The Prisoner of Zenda was published in 1894, and has been reprinted and adapted and refreshed and redone countless times. It is a classic "cloak-and-sword" swashbuckler: where intrigue features as much as action, and therefore, though it is set in a time with guns, the heroes and villains fall back on swords because they are quieter.
I own several copies of the book -- an early edition with the original Charles Dana Gibson illustrations, as well as more modern ones. Also, a copy of the sequel, Rupert of Hentzau (with Gibson illustrations). The Classics Illustrated comic book. Of the movies I own the 1922, 1937 and 1954 versions. Somewhere I think I have a VHS tape of the 1978 version with Peter Sellers. (There were at least six Hollywood versions, three silent, three talkie.) I also have a time travel military sf book called The Zenda Vendetta, in which time-travelling terrorists assassinate the hero and screw up the timeline, so time-travelling commandos have to go back and see the story happens as it is supposed to.
The plot -- of a hero who must impersonate a kidnapped king -- has been used again and again: in movies like The Great Race, Moon Over Parador and Dave. It has been used many many times on television, including episodes of Dr. Who and Get Smart, to my memory.
I even started to write a screenplay of my own, set in Frankenmuth, Michigan -- which has a yearly Bavarian festival and a world famous restaurant called... Zehnders. It was, of course, to be titled The Prisoner of Zehnders. (Although I probably would have had to change all the names of places to keep from being sued.)
It's hard to talk about this story without stopping to talk about that version of the movie. Beautifully photographed by James Wong Howe, well directed by James Cromwell, and perfectly cast: not just in the starring roles with Ronald Coleman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Madeleine Carroll, but in all of the secondary roles with Mary Astor, David Niven, Raymond Massey and C. Aubrey Smith, and a host of character actors whose names you wouldn't recognize but who were top of their game at this time.
But more than anything else it was wonderfully written. They preserved as much of the dialog of the book as possible, and the new material was clever and witty. They added a lot of humor, particularly into the romance -- allowing Rudolf to charm Flavia with absurdities and irreverence. And of course, the witty banter during the final sword fight is one of the classics of the screen.
Interesting factoid: the 1937 movie version was so well loved that when they remade it in 1952, they did their best to replicate it shot-for-shot. They had the 1937 version running on a Moviola on the set. Seriously. (If they loved it so much, why remake it? Because it wasn't in color, and in those days, you didn't do major re-releases of old movies anyway.)
When a story gets retold as much as this one has -- both faithfully and unfaithfully -- it takes on a mythic quality. (Or perhaps it gets retold because it has a mythic quality.) And mythic stories have an additional aspect, an additional lens, with which we can look at them and understand them.
This story has something I call "character structure" which is kind of like plot structure, only different. I've decided that probably deserves it's own post, and it is more of a literary theory thing... so I'll tell you more about that on Wednesday. In the meantime, if you haven't read it or seen it before, you should get your hands on a copy of Zenda, book or movie.
Project Gutenberg version of The Prisoner of Zenda. Amazon has the book in free and paid and ebook and paper versions and a dual DVD of the movie with both the 1937 and 1952 versions.
Or you could watch just a slightly jumpy version of that final confrontation between Rudolf and Rupert on You Tube, with Dutch subtitles.
See you in the funny papers.