The Story Behind The Screenplay: Planet of the Apes

By Martin Keady · April 24, 2020

The Story Behind The Screenplay is a new series by Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, that examines the origins of some of cinema’s greatest screenplays. This month: Planet of the Apes (1963).

Pierre Boulle is a writer that every other writer (and in particular every other screenwriter) should read. That is because his own writing – in particular his two masterpieces, Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï/The Bridge Over The River Kwai (1954) and La Planète des singes/Planet of the Apes (1963), which were both made into hugely successful films – is an object lesson in how, as Aldous Huxley put it, “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him”. Boulle used the same “experience” of being a Japanese prisoner of war during World War Two in two completely different ways: first, in The Bridge Over The River Kwai, to write a realist (or even ultra-realist) novel based on his own memories of being a PoW; and then, in Planet of the Apes, to write a philosophical and fantastical sci-fi novella, in which he abstracted from his actual experience to create one of the most complete fictional worlds ever imagined. As a result, perhaps no other writer so fully straddles the supposed divide between reality and fantasy as he does.

Boulle was born in Avignon in the south of France in 1912, so his childhood would have been spent far away from the bulk of the fighting in World War One, which was along the Western Front in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Alsace-Lorraine, several hundred miles away to the north. Nevertheless, like every other man, woman and child in France, he must have been affected by the devastation wrought upon the country between 1914 and 1918. So complete was that devastation that much of northern France and the Low Countries, and particularly the infrastructure in those areas, was in need of reconstruction by the time that the war finally ended in November 1918. That might not have been a factor in Boulle’s decision to study and train as an engineer, but it would certainly have meant that there was seemingly a lifetime’s amount of work waiting for him when he graduated from the French graduate school of engineering (commonly known as Supélec) in 1933. 

However, Boulle did not put his engineering training to use in France itself but instead headed east – Far East, in fact. At a time when the major European nations, such as France, still had numerous colonies around the world (colonies that would finally be given their independence after the next World War), Boulle followed many other young European men in trying to make his fortune overseas. Unusually, though, rather than following most other French men in heading to Indochine (or Indochina, a French-controlled and French-speaking territory in south-east Asia), he found work in a British colony, Malaya (which covered the Malay peninsula and Singapore), as an engineer or technician on a rubber plant. 

It was while he was working in Malaya that Boulle met a married French woman who was to become the undoubted love of his life. There will be more about her later. For now, the focus will remain on Boulle’s working life rather than his romantic life. In fact, perhaps “working life” is the wrong term, because it was his wartime life that was to become the central part of his existence and the basis of almost all his subsequent writing. 

Boulle had an extraordinary war. To sum it up briefly, when World War Two began in September 1939, he almost immediately signed up with the French Army in Indochine. Then, after France fell to the Nazis in the spring of 1940, he joined the Free French mission in Singapore. This was just one branch of what was effectively the French Government in exile, under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, which allowed French people around the world to continue the fight against the Nazis even after their homeland had been completely occupied. 

Like most Free French fighters, and indeed like most of those who resisted the Nazis globally, relatively little is known about Boulle’s precise wartime contribution, especially because he never wrote about it directly in a memoir or autobiography. What is certain is that he must have been a very accomplished soldier, because he was soon effectively “promoted” to become a spy, or secret agent, in Indochine. Ironically, although he did not speak English (despite having worked in a British colony), he apparently posed as an Englishman, using the alias Peter John Rule, and it appears that he roved all over the Asian theatre of war, helping to organise resistance to the Nazis and their allies, the Japanese, in Indochine itself, Burma and even China. 

Unfortunately for Boulle, the Free French forces in Asia were not the only French forces there, and soldiers loyal to the Nazi-backed Vichy Government in France eventually captured him and handed him over to the Japanese, who imprisoned him in one of their appalling prisoner-of-war camps, the true conditions of which he would document after the war. Like so many other PoWs, he was forced to work on the so-called “Death Railway”, the railway that the Japanese built in Burma to transport troops and the supplies they needed. Of course, as Boulle would later let the world know, the Japanese did not build the railway or any of its accompanying infrastructure themselves. Instead, they forced the PoWs and other Asian prisoners to do the work for them, in extremely high temperatures and with little food or water to sustain them. As a result, it is conservatively estimated that at least 100,000 men were killed during the construction of the railway, nearly a fifth of whom were Allied PoWs. 

Fortunately for Boulle and for world literature and cinema, he was one of those who survived. He was eventually freed at the end of the war and after briefly returning to Malaya to work in the rubber industry he went back to France, nearly 20 years after he had first left. He returned a completely changed man. That was not just because he was now a highly decorated war hero. (Among the medals he received for his wartime service was the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest award for military service, which is a testament to the importance of his work for the resistance.) Even more importantly, he had decided to dedicate the rest of his life to writing, and in particular to writing about his wartime experiences. As one family member put it, it was as if he had experienced an “epiphany”. The man who had first worked on rubber plantations and then built (under duress) bridges and railways for the Japanese now used all his formidable engineering knowledge and his immense store of personal experience to construct meticulously plotted novels and novellas. Two of them would become best-sellers and are now regarded as being among the most important books of the 20th century, not least because they provided the basis for two of the finest and most influential films of the 20th century. 

First, Boulle wrote The Bridge Over The River Kwai, a self-professed work of fiction that nevertheless drew directly on his own experience of being a Japanese prisoner-of-war. Intriguingly, just as Boulle had chosen to go to a British colony rather than a French one when he first left France in 1933, rather than make the characters in the novel French he made them British instead. Perhaps this was because, although he did not speak English himself and the novel was originally written in French, he realised that the English-speaking market was the biggest in the world, especially as America became the dominant world power in the aftermath of World War Two. 

However, this transformation of his own original experience – from that of a real Frenchman to that of fictionalised Englishmen – was as nothing compared with the subsequent transformation that he would make after The Bridge Over The River Kwai became a multiple Oscar-winner when it was filmed by David Lean in 1957. Basking in the commercial and artistic triumph of his first book, which included winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay even though he barely spoke a word of English and did not write a word of the script (it was actually written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were posthumously awarded the Screenwriting Oscars they deserved in the 1980s), Boulle decided to completely reimagine both his original wartime experience and the original story that he had written about it. He did so by writing another book, Planet of the Apes (1963), in which he took the reality of his own brutal imprisonment by his fellow human beings to its logical, or perhaps illogical, conclusion and told the apparently fantastical story of a future human being who is imprisoned by apes. 

Anyone who reads Boulle’s original novella La Planète des singes/Planet of the Apes cannot fail to be struck by the extraordinary difference between it and the subsequent screenplay for the film adaptation, which inevitably followed five years later. In the book, the narrator Ulysse’s experience of imprisonment by apes after his space-ship crash-lands on an alien planet is absolutely central. Indeed, much of the story is set, or rather confined, within the cage in the laboratory that becomes Ulysse’s home after he is captured by a Simian hunting party. This is surely the direct result (however abstracted or “fantasticalised”, to coin a phrase) of Boulle’s own personal experience of being imprisoned by the Japanese 20 years earlier. 

One can imagine that without a common language to communicate in (it is unlikely that many, or indeed any, of the Japanese soldiers imprisoning Boulle spoke French and he certainly spoke no Japanese), Boulle’s captors must have seemed almost inhuman, especially when they then resorted to the kind of brutal, even bestial, treatment of prisoners that became routine during the construction of the “Railway of Death”. However, having already written so powerfully, even agonisingly, about that brutality in The Bridge Over The River Kwai, Boulle either had no desire to repeat himself or simply wanted to make the final imaginative leap and alter his captors from fellow humans to mysteriously over-evolved apes. 

In that respect, it is also worth remembering that Boulle’s original captors during World War Two were his fellow Frenchmen, albeit Vichy Frenchmen rather than Free French supporters such as himself. This is hugely significant, because rather than simply give in to the kind of orientalising, even dehumanising, attitudes towards his subsequent Japanese captors that so many other European and American PoWs-turned-writers adopted after World War Two, as a result of which the Japanese were effectively completely dehumanised themselves, Boulle seems to have realised right from the start that the only real divide between his captors and himself were the actual bars that kept him confined, rather than any supposed superiority of spirit or intellect. 

The actual screenwriters for the film of Planet of the Apes (1968) were Rod Serling, one of the key creators of The Twilight Zone TV series in the 1950s, and – yet again – Michael Wilson. Wilson had been one of the successful Hollywood screenwriters who had been blacklisted during the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s (as depicted in numerous films since, from the Woody Allen-starring The Front in 1976 to Trumbo in 2015), which was one of the reasons why he was not officially credited as a screenwriter on the film adaptation of The Bridge Over The River Kwai. By the late 1960s, however, the blacklist had ended and Wilson could finally be given the genuine credit that he deserved for adapting another Pierre Boulle novel for the screen. 

At the insistence of 20th Century Fox, which had bought the film rights to Planet of the Apes, Serling and Wilson wrote a genuinely classic adaptation of the book, jettisoning almost everything about it (on the basis, as the studio said, that it was simply too “wordy”, or literary) except for the original, instigating idea, namely a future planet on which apes ruled and humans were their inferiors and even their “lab rats”.  In the process, they created one of the few truly intelligent “actioners” that have ever been made, which bears comparison with the titan of the genre, The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur) (1953). 

Planet of the Apes has a classic “capture, release and recapture” story structure, which is almost the inverse of the archetypal “rise, fall and rise again” story structure that seems to be the most commercially successful and universally resonant structure in all of story-telling and not just cinema. Of course, the final “recapture” comes in the form of an ending that is one of the most famous in the history of film. Although it was completely invented by Wilson and Serling, like so much of their screenplay for Planet of the Apes it is actually true to and even respectful of the original ending of the original novella. That ending is equally memorable, but in a way that is so truly and essentially literary that it may explain why there has never been (at least not yet) a faithful adaptation of the original novel. Put simply, it is so completely literary that it may not translate to other media, particularly the screen. 

However, there have been numerous unfaithful adaptations and extensions of the novel, including the far less successful (both artistically and commercially) sequels to the original 1968 film, as well as several TV series, which probably made Planet of the Apes the first example of the franchise model of film-making that has dominated cinema (especially commercial, mainstream American cinema) ever since, from Star Wars to The Avengers. Finally, in the early 21st century there has been a complete (and largely successful) reimagining or rebooting of the series, using the latest and most astonishing CGI technology, which, frankly, puts much of the original latex modelling of the original series of films in the late 1960s and early 1970s to shame. Even more importantly, the action is now set firmly on Earth, in the present or near future, where genetic remodelling and the spread of a deadly virus from apes to humans is responsible for the rise of apes, rather than nuclear war or some other cataclysmic military conflict. 

Everything that has followed from the original novella is a testament to the extraordinary imaginative power of Pierre Boulle’s original novella, in which he created an ape world that is an inversion of our human world, one in which the supposedly unalterable reality of evolution is completely altered. In that respect, Boulle created a “monkey-verse” that has proven to be even more influential than that of the first and greatest screen ape, King Kong (1933), which the producer of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film, Arthur P. Jacobs, always cited as the primary source of his interest in making a film about monkeys.

Finally, having looked at the rest of his life and the triumph of his two very different books, it is time to return to the woman who Pierre Boulle loved in Asia before the war and indeed continued to love for the rest of his life. However, it is incredibly hard to return to her, because her identity was never revealed by Boulle and, so far at least, has never been definitively established by any of his biographers or critics. Whoever she was, she apparently remained married to her husband, and although she and Boulle remained in contact when he returned to France after the war, their relationship was only ever platonic. 

The mystery of the woman who Pierre Boulle loved is comparable to the mystery of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, the equally unknown and unidentified subject of so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Whoever she was, she must surely have been a formidable, attractive and compelling woman, because effectively she held in thrall – to the extent that he never married anyone else or indeed ever had any other major relationship with anyone else – one of the greatest and most successful writers of the 21st century. Pierre Boulle may have ultimately been released from his Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and then brilliantly chronicled his experience in one book before completely reimagining it in another, but in his own personal life he seems to have been forever a prisoner – a prisoner of love, from which there was never any escape. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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