Invisible Ink: No 137 - Pierre Boulle
Sunday 19 August 2012
Sometimes the lives of authors are as exciting as their books. French novelist Pierre Boulle was born in 1912 and trained as an engineer, working on British rubber plantations in Malaya. He became a secret agent, aiding the resistance in wartime China, Burma and French Indochina, met a married woman who became the great love of his life and, in 1943, was captured by Vichy France loyalists on the Mekong River, where he was forced into hard labour. During this period he kept a diary on scraps of paper. After, despite being decorated as a war hero, he found himself down and out in Paris. Moving in with his widowed sister, he began to write from his collected scraps.
The first two attempts amounted to nothing, but Boulle's third novel became a multimillion global best-seller. The Bridge On The River Kwai was a fictionalised account concerning Allied POWs who were forced to build the notorious "Death Railway". The novel was a powerful amalgam of the author's memories, but was attacked by survivors who felt it misrepresented the facts. Boulle pointed out that he had created a fictional main character, but this was overlooked. David Lean's Oscar-winning film version starred Alec Guinness, and was credited to Boulle because its screenwriters, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee as communist sympathisers. Boulle accepted an Oscar with the shortest speech in the academy's history: "Merci."
For nine years he continued writing with moderate success, and then struck gold again. Written with his usual translator Xan Fielding, Monkey Planet was hailed as a masterpiece of suspense and satirical intelligence. A parable of scientific speculation and inverted evolution, it was reissued as Planet Of The Apes, and was filmed in 1968 with heroic plank Charlton Heston. Four sequels followed, along with a TV series, reboots, remakes, comics, cartoons and parodies. Boulle had written a sequel called Planet Of The Men, but it was turned down in favour of an inferior studio version, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes. The films benefitted from the first appearance of related marketing, as toys, games and licensed clothing became popular with teens. Boulle was reportedly staggered by this sudden late success, having considered his book unfilmable. He continued to write novels, short stories, and non-fiction, living out a full and happy conclusion to a life that had contained so much drama and hardship. Only two books are in print.
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