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Literature / The Prisoner of Zenda

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The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure novel by Anthony Hope, published in 1894. The king of the fictional country of Ruritania is abducted on the eve of his coronation, and the hero, an English gentleman on holiday who fortuitously resembles the monarch due to being his distant cousin, is persuaded to act as his political decoy in an attempt to save the situation.

When Rudolf is forced to keep up the pretense for longer than a simple coronation, he finds himself having to deal with Duke Black Michael: the King's brother, kidnapper, and attempted usurper of the throne. He also becomes acquainted with Flavia, the King's beautiful young cousin... who suddenly finds herself more attracted to the ruler than ever before.

The book is responsible for many tropes on this site that are listed below. Likewise, it has been remade into several films, books and episodes of series since. It has an oft-forgotten sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, published in 1898, which has also (though more rarely) been adapted. Both books have a prequel, The Heart of Princess Osra, published in 1896, which is even more obscure and has never been adapted.

Not to be confused with The Legend of Zelda.

The Prisoner of Zenda features examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Affectionate Parody: Peter Sellers' movie version, released in 1979, is a spoof of the novel, with Sellers - of course - playing both King Rudolf (a womanizing man-about-town in this version) and British Rudolf (a London hansom-cab driver), tracking the events of the book fairly closely, though the original Bittersweet Ending is Subverted in that British Rudolf does indeed win Princess Flavia's love, while King Rudolf ends the movie with the sexy blonde countess he's been lusting after from the beginning.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Antoinette loves Michael, who loves Flavia, who loves Rassendyll. At the same time Rupert lusts after Antoinette, but she fears and hates him (with good reason).
  • Anti-Villain: Michael might actually have been a better king than Rudolf, but he tries to get the throne by drugging and kidnapping his brother.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil:
    • Michael is a double subversion. He is an aristocrat (Duke of Strelsau and a Prince, if not in line to the throne because his parents' marriage was morganatic). He subverts it by being an evil Duke, since Dukes tend to be good. He then subverts that when it's pointed out that his father specifically gave him a freshly created duchy (which is ruled from the capital city, no less) in the hopes that being the second-most powerful noble in the kingdom would be enough to sate his ambition (it wasn't).
    • Played straight by Rupert, who's a Count, and the most villainous character in the book.
  • Attempted Rape: Rupert tries to rape Antoinette, and sets off a chain of events leading to Michael's death and King Rudolf's rescue.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: In the 1979 movie, Played for Laughs, culminating in the doddering old bishop's dropping "King" Rudolf's orb of state, which knocks over a triangle of candles bowling-style.
  • Bastard Bastard: Played with. Black Michael is King Rudolf's half-brother via their father's second marriage; however, because the marriage was morganticnote  Michael is excluded from the line of succession. He's also the Big Bad and spends most of the book scheming to get the King and later Rassendyll out of the way so he can claim the throne and marry Princess Flavia.
  • Beardness Protection Program: Double subverted. Rudolf shaves his beard when he begins to impersonate the king. Both the king and Rudolf are bearded to begin with, but the beard removal is a convenient justification for why something about the king seems off.
  • Becoming the Mask: Rudolf becomes more like a king the longer he pretends to be the king.
  • Bittersweet Ending: King Rudolf is rescued and Michael is dead, but Rupert has escaped and Rudolf and Flavia can't be together. Subverted thoroughly in the Sellers 1979 movie, where British Rudolf ends up becoming the actual king, winning Princess Flavia's love and marrying her in the process, while the real King Rudolf, who never wanted the throne in the first place, goes off to London to live it up with the beautiful blonde countess he met at the start of the film and lusted eagerly after therefore.
  • Bleed 'Em and Weep: Antoinette. Somewhat subverted in that after she misses the first shot, she pauses and visibly forces herself to calm down. Rupert doesn't wait for her to aim properly.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Rudolf doesn't get Flavia. Subverted in Peter Sellers' comic 1979 film version, where not only does Rudolf get Flavia (played by Sellers' wife Lynne Frederick), but King Rudolf gets the woman he really wanted all along, a sexy countess played by Elke Sommer.
  • Emergency Impersonation: Rudolf first impersonates the King at the coronation when Prince Michael drugs the king (hoping to discredit the King by making it look like he missed his coronation due to a horrendous hangover). Later becomes more serious once the King's abduction is discovered.
  • Enigmatic Minion: Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: During one of their bantering conversations, Rudolf, who like others knows about Rupert's womanizing and immoral behavior causing his mother grief, comments "Thank God" when Rupert replies in the affirmative that his mother is dead. This angers Rupert and causes him to momentarily lose his affable mask.
  • The Evil Prince: Michael is King Rudolf's half-brother, and schemes to take the throne. Technically he's a Duke rather than a prince, but he fits the spirit of the trope.
  • Fake King: Guess who?
  • Gentleman Adventurer: Rudolf is an example of the good version, and the book also has an Evil Counterpart on Michael's side, Detchard, who is a mercenary but just as loyal to Michael as Rudolf is to the King (and at least an equal swordsman; Rudolf admits he probably would have lost if the delirious king hadn't intervened).
  • Green-Eyed Monster: One of Black Michael's motivations for kidnapping the King is that they are rivals for Flavia's affections. Later, Antoinette sabotages Michael's plot because she's in love with him and knows he'll marry Flavia if it succeeds.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: At one point, Sapt tells Rudolf (Rassendyll) that he must make love to Princess Flavia that very night. By which, of course, he means flirt with her, so she won't feel like she's been rejected since he hasn't proposed yet. The term "to make love" didn't really begin to mean "to have sex" until the 1920's; before that, from the time when it came into the language in the 1500's, it simply meant to behave amorously toward someone, which could be as mild as holding hands or talking flirtatiously (it was most often used to indicate verbal wooing).
  • Heroic Bastard: Rudolf, the hero, is illegitimately related to the royal family of Ruritania. Black Michael is a "double bastard".
  • High-Dive Escape: Rupert dives into the moat to escape from Zenda, though Rudolf pursues him into the forest. Rupert's final escape comes when he steals a horse from a passing peasant girl.
  • Honor Before Reason: If not for this, the plot would have been: Rudolf exiles or kills Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim, lets the king get killed, marries the girl and becomes king in his own right. Sapt lampshades it about a third of the way in.
  • Identical Stranger: King Rudolf and Rudolf Rassendyll although, in this case, they are distant cousins.
  • Improvised Weapon: The tea-table used to Shield Bash three men.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Pretty much every character, but especially Michael.
  • Lazy Bum: Rudolf isn't a bad guy, and even has middling skill in things like languages and firearms- but he is completely opposed to any sort of work, something which irritates his more middle-class sister-in-law.
  • Love Makes You Evil: One of Black Michael's reasons for overthrowing the King of Ruritania is that he loves the King's fiancee Flavia, and Rupert wants to get Black Michael's mistress into bed and ends up killing Michael because of it.
  • Lost in Imitation: Many of the later Ruritanias bear little resemblance to the original one.
  • Mexican Standoff: Rudolf describes the situation between him and Black Michael in this way. He even name-drops "The Critic", a play written in 1779, which is considered the first parody of the trope.
    Rudolf:' "In fact, Fritz," said I, "I am reminded of a situation in one of our English plays—The Critic—have you heard of it? Or, if you like, of two men, each covering the other with a revolver. For I can't expose Michael without exposing myself..."
    Sapt: "And the King."
    Rudolf: "And, hang me if Michael won't expose himself, if he tries to expose me!"
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The 1937 Ronald Colman film version is generally considered to be the best of the cinematic versions and one of the best swashbucklers ever made, though it changes some details, as in introducing Hentzau near the beginning and making Flavia a blonde, and therefore making her name Meaningful, since it means "Blonde". It launched the career of David Niven (von Tarlenheim) and proved that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Hentzau) could play a convincing villain.
  • Preferable Impersonator: Both Colonel Sapt and Marshal Strakencz declare the English Rudolf to be one of the finest of the Elphbergs and Princess Flavia unknowingly prefers him to her cousin.
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: Rupert and Black Michael's other minions, referred to in the story as "The Six".
  • Red Baron: Prince Michael, Duke of Strelsau, is very rarely referred to by any other name than "Black Michael".
  • Red-Headed Stepchild: Rudolf's sister-in-law expresses somewhat joking condemnation of his red hair, as this trait serves as a reminder that one of the earlier kings of Ruritania had an affair with one of the countesses in the (traditionally dark-haired) family, and thus it's essentially knowledge that the current earl (Rudolf's brother) has an illegitimate claim to the title.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Guess.
  • Royal Blood: Rudolf Rassendyll has this, thanks to an affair a previous king of Ruritania had with one of his ancestors. Rudolf happens to have inherited both the telltale red hair of the Ruritanian royal family and the "Elphburg nose," distinctive traits which give him an uncanny resemblance to the current King.
  • Royally Screwed Up: King Rudolf and Black Michael are half-brothers, and they have issues. Michal's ambition leads him to drug the King on the eve of his coronation in an effort to cause a scandal and have him ousted; when that fails thanks to Rassendyll stepping in, he kidnaps the King and holds him prisoner for months, and as Rassendyll discovers, Michael doesn't take many pains to see that his half-brother is well-treated.
  • Ruritania: The Trope Namer, with a few splashes of Unbuilt Trope (See Unbuilt Trope below)
  • Secondary Character Title: The Prisoner of Zenda barely appears in the book itself as he is, well, imprisoned. The lead character is his distant relative and look-alike.
  • Sequel Hook: At the end of The Prisoner of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau has escaped, and the novel closes with Rudolf musing on that loose end, as well as a personal feeling that he might yet have some "part to play" in the world. There was, of course, a sequel titled Rupert of Hentzau.
  • The Starscream: Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Succession Crisis: Michael's initial plot is to cause one of these by making King Rudolf miss his coronation, making the public lose faith in him and resist any future attempts to crown him. Michael would then be free to present himself as an alternative (and much more popular) candidate and be crowned in Rudolf's place. After Rassendyll throws a wrench into that plan, Michael is forced to abandon this idea.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That:
    • Upon Rudolf's return from, allegedly, the Tyrol, his friend Featherly assumes that he met some woman there and carried on a dalliance with her, which is why he didn't let anyone know where he was going. Rudolf decides that this is as good an explanation as any and drops hints to reinforce the notion.
    • Meanwhile, back in Ruritania, approximately the same thing happens. A rumor starts that the prisoner of Zenda was a woman disguised as a man, over whose affections Michael and Rudolf (Elphberg) were fighting, and Flavia is suddenly cold "again" because she's angry her new husband cheated on her. The King and Queen are content to let everybody go on thinking this, because it neatly explains everything that happened without a whiff of the real events.
  • Swashbuckler
  • Unbuilt Trope: Despite being the trope namer for tiny, fictional backwaters Hope's Ruritania is apparently at least a middling sized, reasonably modern (by late 19th century standards) kingdom. Zenda itself has a handsome modern chateau built around the medieval castle, the capital city of Streslau is described by Rassendyll (a Londoner no less) as a "great city" and the narrative even notes the kingdom has played important roles in European history. It's essentially the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the serial numbers filed off.
    • The early imitation Ruritanias also tended to be pretty idyllic places, whereas Hope's Ruritania is not. Socio-economic divides are huge, banditry is rife, the king is not particularly competent and so unpopular he needs to marry a well-liked noblewoman to gain popularity by proxy, but still an absolute monarch, and infighting in the royal family has pushed the nation to the brink of civil war.
  • The Usurper: What the plot is built on.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The Evil Prince, Black Michael, is beloved the people in the "Old Town" of Strelsau and in his seat of Zenda, at least. The rest of the city's people are for King Rudolf, and we're never given much insight on how the people of the rest of the country feel.
  • The Von Trope Family: Among the heroes are Fritz von Tarlenheim and his wife Helga von Strofzin. On the villainous side there's Albert von Lauengram.
    • Presumably Rupert is another example. In German his name would be "Rupert von Hentzau", though for some reason everyone uses the English version "Rupert of Hentzau".
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: While the heroes definitely think that Michael is the wrong man for the throne (Sapt would rather have the impostor Rudolf stay there than give the throne over to Black Michael), by the end of their adventures together, they wistfully reflect that they wouldn't mind having Rassendyll remain on the throne. As Fritz puts it, "Heaven doesn't always make the right men kings!"
  • The X of Y: A Secondary Character Title referring to the imprisoned king.
  • You Fight Like a Cow: Rudolf and Rupert have several banter-filled duels of the kind affectionately parodied in The Princess Bride.

Rupert of Hentzau features examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Rupert, for once, didn't mean to kill anyone when he went to the hunting lodge, and he certainly didn't intend to kill the King.
  • Antagonist Title
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Downplayed with the Count of Luzau-Rischenheim. He works for Rupert and aids him in his blackmailing scheme, but after Rupert's death he becomes loyal to Flavia.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Rupert has fallen, his plans ruined, but Rassendyll dies in the process, leaving Flavia to reign alone as the last of the Elphberg dynasty.
  • Defiant to the End: Rupert doesn't flinch even when Rassendyll points a gun at his head.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Neither side looks very good in this book.
  • Last of Her Kind: By the final chapter, Flavia is the last Elphberg living.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The events leading to King Rudolf's death require some high levels of people getting the wrong message at the wrong time.
  • Undying Loyalty: Bauer and Rischenheim for Rupert, and Rudolf, Fritz and Sapt for Flavia.
  • The X of Y: Antagonist Title form.

The Heart Of Princess Osra features examples of:

  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Count Nikolas carries off Osra to force her to wed him (and stop her from revealing him as a cheat).
  • The Bet: Prince Rudolf bets his friend that he cannot win three kisses from the Princess. Otto bets Christian that he cannot find a woman more beautiful than Otto's bride.
  • Honor Before Reason: Multiple characters choose death before dishonor, or death because of dishonor, usually for reasons having to do with Osra. The silversmith is run through rather than let the king enter his home, the French fellow nearly kills himself after admitting his scheme to Osra, Harry convinces the new king *to* kill him to avoid dishonor to himself and Osra, Christian is almost hanged rather than use Osra's ring to call for aid, Count Nikolas says he would rather die than be revealed as a cheat...
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Many men lose their reason completely over Osra. Particular notice to the painter Giraldo, who goes into a mad artistic frenzy over her, paints his finest portrait, and immediately collapses into a fatal fever.
  • Rule of Three: The silversmith swears he cannot love or marry another unless Princess Osra first rejects him three times. The French gentleman schemes to receive three kisses. The dice for the ownership of Zenda are thrown three times.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Men have an unfortunate habit of falling madly in love with Osra and ruining their own lives because of it.
  • Turn the Other Cheek: When Count Nikolas slaps the Bishop across the face, the Bishop calmly turns his face and lets the Count hit him again. Then he points out: "I find nothing about the third blow in Holy Scripture."

Adaptations of The Prisoner of Zenda:

  • The paramount of the adaptations is the straight one made in 1937.
  • The 1952 film version is virtually a shot-by-shot remade of the 1937 film, albeit in color. They even used the same score.
  • The Fourth Doctor serial Androids of Tara is a largely faithful adaptation set in space.
  • The 1979 film version is a comic vehicle for Peter Sellers.
  • The television series Prisoner of Zenda Inc. is a corporate-themed adaptation of the work.
  • The film Moon over Parador
  • The 1993 film Dave, starring Kevin Kline, where Ruritania is replaced by the United States of America.
  • An episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, where Iolaus was the king's cousin, although the king, once rescued, actually acknowledged Iolaus was doing a better job and vowed to learn to be like that.
  • The Robert A. Heinlein novel Double Star borrowed the "must take the place of the kidnapped leader'' bit as its main plot. IN SPACE.
  • The second Flashman novel (Royal Flash) is a Zenda homage, where Flashman claims Anthony Hope plagiarized the story from him.
  • The Care Bears: Adventure in Wonderland swapped the social satire of Alice in Wonderland for this kind of plot.
  • The Get Smart episode "The King Lives?", with Agent 86 taking the place of the missing King Charles. One of the few episodes to have a sequel ("To Sire, With Love").
  • The Edgar Rice Burroughs novel The Mad King draws heavily on The Prisoner of Zenda (although moves the setting to World War One).
  • The Time Wars novel The Zenda Vendetta, in which time-travelling terrorists murder Rudolf Rassendyll, so one of the heroes — who fortuitously also resembles the monarch — has to impersonate him impersonating the King.
  • Inverted at one point on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. At one point, a Time Travel incident leads to a historical figure getting killed before the events that made him famous. Since he's not famous yet, what he looks like doesn't really matter, except that he was black and his race was significant. So Captain Sisko ends up taking his place to preserve the timeline. A few seasons later, Nog is looking at a file about Earth history, and he finds a section on this guy with a picture. He remarks how he looks just like Captain Sisko.
  • The 1965 film The Great Race has a sequence in which the villain Professor Fate is taken for the imbecillic Prince Frederick Hapnick; Baron von Stuppe plays the Hentzau part, complete with a bungled High-Dive Escape.
  • The 1932 Czech comedy Lelíček ve službách Sherlocka Holmese (Lelíček in the service of Sherlock Homes) combines the Prisoner of Zenda with, obviously, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is hired by the Prime Minister of Portorico to find a double for their weak and cowardly king Fernando XXIII. Holmes finds Lelíček, a streetwise dept-plagued man from Prague (played by Czech comedy legend Vlasta Burian). Then, while Holmes dismatles a conspiracy against the king, Lelíček manages to survive several attempts at "King's" live and falls in love with the queen.
  • In Blood and Honor, second book of Simon R. Green's series about Forest Kingdom, washed up actor, the Great Jordan, is hired as double for a poisoned prince Vi Ktor, one of three royal heirs. There's the usual twist - he became a King, and also some less usual ones. Like his "brothers" knew "Viktor" was just an actor and Jordan murdered real Viktor after he found out Viktor is almost as bad as his brothers.
  • The book was recently condensed for Malaysian secondary schools as part of a program to expose classic English Literature to the public.
  • One issue of Jon Sable, Freelance is a Whole-Plot Reference to The Prisoner of Zenda, with Jon playing the Rudolf role.
  • One Adventures in Odyssey episode is a Whole-Plot Reference to The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • Kim Newman's novel The Hound of the D'Urbervilles borrows several characters and situations from The Prisoner of Zenda, especially in "A Shambles in Belgravia", which tosses Irene Adler into the Ruritanian succession debacle.
  • Ace Attorney Investigations 2 has this with Zheng Fa president Teikun Ō, whose body double steps in for him after his death. Except the body double was part of the group that conspired to assassinate him in the first place.
  • Emma: A Victorian Romance its plot and dialogue is used to parallel the romantic problems a character is having.
  • The 1988 Animated Adaptation by Burbank Films Australia, which bears little resemblance to the book.
  • Princess Flavia, a 1925 operetta.
  • Zenda, a 1963 musical that gave the story a Setting Update, removed the characters of Michael and Rupert, and gave Rudolf and Flavia a happy ending.
  • The Prisoner of Zenda, a 2000 musical by Japan's all-female Takarazuka Revue. It stays relatively close to the book, though it added some new characters, removed most of King Rudolf's appearances, and killed Rupert.
  • The Henchmen of Zenda, a 2018 Perspective Flip by romance author KJ Charles. The premise is that The Prisoner of Zenda was published in-universe and is less than truthful, prompting Detchard to write his own book. In this, Detchard and Hentzau are a couple, and Antoinette and Flavia have larger roles and their own agendas. It also changes the ending so that Rudolf R is not the honorable type; he does indeed make sure Rudolf E bites the dust and then keep throne and princess for himself. Much good though it does him, as Flavia, fully aware he's a fake, turns him into her Puppet King and gets rid of him once she's sufficiently established as Queen.