature, in that he did not stop at Milton, but also stole a page out of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, by reversing the intelligence hierarchy of species, i.e., by having the apes (like Swift’s cultured equine Houyhnhnms) be civilized from the get-go, while in Boulle, as in Swift, it is the humans who are primitive beasts under “animal” control.  In a nutshell, Boulle’s novel , pitched by Bowfinger, would be “Paradise Lost meets Gulliver’s Travels with space instead of ocean travel, and with chimps instead of horses or serpents”.

Now, since the story line of Boulle’s novel is very likely unknown to virtually all of those who saw the 2011 film, and since the first generation of Planet of the Apes movies share with Boulle’s novel the feature that neither presents the superiority of the apes  over humans as the result of the apes having ingested any sort of mind-enhancing substance—they just are that way---it’s hardly surprising that (apparently) nobody before myself has ever connected the dots from it to Paradise Lost.

I have gone to the trouble of outlining all of the above, because I want you to really be struck by the striking contrast between the novel and the earlier films, on the one hand,  and what I find very interesting about the current rebooted Planet of the Apes series. I.e., in one crucial sense the new films bypass Boulle’s novel, and the first generation of Planet of the Apes films, and go back to the earliest source, Milton, and his great anti-hero,  Satan from Paradise Lost—but with a wonderful twist.

In Milton’s midrash on the Garden of Eden, Satan is a fallen angel, brilliantly gifted from birth (or however angels were supposed to come into existence), who only pretends to be a serpent who achieves human intelligence and speech by eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Whereas Boulle’s Caesar, the chimpanzee hero of the new films, actually achieves his high intelligence from a human-created drug, whereupon he then spreads the intellectual wealth among his simian allies, so that  he will have an army worthy of his command, in the rebellion  against human inter-species tyranny. And naming him “Caesar”, when the murdered pet chimp in Boulle’s novel was named “Hector”, is a nice added nod to ancient (human) history.

And there’s a final irony involved here, which I believe was in the back of Boulle’s mind when he wrote his novel a half century ago, and I also strongly suspect was part of the thinking of the rebooters in 2011 and 2014. I.e., that Paradise Lost is, in part, a 17th century action movie in poetry on a cosmic scale—that part being the great rebellion led by Satan when he and his diabolical army storm the very gates of Heaven before all being cast down to Hell by God, the Son, and the righteous  angels. To invoke Bowfinger again, it’s like Marvel Comics meets the Bible-with battle scenes you just won’t believe a blind guy made up 350 years ago.  

But you may fairly ask at this point, given that the apes in the current movie and its prequel are the “good guys”, whose revolt seems justified by the horrific abuse they have suffered at the hands of the human race, why would the filmmakers choose to invoke Satan and his legion of devils as sources for “good guys”?  

I can’t wait to see the new film to find out how the rebellion turns out, but as I watch, I will for  sure be recalling the famous words of  another storyteller with a wildly fantastical imagination, William Blake, who spoke for many of his Romantic colleagues, in his description of the seeming paradox of Milton having made Satan far and away the central, most interesting, compelling, and in some ways sympathetic character in Paradise Lost:

"The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it."

Thinking about Caesar the leader of the simian rebellion, I have a feeling that this will be a fruitful line of speculation after I walk out of the multiplex. I promise to return to give you any further thoughts I may have about the above at that time.

ADDED 7/4/14:

I did some more digging and see now that (i) Aphra Behn's 1688 seminal anti-slavery novel Oroonoko had a slave hero named Caesar, and (ii) The Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), the third film in the original iteration of the film series, ALSO has the character of Caesar in very similar circumstances.

Therefore it is possible that the current films don’t hark back to Oroonoko, but only to the 1972 film, which itself was based in part on Oroonoko.

So it’s possible that the current film's creative team may (ironically) be unaware of the Milton, Swift and Behn sources, which have become  obscured over recent decades, just as the humans in the novel and films don’t realize that they are actually on Earth! Lost history all the way down!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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