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A 17th Century writer and a Planet full of Apes – is there a connection?

Inspiration for a story can be found in the oddest of places, but did a 17th century novelist inspire a major 20th century motion picture about a dystopian world where apes rule over men?

On the face of it, it sounds quite unlikely, so I will present my musings, but you be the judge.

Beware the beast, Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn.
Alone, among us, God’s primates, he kills for sport, lust or greed.
The Sacred scrolls, 29:6

The novelist in question is Aphra Behn (1640-1689) and the movie is the 1972 epic, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Behn was possibly the world’s first professional woman writer. A British subject, she was also a spy, poet, translator and playwright. As a result of pressing debts, she turned to the quill to make money, writing under the pseudonym of Astrea, which was, incidentally, her code name as a spy. Other names she went by during her chequered career included Ann Behn, Mrs Bean, and agent 160.

Behn penned nineteen plays, four novels and two collections of poetry, as well as a handful of short stories. A contemporary of the Earl of Rochester, the world’s most infamous ‘rake,‘ she moved in literary circles at the highest level of society, in spite of her humble background. At her death, she was buried in Westminster Abbey. Virginia Woolf said of her, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” (From the essay A Room of One’s Own.)

Behn visited the ‘New World’ on a number of occasions, and was in Suriname where she may well have encountered individuals that helped shape her idea for her novel, Oroonoko. This book, often hailed as the first ‘modern novel,’ tells the story of a prince, transported from Africa, sold into slavery, who then leads a revolt against his masters. His name is Oroonoko, but he is given another name when he arrives in the colony; Caesar, the same name as the ape that led a revolt against his human captors in the movie, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

The screenwriter responsible for the movie was Paul Dehn, best known for films like Goldfinger, The Spy who Came In from the Cold, and Murder on the Orient Express. He won two BAFTAs and was nominated twice for an Oscar.
Filming began for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes in 1972 and was the fourth of five movies in the Ape franchise. The first, Planet of the Apes, was released in 1968. The official source of inspiration for that film was a book, published in 1963, called La Planète des Singes. Written by Pierre Boulle, the novel relates how human explorers from Earth visit a planet orbiting the star Betelgeuse. There, they find that great apes are the dominant species, while humans are reduced to a savage animal-like state. This was the basis upon which the screenplay was created, with some modifications.

‘Conquest’ was an original storyline however, although it attempted to follow on from what went before. In a world, where traditional pets have all died out (no more cats and dogs) apes are, apparently, the obvious choice for a new furry companion (I would have gone with a goat. One of those that fall over whenever you surprise them). Over time, the ape pets demonstrated that they could be more than mere entertainment, and they became our servants. Before long, they were being trained with brutal cruelty to ensure obedience and to be our slaves.

Similarities to Behn at this point appear tenuous. While her novel is about African men and women, forcibly removed from their homes and sent to work for vicious, cruel task masters, this is not exactly a case of plagiarism. So what else is there?

300 years earlier, while Behn was in Suriname, possibly in the capacity of spying for the King of England, she came into contact with both slaves and slavers. At that time it was a British colony, called, would you believe, Willoughbyland, after the governor of Barbados. It was home to about a thousand English and three thousand African slaves (there were also indigenous natives but they were not technically slaves). It is likely that here she, much like Daniel Defoe with his Robinson Crusoe, heard a tale that inspired her, and it became the nexus for the plot of a new novel. When Behn returned to England, she put pen to paper and the result was the 1688 publication of Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave.

In her novel, a prince and war leader is betrayed by his kinsman, and sold into slavery. He is transported with many other slaves to Suriname, where he is bought on behalf of the colony Governor. However, Behn’s Caesar is quickly seen to be special, so he is not forced to labour in the fields. Instead, he is treated well, and almost adopted by his master, who works for the governor. Caesar is introduced to the most beautiful of all the slaves, Clemene, and he immediately marries her. He is given many special privileges, denied his countrymen.

Enter Caesar in the movie. He too is quickly seen to be something special. While undergoing subservience training, he demonstrates his intelligence, and is given special treatment denied his fellow slaves. He is moved into the breeding program where he meets the lovely Lisa and has a jolly good time. The next major plot device, our hero chimp is sold at auction. Also to the governor.

“1500! For His Excellency, Governor Breck.” (from the movie script)

At this point, like Behn’s Caesar, Dehn’s Caesar becomes a house slave (confused yet? You will be) working in the office of the governor himself, the very man who wants to keep him oppressed and deny him his rights.

Yes, you guessed it. Behn’s governor also denies Caesar his freedom. And now that Clemene is pregnant, Caesar fears that his child will be born a slave too. So he sets out to win his freedom by the only means left to him: Revolution. This is also the next step in the movie, and we find parallels where both Caesar’s rally their troops and organise bloody rebellion.

At this point, the plots of book and film differ greatly. Behn’s Caesar kills his lovely Lisa (I mean Clemene) in order to prevent her from being further enslaved, while Dehn’s Caesar, with the help of his fellow apes, succeeds in overthrowing the humans and achieving independence for his people. The film ends with the success of the ape revolution, but Behn’s story is a chilling reminder of the cruelty of man, as her Caesar is dismembered, while still alive.

As Behn put it,

“Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate,
and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise.”
Dehn’s Caesar is far more compassionate to those he overthrew:
“Now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons . . .
we, who are not human, can afford to be humane.”

Clearly there are echoes between the stories. Parallels that often steer them on the same course. If this is evidence that Dehn had read Oroonoko while attending Brasenose college, Oxford, a likely scenario for someone aiming to be a writer, is it indicative of an outright attempt to remake the 17th century story for the 20th century? On balance, I think not. What we are left with is an odd coincidence, a confluence of names and themes. And if one thing is certain, there is nothing new under the sun. After all, there are many stories that have similar plots or characters. The recent blockbuster, The Force Awakens springs to mind. Where have I seen that before?

 

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