Pierre Boulle trained as an engineer, so perhaps it's not surprising that he began Planet of the Apes, his 1963 novel, by describing a space vehicle of such charm and originality that he makes a reader yearn to see it fly.
In the future, he imagined, space travel will become so routine that the rich will tour the galaxies in private sports craft they operate themselves. Boulle began his book with a wealthy couple named Jinn and Phyllis cruising happily in a solar-powered sailing ship that Boulle described with a poet's affection and an engineer's precision. They manually raise and lower the sails to catch the solar radiation, carefully taking into account the three suns in their stellar system.
These yacht club cosmonauts, while sunbathing under rays that shine from three directions at once, come upon a bottle floating in space and discover it contains a hand-written account by Ulysse Mérou, a Paris journalist, of his visit to Alpha Orionis, a planet entirely controlled by apes.
The holiday voyage of Jinn and Phyllis works as a traditional framing device, enclosing the story-within-a-story that fills most of the book. Boulle follows other ancient narrative traditions, from the bottle-thrown-in-the-sea to the way the strange planet's customs parody the follies of humans, as in an 18th-century satire by Jonathan Swift. This little fable eventually became five movies of the 1960s and 1970s, two TV shows (one animated, one not), several novelized versions of the movie sequels written by others, the "Go Ape!" festivals in the 1970s that began at 11 a.m. and showed all five films in one day--and now a remake, or reimagining, by Tim Burton.
Planet of the Apes turned out to be one of those parables that reach across all nationalities and generations, touching adults as well as children. It illustrates Raymond Chandler's claim that "the spirit of an age is more essentially mirrored in its fairy tales" than in the most painstaking chronicles. Boulle gave us a memorable satire of human vanity, racism, and wilful ignorance, grounded in one terrifying if totally unscientific proposition: You can go down the evolutionary ladder as well as up, and the way down may be a hell of a lot faster.
In Ulysse's account, the space travellers who land on Alpha Orionis soon fall into the hands of an ape civilization that has guns, cars, electricity, commercial airlines, universities and its own views on evolution and the superiority of some species over others. The apes dress much as humans do on Earth, and act much the same -- though when they applaud, they clap all four hands. Humans also live on Alpha Orionis, but they are reduced to the level of speechless mobs roaming naked in the wild. The apes hunt them, use them as lab animals, and exhibit them in zoos.
In the Swiftian caste system of this simian world the gorillas appear to be in charge, operating something like a dictatorship. The orangutans, "pompous, solemn, pedantic," are the bureaucrats, the official scientists and the least imaginative educators. They remain doggedly pre-Copernican, insisting their planet is the centre of the universe, despite much evidence to the contrary. They are also firm in their belief that only apes have souls. The chimpanzees, the third element in society, are the intellectuals. They make great discoveries and write interesting books, but the gorillas and orangutans regard them with suspicion.
Mérou eventually escapes from them and returns to his spaceship, still in orbit above Alpha Orionis. He pilots it back to Paris, but while travelling through space he also travels through eons of time. When finally he lands at Orly, the airport officials who come out to meet him are apes. On Earth, too, evolution has gone into reverse.
Boulle's book seems fresher today than the original film that Franklin J. Schaffner made in 1968. Schaffner's direction still looks wonderfully fluent, particularly in the many scenes where apes chase Col. George Taylor (Charlton Heston), the astronaut who replaced Ulysse Mérou in this Americanized adaptation. But the acting feels awkward and unconvincing. While Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter struggle to express themselves through the frozen expressions of their makeup, Heston wears the same wooden mask he uses in all his films, with that ghastly grimace he produces only through the most painful muscular clenching.
The most disturbing aspect of the original movie may be that Heston, of all people, represents humanity. (In the Tim Burton film he plays an old ape.) And while Boulle leaves us with mysteries (we never learn how the apes overtook and passed the humans), the screenplay that Rod Serling and Michael Wilson wrote for the Schaffner film feels plonkingly literal. When Heston at the end discovers a bit of the Statue of Liberty emerging from the ground, he realizes he's never really left Earth and that nuclear warfare must have wiped out human civilization.
Pierre Boulle (1912-1994) was born in Avignon, took an engineering degree in Paris, and went to work on a rubber plantation in Malaysia. He was there when the Second World War broke out, and spent two years in a Japanese prison camp before escaping and serving the Free French and British special forces as a secret agent. Back in France in the 1940s, he became a popular novelist. His work often had a journalistic quality: He wrote The Photographer about an Algerian war veteran and an assassination, The Virtues of Hell about the heroin trade, and Mirrors of the Sun about solar power. But he also produced fantasies more bizarre than Planet of the Apes. In 1979, he wrote Trouble in Paradise, about a furious argument that breaks out in heaven, causing the Virgin Mary to descend to Earth, where she becomes prime minister of France.
He put his wartime experiences to work in the other novel of his that won an international reputation, the one David Lean made into a much-admired Alec Guinness film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Boulle was not pleased by the way that film ended. In the book the Japanese bridge wasn't blown up; in the movie it was. The moviemakers decided the bridge had to be destroyed so the film could end in a triumph for the Allies. This meant they also destroyed Boulle's ironic point that the British prisoners restored their pride and self-respect by turning into expert builders for their Japanese captors. "For three years I fought them over this change," Boulle said a few years later. "In the end I gave up. Now I don't bother. I just take the money and shrug." He won the 1957 Academy Award for the screenplay, which in truth was the secret work of writers who were blacklisted by anti-communist zealots. For an author who specialized in irony, it must have been a particularly ironic moment -- they wreck his story, he gets the Oscar. But Boulle decided not to push his luck by attending the awards ceremony.
Of his two famous books, The Bridge on the River Kwai accumulated much more prestige in its day, but Planet of the Apes proved a more durable myth. And it's achieved most of its long-term celebrity without the frame-story of Jinn and Phyllis, and thus without the ironic note on which Boulle ended his book: Those two sweet and fabulously wealthy sailors, we learn in the last paragraph, are among the rulers of the universe, the chimpanzees.