Planet of the Apes

The "Planet of the Apes" is becoming a staple in many high school classrooms and provides a way to explore a variety of topics.

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Planet of the Apes activities and lessons

"Planet of the Apes" by Pierre Boulle is quickly becoming a staple of the high school English curriculum.  Although English teachers find the book a riveting story filled with social commentary, the average high school student, however, often finds the story quite tedious to read. 

There are several approaches to take when creating a "Planet of the Apes" unit.  You might want to focus on anamorphic elements of humans and apes, characteristics of dystopia societies or historical influences on social mores. My unit centers on the evolution of social roles and pressures of conformity. I also incorporate several activities at the beginning of the unit to help students understand the physical environment of the characters.

Here are a few activities that I do prior to any in-depth analysis.

1. Create a three-dimensional map of the planet, ape city, human cages, space craft, etc. . .  I think that this is a great hands-on lesson that is an asset not just for visual learners, but will help overall comprehension. 

2. Create a portrait of Ulysse, Nova, Cornelius, Zira or any other main character.

3. As a during-reading or final analysis assignment, incorporate a film version of the novel—either the traditional version with Charlton Heston and the more recent interpretation with Mark Wahlberg. The follow up assignment typically is a compare/contrast essay. Part of the assignment involves choosing one of the film versions of the novel and analyzing the differences and similarities between it and the novel. Students can then also reflect on the audience appreciation and understanding of the movie when it was produced.

4. Have students assume the role of a human or an ape in the novel, and describe what their lives are like.

As we begin our analysis of the text, students address the overarching theme of social roles.  We discuss how society classifies individuals based on sex, age, ability, race, heritage etc . . . Students use large Post-it paper and take one of these classifications and explain how it affects people in the novel and in today's society. Once complete, each group shares their findings. 

As we read through the book, the next step is to discern the different classes of apes and outline their responsibilities. Try designing a classification tree based on chimpanzees, gorillas and apes.  This activity will really help students understand how the ape society is structured.

Ulysse and Nova relationship: In the text, Nova represents a typical human with slightly higher cognitive reasoning compared to her fellow humans; she behaves according to her social roles. Similarly, Ulysse follows the social role of a male living on Earth. When placed in the same living environment, the differences are quite pronounced. One easy activity is to have students examine each character individually and list specific behaviors that reflect societal ideas. In the book, we see how Ulysse adapts to this new environment. An interesting discussion would be to hypothesize how Nova would adapt to the Earth Ulysse knows.

As the students analyze how Ulysse acclimates to his conditions, have them compare Professor Antelle’s behaviors. In this discussion, we explore the issue of conformity. Within the book, does free-will really exist or do the characters behave out of self-preservation?

As the students read, here are some questions that you might want to address—

  • Does the Professor secure his survival by “de-evolving” to match his fellow humans? 
  • Does this choice degrade humans of Earth? 
  • Is Professor Antelle’s choice reflecting free will or survival? 
  • Does Ulysse make the right choice to reveal his cognitive ability? 
  • What is the significance of the archeological find?
  • How do the apes demonstrate social pressures and conformity?
  • In what ways do the “human experiments” reflect our manipulation of creatures of Earth?
  • Should the ape-Earth instill “human rights” and why are they not in place?

Many of these questions can be used as essay topics, debate questions or group presentation topics. The issue of human rights works really well as a student debate topic. Here are some other lessons and teaching guides to consider.

Planet of the Apes Lessons and Activities:

Planet of the Apes:Guide and Commentary

This packet gives a lot of background information that will help with discussions as well as various activities. 

Make It A Habitat

This lesson explores the creation of a planet complete with inhabitants and structures. The premise is interesting and I think it could be applied to Planet of the Apes. It coincides well with anamorphic discussions. The "closure" activity allows for some analysis of animal adaptations and the formation of social classes

Literature Circles

In this lesson students use a literature circle to discuss literature. They also use this discussion to provide ideas for writing responses.

Teaching Tolerance Through Technology

This lesson uses literature circles and technology to help students learn about and discuss literature. By the end of this exploration, students make a webpage showing what they have learned. While this lesson talks about tolerance, it could be also used to explore some the other issues explored in "Planet of the Apes."