Pierre Boulle - A group of scientists dissatisfied with world conditions establish a global government that speedily banishes the world's ills, but other ills take their place



Pierre Boulle, Desperate Games. Trans. by David Carter, Hesperus Classics, 2014.

Predating The Hunger Games, Pierre Boulle, author of The Planet Apes, imagines a world governed by science and brutality gone mad in this long-neglected, dystopian tale.
Despairing at the state of world degeneration, a group of the world’s most renowned intellectuals form the new Scientific World Government, aiming to put the world to rights.
Elected into power, they quickly start making changes for the better, eliminating world hunger and cancer; encouraging scientific thought and banning frivolous entertainment. But while congratulating themselves on a job well done, they fail to notice that actually, people are not happy… The suicide rate has sky-rocketed and, strangely, it turns out the public want a little risk and conflict in their lives.
So to cater for the masses, the Department of Psychology forms a plan. They will stage an entertainment show the likes of which the world has never seen before. It starts with gladiatorial style battles, bloodthirsty and brutal, where the victors become celebrities of unseen proportions, and quickly escalates into entire historical battle re-enactments involving chemical warfare and mass destruction.


Boulle's latest cosmic diversion -- once again seeded with irony -- takes place on this planet of very advanced apes where a new Scientific World Government is instituted and manned by thirteen of the highest intellects in the most demanding disciplines previously screened by a panel of Nobel prizewinners. The immediate aims -- the elimination of hunger and cancer -- are quickly accomplished and physical needs are taken care of even if the people become more demanding (the Eskimos want Larks). And even if there seems to be a prevailing anomie (the suicide rate goes up and up) which the Department of Psychology counters with a program of various games based on epic events -- Waterloo -- the Battle of the Marne -- which the different disciplines engage in before the finale in which pure science is most ingloriously ticked off. The at first slow-motion story is minimal -- the message(s) are certainly abecedarian (there is no passionate interest in science, and no raison d'etre without conflict) but Mr. Boulle makes them attractive with his own kind of paradox -- a certain fastidious nonchalance. - Kirkus Reviews

        The premise (or what appears to be the premise) is quite clever: he posits that the international scientific community has come to the conclusion that the world's leaders are doing a very poor job of it, and that scientists could do things much better -- indeed, that a scientific approach is all it takes to solve all the world's problems. So they organise a take-over, using the prestige of the Nobel prize -- it's the 'Nobels' that make the official call for a change -- and the sensible arguments they have. Apparently that's all it takes:
in this dawn of the twenty-first century, nearly all heads of state were tired of governing, frustrated by their own fruitless efforts to solve problems beyond their competence, and this sense of frustration filtered down through the public. (...) Nearly everyone resigned; odd resisters eventually were compelled to do so by the sweeping tide of public opinion.
       Okay, so it's ridiculously unrealistic -- but if it's a step Boulle needs to take to get to his Scientific World Government it can be tolerated. Surprisingly, however, it takes Boulle almost a third of the novel to establish this government -- not because the final transitional step was so hard (it was a piece of cake) but because he spends a great amount of space introducing the characters, mainly by describing the final exam the last contestants for the leadership positions are taking. The top scientists between ages 35 and 50, compete to see who gets the top job, as well as the lesser ones. It's a decent way to introduce the characters -- except that he never does all that much with them.
       One might imagine that Boulle would then show how much better (or worse) science is at solving the world's problems. But that, too, is easily dispensed with. After three years (and about three pages) war is no longer possible, the world's population has been stabilized (yeah, that's possible ...), "famine and common hunger were things of the past", and: "Everyone was suitably housed, under ideal sanitary conditions and with all desirable conveniences." Boulle offers essentially no explanation as to how this was made possible (since, of course, it's completely impossible, regardless of the best intentions and plans), but, hey, it sounds good. Oh, right, and:
     Economic crises were over and done with now that production, trade, and exchange were centrally controlled and balanced in the interests of all the people.
       Yes, this world view is a pretty simple one. And yet one wants to allow the author his idyll -- it's his fantasy, after all -- , and see where he takes it.
       The scientists expect that everyone will use this new peaceful, comfortable time and pursue learning, but the masses aren't really into that. At scientific lectures they dutifully attend the only questions they have are about astrology, and they generally don't care much about deeper learning.
       Meanwhile, it is especially the scientists who are stricken by "loss of confidence in the ego" -- LCE ! It's one of Boulle's nuttier ideas, but at least some fun, as scientists no longer trust their own senses, but can only rely in instruments and machines in this ultra-technological, science-based world: drivers crash their cars when they are unable to steer or control their cars, pilots crash their planes unless they do a blind instrument landing ..... Most hilariously, some simply stop breathing, having: "lost confidence in their ability to breathe without mechanical aid."
       Meanwhile, the general population is also bored to tears: there's hardly need to work, but they don't know what to do with themselves. Suicide rates skyrocket.
       What to do ? Leave it to the scientists .....
       Because of the decline of nations there are also no more international sporting events -- and it appears that's exactly the sort of thing people miss. So new contests are invented -- which finally brings us to the 'desperate games' of the title. And they certainly are desperate -- and dangerous. To capture audience interest the Department of Leisure invents gladiatorial contests, fights to the death. And from "mixed-team superwrestling" (very successful) to "rugby with spiked helmets" (less so) the masses are kept entertained. (Oddly, Boulle -- and his scientists -- don't worry about the ethical implications of these contests.)
       The masses are kept entertained -- for a while. Eventually, of course, what they want is more -- and bigger spectacles. And so -- surprise ! -- Boulle takes the idea to its extremes. Which makes for a modestly clever conclusion -- though given how he's led readers there, it's not the most convincing of lessons that is learned here.
       There's a fill of ideas in this novel -- enough to fill a much bigger book, or several. In this condensed version, with its odd leaps of focus and simplistic premises, it all seems fairly ridiculous. There's too little thought about what each step means (or how they could be accomplished), and so the only appeal is in the grand (and little) visions, some of which admittedly are very creative and intriguing.
       Boulle writes well (or easily) enough, but he's all over the place here, offering some personal detail to flesh out his characters, but never in a way that makes them in the least memorable or interesting. He's best with the larger ideas, but here he stuffs far too many in to make for a read that is in any way satisfying. - The Complete Review


French writer whose best-known novels are Le Pont de la rivičre Kwaď (1952, The Bridge over the River Kwai), a story of a foolish pride, and La Plančte des singes (1963, Planet of the Apes), both of which were adapted into highly successful films. Several of Boulle's works deal more or less directly with his experiences in Southeast Asia. However, The Bridge Over the River Kwai and the movie based on it, are both fictitious and Boulle was never a prisoner of the Japanese. Like Graham Greene, he used the frame of an adventure, war or a spy story to study themes of false ideals and human destructiveness. 
"As my gorilla walked past me again, having finished his rounds, I tried by every means to attract his attention. I tapped on the bars; I made sweeping gestures, pointing at my mouth, with the result that he condescended to resume the experiment. Then, on the first blast of the whistle, and well before he had waved the fruit, I started watering at the mouth, watering at the mouth in fury, in frenzy – I Ulysse Mérou, started watering at the mouth, as though my very life depended on it, such pleasure did I derive from showing him my intelligence." (from Monkey Planet, trans. Xan Fielding)
Pierre Boulle was born in Avignon, the son of Eugčne Boulle, a lawyer, and Thérčse (Seguin) Boulle. He studied science at the Sorbonne and then entered the Ecole Supérieure d'Electricité de Paris. After graduating in 1933 and working then as an engineer, Boulle moved in 1938 to Malaysia, where he was employed as an overseer in a rubber plantation at 50 miles from Kuala Lumpur. At the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted with the French army in French Indochina. When German troops occupied France, Boulle joined the French resistance, de Gaulle's Free French mission in Singapore, where he received training as a spy and saboteur. He served as a secret agent under the name Peter John Rule, a Mauritius-born Englishman, and helped the resistance movement in China, Burma, and Indochina.
In 1943, Boulle was captured by the Vichy French loyalists on the Mekong River, and sentenced to "hard labor for life." However, during his incarceration he also managed to keep a diary. With the help of authorities at his prison in Saigon, he escaped in 1944, and served until the end of the war in British special forces in Calcutta, India. Before returning to France, Boulle continued his work at the plantation in Malaysia; he also spent some time in the Cameroons. Back in Paris, Boulle lived first in a hotel in the Quartier Latin and moved then to the apartment of his widowed sister, Madeleine Perrusset.
Boulle's first novel, William Conrad (1950), was a spy story set in wartime England. Its firsthand authenticity and ironic portrayal of the British national character earned critical praise. The title character is a Joseph Conrad-like Polish emigrant, who actually is a German agent. William Conrad was translated into English by Xan Fielding, a former British Special Operations Executive agent, who became Boulle's regular translator. After finishing the thinly autobiographical work, Le Sacrilčge malais (1951, Sacrilege in Malaya), Boulle began writing The Bridge over the River Kwai, which drew in part on his experiences as a prisoner of war. The novel was awarded the Prix Sainte-Beuve. "I didn't know the River Kwai before I wrote the book," he later confessed.
Planet of the Apes was also a world-wide bestseller, but it owed less to the tradition of King Kong than Voltairean satires. The story, in which humankind is not the dominant species, was an ironic comment on the relationship between men and animals. It transferred the basic relationship between the Japanese soldiers and Allied prisoners – the repression of a weaker group by a stronger and its moral effect on both sides – into the distant future.
During his prolific career, Boulle wrote more than 30 novels and short stories. For his literary achievements, he was appointed officer of the Legion of Honor. His wartime heroism earned him the Croix de Guerre and a Medal of the Resistance. Boulle never married. In an interview he once said, that his favorite authors were Joseph Conrad and Edgar Allan Poe, and his chief relaxation fencing. Boulle died in Paris on January 30, 1994, at the age of 81.
In his works, Boulle combined a captivating story with a pessimistic view of human endeavors and absurdities.The author himself considered Planet of the Apes one of his lesser novels. Beginning as a story inside a story, set in the year 2500, it first introduces Jinn and Phyllis, a wealthy leisured couple traveling in space. They find a bottle floating through the void. Inside is a handwritten manuscript, which tells in the spirit of Gulliver's Travels about Ulysse Mérou, a French journalist. He lands on another planet, where the apes are intelligent and humans have lost the power of language and thought. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orang-utans all have equal rights. Humans are exhibited in zoos used used as guinea pigs in laboratories. Some of the planet's scientists refuse to acknowledge, that an animal has a soul, while according to another view there is only a difference of degree between the mental processes of beasts and those of monkeys. Mérou speaks at a scientific congress and tells the astonished audience: "... I come from a distant planet, from Earth, that Earth on which, by a whim of nature that has still to be explained, it is men who are the repositories of wisdom and reason."
The book differs in many ways from Franklin J. Schaffner's film adaptation, starring Charlton Heston as the astronaut George Taylor. When Boulle wanted to question our superiority over other animals, the film reveals in the climax the past and destroyed glory of humankind, symbolized by the ruined, half-buried remains of the Statue of Liberty. Boulle himself objected the ending, "I am definitely against it, from every point of view," he stated in a memo to the producer Arthur P. Jacobs. After Taylor has learned the truth about the planet, he cries: "Damn them all to hell!" In the book Mérou returns finally to Earth, and is received at the airport by a gorilla. Another twist of the tale is that Jinn and Phyllis are chimpanzees and consider the story incredible: "Rational men? Men endowed with a mind? Men inspired by intelligence? No, that's not possible; there the author has gone too far. But it's a pity!"
The Bridge over the River Kwai depicted the true story of POW's from a Japanese Labor Camp, who are forced to build a bridge for the Japanese war effort. The grueling work becomes for the prisoners a means to find again their self-respect, but all their achievements in turn are just a ridiculous testament of the madness of war. Boulle's view of the British officers was satirical. Colonel Nicholson is the perfect example of the military snob. His character was modelled in part on the Vichy French colonel, who sentenced him to hard labor. Boulle also examined friendship between individual soldiers, both among captors and captives, created by the enterprise. As in Planet of the Apes, Boulle plays with the Darwinist theme of survival of the fittest. The victorious Japanese soldiers cooperate with their prisoners, who want to show their superiority through the construction work.
David Lean's sreen adaptation was mostly shot in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). At the insistence of the Hollywood producers, Boulle agreed to add a subplot involving a soldier of fortune (played by William Holden), who escapes from the camp, and returns with a small band of volunteers to blow up the bridge. The heroic ending differed from Boulle's novel, in which the bridge remains standing. When Boulle met the screenwriter Carl Foreman and the producer Sam Spiegel in London, he said that he wanted to destroy the bridge but couldn't work out how. Lean also did not manage to blow it up on the first attempt, and he was not satisfied with the scene, which closes the picture, looking down on the shattered bridge and the wrecked train, and James Douglass saying, "Madness, madness." In one of its most memorable moments, the troops march into the camp whistling "Colonel Bogey". The song had been written by a British army officer, Kenneth J. Alford. It became a great hit, particularly after Mitch Miller & His Orchestera made their popular recording. Malcolm Arnold, who composed the score, was classically trained, also known for the music he wrote for such films as The Captain's Paradise (1953), Trapeze (1956), Island in the Sun (1957), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), and Tunes of Glory (1960).
The Bridge on the River Kwai was nominated for eight Academy Awards. For his great surprise, Boulle received an Oscar for the best screenplay, although he had written not one line of it. The real authors were Carl Foreman, and Michael Wilson, a blacklisted writer, who posthumously received the Academy Award in 1985. Sam Spiegel, the producer, had given the credit for the script to Boulle, because Columbia would not empoy blacklisted writers. Spiegel had told him that it was his book on the screen, "that he had just put a few camera angles on it and what do you care?" (Carl Foreman in David Lean: A Biography by Kevin Brownlow, 1986) Moreover, Lean made up a story about Boulle and himself in Paris, to explain how a novelist, who did not have much film experience, could produce such a work. Boulle did not attend the ceremony, when the awards were presented at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Michael Wilson later adapted Planet of the Apes for the 1968 Franklin J. Schaffner film.
Boulle's later works include La Baleine des Malouines (1983, The Whale of the Victoria Cross), a story of a heroic blue whale, nicknamed "Auntie Margot", and naval warfare in the Falklands. In Le Photographe (1967, The Photographer) a former Algerian war veteran is obsessed by opportunity to take the ultimate picture, "a unique document", as he discovers that his friend wants to murder the President. Quia absurdum (1970, Because it is Absurd) was a collection of short stories. One of its tales, 'His Last Battle', told about Hitler, who lives with Eva Braun in the mountains of Peru. At the end he says to Martin Bormann, "The Jews, Bormann, the Jews – I have forgiven them." In Aux sources de la rivičre Kwaď (1966, My Own River Kwai) Boulle returned to his war experiences in the Far East. L'Ilon (1990) was a book of childhood memories from the family's cottage of Ilon on the Rhône. The director Otto Preminger planned to film Les Voies du salut (1958, The Other Side of the Coin), about a wounded female guerrilla, and an American woman, the wife of a rubber plantation manager, who tries to reform her. The project was never realized, but Preminger casted Au Kar Wai, a 19-year-old Chinese star of Shaw Brothers films, to play the rebel. - www.kirjasto.sci.fi/boulle.htm

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