The Prisoner of Zenda

From Academic Kids

The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure novel by Anthony Hope, first published in 1894. It tells the story of a man who has to impersonate a king, who he happens to closely resemble, when the king is abducted by enemies on the eve of his coronation.

The villainous Rupert of Hentzau gives his name to its 1898 sequel.

The Ruritania books were extremely popular at the time they were published and inspired a host of imitations, including the Graustark novels by George Barr McCutcheon.


Plot synopsis

The main protagonist is the Hon. Rudolf Rassendyll, younger brother of the Earl of Burlesdon and (through an ancestor's indiscretion) a distant cousin of Rudolf V, the new King of Ruritania (a fictional Germanic kingdom situated between the German and Austrian Empires). King Rudolf is a hard-drinking, feckless playboy, unpopular with the common people, but supported by the aristocracy, the Church, the army, and the wealthier classes in general. His political rival is his younger half-brother, Michael, Duke and Governor of Strelsau, the capital city. Michael has no legal claim to the throne because he is the son of their father's second, morganatic marriage: there are hints, regarding his swarthy appearance and Rassendyll's use of the word 'mongrel' to taunt him, that he may be part-Jewish. He is regarded as the champion of Strelsau's impoverished working-class, and is also popular in the countryside. (The morality of the novel - that propping up a dissolute despot is a 'good thing' - is disconcerting. It is possible that the author, something of an ironist, is playing with his readers, or perhaps wishes us to see Rassendyll as a not-entirely reliable narrator.)

When Rudolf is abducted and imprisoned on Michael's orders, Rassendyll has to impersonate the King at his coronation. There are various complications, plots and counter-plots, with the schemings of Michael's mistress Antoinette de Mauban, and of the villainous henchman Rupert of Hentzau, and Rassendyll falling in love with Princess Flavia, the King's betrothed. The King is finally restored to the throne - but the lovers must part.


The novel has been adapted many times for film and television, the best-known screen version being the 1937 film. It stars Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, C. Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks Jr..

The movie was adapted by Wells Root, John L. Balderston, Donald Ogden Stewart (additional dialogue) Ben Hecht (uncredited) and Sidney Howard (uncredited) from the novel and the adapted play by Edward E. Rose. It was directed by John Cromwell.

The script's basis in the 1895 stage-version is readily apparent: there is little attempt to open up the story. The emphasis is very much on romance and adventure, rather than on the political thriller aspects of the story.

It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Music, Score. The film has been deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The Prisoner of Zenda has been made several other times:

Looser adaptations

The 1965 comedy film The Great Race included an extended Zenda-like subplot, including a climactic fencing scene between Tony Curtis and Ross Martin that surpasses any in the serious film adaptations of the novel.

The 1978 Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara was consciously based on Zenda. It used a similar plot and setting, with the added complication of android doubles of several key characters.

The Prisoner of Zenda, Inc., a 1996 made-for-television version, is set in the modern-day United States and revolves around a high school age boy who is the heir to a large corporation. It stars Jonathan Jackson, Richard Lee Jackson, William Shatner, Don S. Davis, Jay Brazeau and Katharine Isabelle.

The anime series El Hazard: The Magnificent World borrows much from the Hope novel. In this series, a boy and his friends are transported to another world where he bears a strong resemblance to a missing princess and reluctantly agrees to impersonate her.

In fiction, The Zenda Vendetta (Time Wars Book 4) by Simon Hawke (1985) is another science fiction version, part of a series which pits 27C terrorists the Timekeepers against the Time Commandos of the US Army Temporal Corps. One of the Commandos fills the hero's role, while Antoinette's rôle is filled (after a fashion) by a Timekeeper dominatrix. However, the author seems to have been unaware of the existence of a sequel to the original, which is made impossible by some of his interpolations in the canon. He also changes the political and social divisions within Ruritania, and - like some of the previous film versions - relocates it to the Balkans.

After Zenda by John Spurling (1995) is a modern adventure, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in which Karl, the secret great-grandson of Rudolf Rassendyll and Queen Flavia, goes to post-Communist Ruritania, where he gets mixed up with various rebels and religious sects before ending up as constitutional monarch. However, this could have easily been made to stand on its own feet without relying the Ruritania mythos: again, the geographical setting and time-period of the events in the original Anthony Hope canon have been changed.

External links

sv:Fången på Zenda (1937)


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