Longren, a sailor, finds out his wife has died while he was at sea: she has given birth to a baby daughter and was struggling to support her, the local innkeeper Menners refused to lend her money, so she went to a pawnbroker in the town during a storm and expired from pneumonia. Longren quits his job to raise Assol and becomes a toymaker. A while later, he sees Menners being carried off to a stormy sea in a boat and calmly stands on the shore; Menners is rescued but lives just long enough to tell the villagers Longren killed him, after which Longren and his daughter become social outcasts.
One day Assol meets a traveling storyteller who tells her that one day, a prince will come to her in a ship with scarlet sails. The dream takes root in Assol's heart, and she believes it firmly afterwards, leading to even more of the villagers' taunts and disdain.
Meanwhile, a rebellious aristocrat Arthur Grey runs off to sea from his oppressive family, and gradually rises from cabin boy to captain. His voyages bring him to Kaperna, where he falls in love with Assol from afar and resolves to make her dream come true.
The Scarlet Sails is a classic in the Eastern Bloc and especially Russia as a symbol of everlasting hope, dream, and love, with several film adaptations, a rock opera, and a musical based on it, as well as a famous St.-Petersburg summer festival inspired by the book.
The Scarlet Sails provides examples of:
- All of the Other Reindeer: Nobody in Kaperna wants to deal with Longren or Assol. Later a single exception is revealed a drunken charcoal burner, an outcast himself, who often gives Assol a lift.
- Aerith and Bob: Mary, Lionel Grey, Arthur Grey on one hand, and Assol, Longren, Letika, Egl, Hin on the other.
- Barefoot Loon: Assol is a dreamy girl with a penchant for going barefoot.
- Beautiful Dreamer: Grey first sees Assol and is struck by her beauty when she is asleep.
- Birds of a Feather: Grey and Assol; both have had a big dream since childhood, are believed crazy or at least weird by those around them, both are kind-hearted, with a love for fairytales and a sense of humor. No wonder Grey falls for Assol when he learns her story.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: Assol, who believes in fairy tales and a prince who will come for her on a ship with scarlet sails.
- The Cuckoolander Was Right: Arthur Grey does become a successful and respected captain, and Assol does get her Happily Ever After with scarlet sails.
- Daddy's Girl: Longren and Assol are each other's only family and confidants.
- Discretion Shot: Grey and Assol go to his cabin, and a couple of paragraphs later "now we will leave them, knowing that they need to be alone". Cut to the next scene.
- Former Teen Rebel: Lionel Grey, the prim aristocrat, used to be quite mischievous when he was a boy. He recognizes the traits of his young self in his son only Arthur remains rebellious after growing up.
- Malicious Misnaming: The villagers, when teasing Assol, always say "red sails" instead of "scarlet sails".
- Meaningful Name: Grey's ship is called The Secret.
- Murder by Inaction:
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The shopkeeper in Liss who sells the scarlet silk to Grey, when he learns how much Grey wants to buy.Shopkeeper: Two? Thousand? Meters?
- Purple Prose: Letika enjoys speaking like this. For example, when he praises Assol's beauty, he calls her "a wondrous painting".
- Rebel Prince: Grey is a noble but not a prince, but otherwise he qualifies. He is considered strange ever since childhood, and he runs off to sea rather than lead an aristocratic life.
- Rhymes on a Dime: Letika often speaks in rhymes, to the delight of the rest of the crew.Letika (in the 1961 film's English subtitles): With a string and a pole of wood I have made myself a whip / And now I tie a hook on it and, whistling, make it flip.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Grey learns from the locals that Assol is waiting for her prince on a ship with scarlet sails, buys some scarlet cloth for his sails, and becomes that prince.
- Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: The people of Kaperna realizes how they have been mistaken when a ship with scarlet sails does appear.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: The philosophy of Kaperna. It backfires terribly once they see that the supposedly crazy Assol has been telling the truth.
- Small Role, Big Impact: Egl, the storyteller and gatherer of folk tales, appears only once and briefly, but his scarlet sails prophecy leads to huge consequences.
- Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Grey's mother is a haughty Proper Lady, except towards her son.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The kindly neighbor who nursed Assol from Mary's death till Longren's return isn't mentioned after the first chapter. It's up for interpretation whether she has died at some point or joined the rest of Kaperna in boycotting Longren.
- Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: Grey is a hired captain and doesn't own the Secret, since it wouldn't have been proper to have a capitalist as a Soviet romantic hero. However, Grey still refuses expensive cargo and instead buys two kilometres of scarlet silk for the sails. For somebody who doesn't own the ship, it would have most probably led to a loss of the job. Unless, of course, the ship's owner is enough of a romantic to forgive such an escapade, but this is never addressed in the movie.
- Adaptational Villainy: Grey's parents are stereotypical Idle Rich; Lionel's sense of humor and Lilian's unconditional love for Arthur aren't shown.
- Canon Foreigner: Grey helps some terrorists, no hint of whom can be found in the book. To clarify: revolutionary terrorists were token good guys who often appeared in Soviet media.
- Culturally Sensitive Adaptation: Arthur Grey renounces his aristocratic lineage and helps some random revolutionary terrorists who tried to kill some random mayor. In the book, he does run away from home to become a captain but keeps in touch with his mother, and there are no terrorists. His parents also get hit with heavy Adaptational Villainy, because in the Soviet world Aristocrats Are Evil and only evil.
- Death by Adaptation: Lilian Grey dies and her husband lives. In the book, it's the other way round.
- Adaptational Heroism: All the villagers of Kaperna are much nicer than in the book. The children are shown playing with Assol (at the corresponding time in the book they fully shunned her), the Gossipy Hens make amends with her closer to the end, and the entire village undergoes a HeelFace Turn thanks to the whole adventure of the scarlet sails.
- Adaptational Mundanity: Inverted. Egl has no magic powers in the book, but here he vanishes into thin air.
- Adaptational Villainy: The only one to get hit with it is Menners Sr. Not only does he assault Mary, he also puts the blame on her when they are surprised by his wife, leading to the latter kicking Mary out into the cold rain. In the book, going to the pawnbroker's through the cold rain was at least Marys own decision and she had an alternative (taking some food offered by the neighbour).
- Deliberately Monochrome: The mundane life scenes are monochrome. Whenever anything out of the ordinary (not necessarily fantastic) appears, it is shown in colour.
- Gone Horribly Wrong: Menners Jr. tells Grey that Assol is a madwoman dreaming of a prince under scarlet sails hoping, it's implied, to discourage a potential rival. Instead, he achieves the exact opposite. Grey only becomes even more certain Assol is his true love.
- Promoted to Love Interest: Menners Jr. has an unrequited crush on Assol.
- Reformed Bully: After being Assol's main bully in their childhood, Menners Jr. becomes better as they grow up even before he completely reforms, along with the entire village, in the end. Unlike his counterpart from the musical, he is respectful of her in his attempt at flirting.
- Adaptational Early Appearance: Egl appears in Kaperna when Assol is a baby rather than when Assol is around ten, as in the book.
- Adaptational Heroism: Egl isn't evil in the book, but he has a case of Didn't Think This Through with his prophecy, since he wants to create a beautiful story without properly considering how it would affect Assol. In the musical, he makes the prophecy because he knows it will come true, and, unlike in the book where he only appears once, supports Assol until the ending.
- Adaptational Mundanity: Inverted. In the book, Egl only pretends to be a magician and thinks up the scarlet sails to amuse himself even more than Assol, and he barely even thinks whether she'll take his story seriously. In the musical, he does have magic powers, and therefore his prophecy is more accurate (instead of a generic unnamed handsome prince, he specifically mentions a captain named Grey).
- Darker and Edgier: The musical is way, way darker than the book. The characters (most notably Longren and Grey) are made much more cynical, Mary's ordeal changes from getting and refusing a Scarpia Ultimatum to actually getting raped, Assol's dreamy nature verges on actual madness, and Menners Jr., who in the book does nothing more than badmouth Assol, here is infatuated with her and forces her to marry him.
- Demoted to Extra: Grey's storyline is cut so much that he hardly appears outside Assol's dream sequences.
- Promoted to Love Interest: Assol for Menners Jr., even more so than in the 1982 film. He actively pursues and very nearly marries her (Grey's ship appears when they are already at the altar).
- Runaway Bride: In the musical, Assol jumps into Grey's arms right as she is being led to the altar by Menners Jr. Since the latter forced her to agree to the marriage, it's hard to judge her.
- Spared by the Adaptation: A minor case. In the book, it's implied that the wife of Menners Sr. died at some point before Grey's arrival in Kaperna. In the musical, she is very much alive.
- Villain Love Song: Menners Jr. gets one ("You Are Not Like the Others"), and such a beautiful and touching song it is, too. He tells Assol that he loves her precisely because she is different from the crowd, that he is ready to marry her even if she only wants his money, and that he longs for some happiness even in a dreary and mundane place like their village. Unfortunately, before that, he also informs her that only by marrying him can she save her father from prison.