Pierre-François-Marie-Louis Boulle (20 February 1912 – 30 January 1994) was a French novelist best known for two works, The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952) and Planet of the Apes (1963), that were both made into award-winning films.
Boulle was an engineer serving as a secret agent with the Free French in Singapore, when he was captured and subjected to two years' forced labour. He used these experiences in The Bridge over the River Kwai, about the notorious Death Railway, which became an international bestseller. The film, named The Bridge on the River Kwai, by David Lean won seven Oscars, and Boulle, who spoke no English at the time, was credited with writing the screenplay, because its two actual screenwriters had been blacklisted.
His science-fiction novel Planet of the Apes, in which intelligent apes gain mastery over humans, was adapted into a series of eight award-winning films that spawned magazine versions and popular themed toys.
Born Pierre-François-Marie-Louis Boulle in Avignon, France, Boulle was baptised and raised as a Catholic, although later in life he became an agnostic. He studied at the prestigious École supérieure d'électricité (Supélec) where he received an engineer's degree in 1933. From 1936 to 1939, he worked as a technician on British rubber plantations in Malaya. While there he met a Frenchwoman who was separated from her husband. She was to become the love of his life, to whom he would write tender love letters. She later chose to return to her husband, an official in French Indochina. During World War II she and her husband escaped into Malaya, but one of her children died in the process. Boulle would later meet her after the war, and they enjoyed a platonic friendship.
At the outbreak of World War II, Boulle enlisted with the French army in Indochina. After German troops occupied France, he joined the Free French Mission in Singapore. During the war he was a supporter of Charles de Gaulle.
Boulle served as a secret agent under the name Peter John Rule and helped the resistance movement in China, Burma, and French Indochina. In 1943, he was captured by Vichy France loyalists on the Mekong River and was subjected to severe hardship and forced labour. He was later made a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur and decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. He described his war experiences in the non-fiction My Own River Kwai. After the war he would keep in touch with his war comrades for the rest of his life.
After the war, Boulle returned to work for a while in the rubber industry, but in 1949 he moved back to Paris and began to write. While in Paris, too poor to afford his own flat, he lived in a hotel until his recently widowed sister, Madeleine Perrusset, allowed him to move into her large apartment. She had a daughter, Françoise, whom Pierre helped raise, but plans for him to officially adopt the girl never materialized.
While in Paris, Boulle used his war experiences in writing Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952; The Bridge over the River Kwai), which became a multi-million-copy worldwide bestseller, winning the French "Prix Sainte-Beuve". The book was a semi-fictional story based on the real plight of Allied POWs forced to build a 415 km (258 mi) railway that passed over the bridge, and which became known as the "Death Railway". 16,000 prisoners and 100,000 Asian conscripts died during construction of the line. His character of Lt-Col. Nicholson was not based on the real Allied senior officer at the Kwai bridges, Philip Toosey, but was reportedly an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers. Both the book and film outraged former prisoners because Toosey did not collaborate with the enemy, unlike the fictional Colonel Nicholson. Boulle outlined the reasoning which led him to the conceive the character of Nicholson in an interview which forms part of the 1969 BBC2 documentary "Return to the River Kwai" made by former POW John Coast. A transcript of the interview and the documentary as a whole can be found in the new edition of John Coast's book "Railroad of Death".
David Lean made the book into a motion picture that won seven 1957 Oscars, including the Best Picture, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. Boulle himself won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay despite not having written the screenplay and, by his own admission, not even speaking English. Boulle had been credited with the screenplay because the film's actual screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted as communist sympathizers. Boulle was neither a socialist nor a communist. The Motion Picture Academy added Foreman's and Wilson's names to the award in 1984.
Boulle is said to have given the shortest acceptance speech in Academy Award history, the single word "Merci."
In 1963, following several other reasonably successful novels, Boulle published his other famous novel, La planète des singes, translated in 1964 as Monkey Planet by Xan Fielding, and later re-issued as Planet of the Apes. The book was highly praised and given such reviews as this example from England's Guardian newspaper: "Classic science fiction ... full of suspense and satirical intelligence." In the year 2500, a group of astronauts, including journalist Ulysse Merou, voyage to a planet in the star system of Betelgeuse. They land to discover a bizarre world where intelligent apes are the Master Race and humans are reduced to savages: caged in zoos, used in laboratory experiments and hunted for sport. The story of Ulysse's capture, his struggle to survive, and the shattering climax as he returns to earth and a horrific final discovery is gripping and fantastic. Yet the novel is also a wry parable on science, evolution, and the relationship between man and animal.
The novel was published in France in 1963 by René Julliard. The first English language version, with a translation by Xan Fielding, was published in the United States by Vanguard Press in June 1963 under the title Planet of the Apes. In January 1964 it was published in the United Kingdom as Monkey Planet by Secker & Warburg of London, then re-issued as Planet of the Apes in August 1973 to tie it in to the film franchise it inspired. The first paperback edition was published in the US in March 1964 by Signet / New American Library. In May 1964 Saga: The Magazine For Men printed an abridged version of the novel.
In 1968 the book was made into an Oscar-winning film, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston. The screenplay, originally written by Rod Serling, focused more on action and deviated in many ways from the novel, including the addition of its own classic twist ending that was different from the novel's. It inspired four sequels, a television series, an animated series, a 2001 remake of the original title by Tim Burton, and a 2011 reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt.
The original series of five films (1968–1973) have become cult classics. Boulle, who had thought his novel to be unfilmable, was taken by surprise at the worldwide success and impact of the film. He wrote a script for a sequel titled Planet of the Men, but the producers of the original film turned it down. The second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which came out in 1970, was also very successful. It was followed by Escape from the Planet of the Apes in 1971, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes in 1972, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes in 1973.
In September 1973 the original film was first aired on network television. The marketing of toys and other products relating to the film series skyrocketed at this time, creating an 'Apemania' craze. In June 1974, Marvel Comics also released a magazine based on the novel and film called Planet of the Apes. By September 1974, Planet of the Apes had become a television series. In 1975 an animated Return to the Planet of the Apes series was shown on television.
The French film Le Point de mire, based on Boulle's novel Le Photographe, was released in 1977. There have also been TV films based on Boulle's novels William Conrad in 1958 (US) and 1973 (France), La Face in 1959 (US) and 1966 (West Germany), and Un Métier de Seigneur in 1986 (France), as well as the short story "Le Miracle" (from E=mc2) in 1985 (US).
Another film adaptation is in production for Boulle's A Noble Profession (Un Métier de Seigneur), a spy thriller partly based on Boulle's real-life experience working as a secret agent during the Second World War. The movie is being produced by Tessa Bell and Andrea Chung.