Friday, March 1, 2013

A Fangirl's Guide to The Prisoner of Zenda

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.)

The 1937 movie version also features rather prominently in my mystery The Man Who Did Too Much.  That version is second on my list of all time best movies ever.  (Right after Casablanca.)

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.

That last sword fight, by the way, is probably the major change from the book, and, imho, a necessary one: Rupert, the secondary villain, who is so charming and villainous that the steals the show in every version, just kind of runs amok at the end of the book.  He is chaos personified, but he doesn't provide final conflict for the hero.  Rudolf has to fight off some minor characters, but he never faces off with Rupert. I expect they made that change in the very first stage version -- it was so obviously necessary.  (Anthony Hope, by the way, was closely involved in that first stage production.)

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.


David Michael said...

I discovered Prisoner of Zenda as a teenager. Probably read it at least 5 times in jr high and high school. I've watched the 1937 movie and the 1952 movie, but never felt any need to watch them again. Not sure why.

The lines I most remember are:

"Shave him, and he'd be the king!"

"Gads, you're thirsty tonight!"

Rudolf. Flavia. Always.

I'm almost tempted to re-read it once again...but I'll probably leave it alone. Don't wanna mess with a cherished childhood memory. =)


The Daring Novelist said...

Wow, that's interesting. Because I would have thought those two lines, and the moments involved, to be the most forgettable.

Probably for me the most memorable line would be from the movie not the book (which makes sense because I have a good aural memory): "Half my kingdom... for a match."

In some ways I'd have to say that the 1937 movie was better than the books in terms of memorability -- because it took moods and abstracted themes and turned them into memorable moments: the scenes between Flavia and Rudolf in the carriage, when he suggests they wave across one another, the ballroom where everybody has to stop dancing every time he pause to ask her a question.

I do think that the gestalt of so many versions, though, is a part of what makes the story memorable. But also how it can mean many things to many people.

That's a part of what I'll be talking about on Wednesday.

David Michael said...

Well, thinking about it more, the first quote launches the story (after all the discussion about relatives and European trips). The second launches the big fight scene near the end. And the last *is* the end of the book.


I remember the first time I saw the B&W movie. Must've been in the early 90's, when I was still under 25 and the last time I read the book hadn't been so long before. I remember thinking it was pretty true to the book, but, for me, all ties go to the book.

I think that was when I learned there had been a sequel to the book, and requested Rupert of Hentzau from the library. I know I read it...I just don't remember anything about it. I liked the Rupert character a lot, but I guess everyone did. Too bad I don't remember his book...


The Daring Novelist said...

I don't recall "gad, you're thirsty tonight" as a specific line at all. I could not have told you where it appeared, so I looked it up. (It's not before the final sequence, it's at the end of the first act -- just before a one-page action scene after they discover the king has been kidnapped.)

I can see why you'd remember it -- it's a great line in context, because it expresses great emotion. Rudolf wants to avenge the dead servant, and he wants to do it personally, with steel rather than a pistol.

I think it's cool that you remember it as launching the final fight -- because I think the death of loyal Josef arouses a level of personal emotion and empathy that the threats to the king never quite manage.

One of the things I'm going to talk about on Wednesday is how personal our reactions and retention of such stories are.

For instance, the 'shave him and he'd be the king' line is not so memorable to me, because I think the part about Rudolf _looking_ like the king is the least interesting part of the story. But I knew the concept before I read it, so there was nothing dramatic in the moments in which it was revealed. The line I remembered more was the dry humor, "A man doesn't expect to see double this time of day."

As for the sequel -- it is actually pretty forgettable. It's a tear-jerker, and as such it is a lot less fun.