Pierre of the Apes:
On Pierre Boulle

2001: A Space Odyssey is so well remembered – especially this year, with Arthur C. Clarke pushing it at every opportunity – that it's almost eclipsed the other classic SF film of 1968, Planet of the Apes. This went on to spawn four increasingly inferior movie follow-ups and two TV series. The ape costumes and make-up, which got a special Oscar, were too good not to use again.

Who remembers the book and author behind the movie? Pierre Boulle, a French writer who lived from 1912 to 1994, wrote two novels that became major, Oscar-winning productions. Le pont sur la rivière Kwai (1952) was filmed as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), an obsessive story of prisoners-of-war in Japanese hands during World War II. La planèt des singes (1963) inspired the 1968 SF movie after being translated by Xan Fielding as Monkey Planet.

Both stories say a lot about captivity and relationships between prisoners and jailers, subjects which Boulle knew all too well at first hand. From 1938 he spent several years in the Far East, beginning as a rubber plantation overseer in Malaysia, then becoming a soldier when war began and, after France fell, working as a secret agent and Resistance member. The Vichy French caught him on the Mekong River in 1943 and sentenced him to life imprisonment in Saigon, but he escaped in the following year.

Despite this real-life experience, Monkey Planet isn't a bitter novel. It's ironically told in the urbane French tradition of Voltaire, with human narrator Ulysse Mérou being forced to acknowledge – sometimes very comically – that the boot is on the other foot when he lands on a world of intelligent apes and mindless human lookalikes. One by one, his pretensions and human-supremacist opinions are deflated.

Even more embarrassing than being treated by ape scientists as a caged experimental animal is finding that your mighty human intellect doesn't help at all. At one stage it takes Merou some while to realize that he's part of a Pavlovian conditioning trial in which humans are being trained to salivate when a whistle blows. Dribble and you get a banana. Oh, the humiliation. Then come the scientific observations of how humans do sex ...

Like Jonathan Swift's Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos – intelligent horses and debased subhumans – our hero comes to identify with his captors rather than fellow-inmates. Apes in clothes look natural and "right", while humans are animals who go naked. Although the most famous line of the movie is Charlton Heston's "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape," Merou and the female chimpanzee scientist who befriends him come very close, in the book, to parting with a kiss. At the last instant it's she who pushes him away:

"Oh darling, it's impossible. It's a shame, but I can't, I can't. You are really too unattractive!"

Again like Swift, Boulle makes satirical play not only with the hero but with his captors' very human foibles. This world's three races are gorillas, natural aristocrats who are strong on leadership quality; chimps, intellectuals who make the major scientific discoveries; and orang-utans, representing the hidebound Old Guard of science and education. (And, no doubt, librarianship.) Orang-utans prefer comforting, traditional textbooks, no matter how full of errors, and oppose new-fangled ideas like the heresy that their planet isn't the centre of the universe. Does this sound somehow familiar?

Naturally it's a high-ranking orang-utan who, even after Merou has learned to speak fluent Ape, insists he must be a trained animal who parrots a few rote phrases. Our hero's breakthrough comes when he addresses a major ape conference – with appropriate modesty: "I know my appearance is grotesque, my figure repulsive, my features bestial, my smell sickening ..." As Boulle artfully indicates, the audience is won over not wholly by eloquence but by the amazing "tricks" Merou performs. A human who can lift and drink a glass of water! Sensation! Applause!

The famous movie image of the Statue of Liberty doesn't appear, but Monkey Planet has a similar punchline. Ape archaeologists unearth evidence that humans once ruled their world, and that intelligence can be lost as well as gained – underlined by the fact that learned Professor Antelle, leader of France's interstellar expedition, reverts to mindlessness while imprisoned in the apes' zoo. When Merou returns to Earth, 700 years have passed thanks to relativistic time-stretching, and the uniformed official who greets him on touchdown is ... a gorilla.

A further small surprise concludes the framing story, in which space-travellers Phyllis and Jinn read Merou's MS – a message found in a bottle – and finally comment: "Rational men? Men endowed with a mind? Men inspired by intelligence? No, that's not possible; there the author has gone too far." Yes, Phyllis and Jinn are chimps.

Boulle published several other books, mostly non-fantastic but including SF story collections and the 1964 La Jardin de Kanashima, translated as The Garden on the Moon. No apes feature in this near-future tale, but a different kind of inhumanity emerges from cut-throat competitiveness in a space race to the Moon. The US, USSR and Japan all desperately want to land the first man there: Japan wins by not bothering with any arrangement for its astronaut to make the return trip, and so he dies on the Moon. Long since overtaken by events, the story's topical message about the need for international co-operation still has some force.

Besides being one of the rare authors remembered for books in such different genres, Boulle has a fake screenplay credit in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The real screenwriters Michael Wilson (who later co-wrote the Apes screenplay) and Carl Foreman were blacklisted in Hollywood, so Boulle's name was used in the credits instead – although he didn't speak English.

So did he ever watch Planet of the Apes? According to my Continental spies, Pierre Boulle never went on record with what he thought of that movie....