The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), by Anthony Hope, is an adventure novel in which the King of Ruritania is drugged on the eve of his coronation and thus is unable to attend the ceremony. Political forces within the realm are such that, in order for the king to retain the crown, his coronation must proceed. Fortuitously, an English gentleman on holiday in Ruritania who resembles the monarch is persuaded to act as his political decoy in an effort to save the unstable political situation of the interregnum.

The Prisoner of Zenda
Cover to 2nd edition
AuthorAnthony Hope
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherJ. W. Arrowsmith
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages310 (first edition)
823/.8 21
LC ClassPR4762.P7 1999
Preceded byThe Heart of Princess Osra 
Followed byRupert of Hentzau 

The name of the villain in The Prisoner of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau, is the title of the sequel novel, Rupert of Hentzau (1898), published four years later and included in some editions of The Prisoner of Zenda. The popularity of the novels inspired the Ruritanian romance genre of literature, film, and theatre that features stories set in a fictional country, usually in Central Europe and Eastern Europe, such as Ruritania, the Central European realm that named the genre,[1] Graustark from the novels by George Barr McCutcheon, and the neighbouring countries Syldavia and Borduria in the Tintin comics.

Plot summary

On the eve of the coronation of King Rudolf V of Ruritania, his younger half-brother Michael, Duke of Strelsau, has him drugged. The unconscious king is abducted and imprisoned in a castle in the small town of Zenda. There are complications, plots, and counterplots, among them the schemes of Michael's mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, and those of his dashing but villainous henchman, Count Rupert of Hentzau.

In a desperate attempt to deny Michael the excuse to claim the throne, Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim, attendants of the king, persuade his distant cousin Rudolf Rassendyll, an English visitor, to impersonate the King at the coronation. Rassendyll falls in love with Princess Flavia, the King's betrothed, but cannot tell her the truth. He determines to rescue the king and leads an attempt to enter the castle of Zenda. The king is rescued and is restored to his throne, but the lovers, in duty bound, must part.


The novel has been adapted many times, mainly for film but also stage, musical, operetta, radio, and television. Probably the best-known version is the 1937 Hollywood movie. The dashingly villainous Rupert of Hentzau has been interpreted by such matinee idols as Ramon Novarro (1922), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1937), and James Mason (1952).


Many subsequent fictional works can be linked to The Prisoner of Zenda; indeed, this novel spawned the genre known as Ruritanian romance. What follows is a shortlist of those homages with a clear debt to Anthony Hope's book.

  • The 1902 short story "Rupert the Resembler" is one of the so-called New Burlesques, a comedy parody by Bret Harte.
  • E. Phillips Oppenheim's 1920 book The Great Impersonation (filmed in 1921, 1935 and 1942) makes use of the look-alike plot, this time between an English aristocrat and a German spy.
  • The Mad King, serialized in 1914 and 1915 and published in book form in 1926, was Edgar Rice Burroughs's version of the Ruritanian romance. Set in Europe immediately before and during World War I, his story differs from the Hope books in a number of details, though sharing much of their basic plot. He wrote one other story in the genre, 1918's The Rider, in which a prince and bandit exchange identities.
  • Dornford Yates acknowledged Hope's influence[7] in his two novels Blood Royal (1929) and Fire Below a.k.a. By Royal Command (1930) which were set in the Ruritania-like Principality of Riechtenburg.
  • The plot of Dorothy Sayers's Have His Carcase (1932) revolves around an avid reader of Ruritanian romances who believed himself a descendant of Russian royalty.
  • The Magnificent Fraud (1939): a Robert Florey film starring Akim Tamiroff where an American actor impersonates the assassinated president of a South American republic.
  • Edmond Hamilton's 1947 Space Opera novel The Star Kings reuses several Zenda subplots for a high adventure yarn not unlike the much later Star Wars franchise.
  • Robert A. Heinlein adapted the Zenda plot line to his science fiction novel Double Star (1956) with great success
  • John Osborne's play The Blood of the Bambergs (1962) turns the plot into a satire on royal weddings.
  • The 1965 comedy film The Great Race included an extended subplot that parodies Zenda, including a climactic fencing scene between Leslie Gallant (Tony Curtis) and Baron Rolfe von Stuppe (Ross Martin). While Curtis's character performs the heroics, it is Jack Lemmon who plays the dual role as the drunken crown prince and Professor Fate, his reluctant impersonator.
  • The Rip Kirby comic strip used the plot as the basis for one story.
  • Two episodes of the spoof spy television series Get Smart, "The King Lives?" and "To * Sire With Love, Parts 1 and 2", parodied the 1937 movie version, with Don Adams affecting Ronald Colman's accent.
  • The 1970 novel Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser purports to explain the real story behind The Prisoner of Zenda, and indeed, in an extended literary conceit, claims to be the inspiration for Hope's novel—the narrator of the memoirs, in the framing story, tells his adventures to his lawyer, Hawkins, who can be assumed to be Anthony Hope. Otto von Bismarck and other real people such as Lola Montez are involved in the plot. It was adapted as the film Royal Flash in 1975, directed by Richard Lester, starring Malcolm McDowell as Flashman and Oliver Reed as Bismarck.
  • The Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara (1978) had as a working title "The Androids of Zenda" and used a similar plot and setting. It featured Tom Baker as the Doctor and Mary Tamm in four roles: Romana and Princess Strella, and android doubles of each. The 1980 novelisation was by Terrance Dicks, who was script-editor on the 1984 BBC serialisation of Zenda.
  • "The Prisoner of Zen" (1979) by Peter Godfrey. Ruritanian farce exploring Zen themes in an occidental context. Produced by The Rational Theatre Company, the play toured the UK in 1979 and 1980.
  • The Zenda Vendetta (TimeWars Book 4) by Simon Hawke (1985) is a science-fiction version, part of a series which pits 27th-century terrorists the Timekeepers against the Time Commandos of the US Army Temporal Corps. The Timekeepers kill Rassendyll so that the Time Commando Finn Delaney is sent back to impersonate the impersonator, both to ensure that history follows its true path and to defeat the terrorists. In the finale, the Time Commandos assault Zenda Castle with lasers and atomic grenades, both to rescue the king and to destroy the Timekeepers base.
  • Moon over Parador (1988), adapted by Leon Capetanos and directed by Paul Mazursky. More directly a remake of The Magnificent Fraud, the story is set in Latin America with Richard Dreyfus as the President and as the actor Jack Noah, Raul Julia as Roberto Strausmann (the "Black Michael" character), and Sonia Braga as Madonna Mendez (the Flavia character). It is a romantic comedy.
  • The 1992 Adventures in Odyssey episode "An Act of Nobility" is a whole plot reference to The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • Dave, a 1993 film version adapted by Gary Ross and directed by Ivan Reitman that places the story in contemporary Washington, D.C., with Kevin Kline as the President and as his double, Frank Langella in the "Black Michael" role, and Sigourney Weaver as the modern American Flavia. Like Moon Over Parador, it is a romantic comedy.
  • John Spurling's novel After Zenda (1995) is a tongue-in-cheek modern adventure 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.
  • The Prisoner of Zenda, Inc., a 1996 made-for-television version, is set in the contemporary United States and revolves around a high school boy who is the heir to a large corporation. The writer, Rodman Gregg, was inspired by the 1937 film version. It stars Jonathan Jackson, Richard Lee Jackson, William Shatner, Don S. Davis, Jay Brazeau and Katharine Isabelle.
  • De speelgoedzaaier, a Spike and Suzy comic by Willy Vandersteen, is loosely based on The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • Pale Fire, a 1962 novel by Vladimir Nabokov, includes Ruritanian elements in the (supposed?) life and events of the exiled king of "Zembla"
  • In "The Prisoner of Benda", an episode of the animated TV series Futurama, Bender impersonates (or rather, switches bodies with) the Emperor of Robo-Hungary as part of a scheme to steal the crown jewels.
  • The 1994 role-playing game "Castle Falkenstein" lists The Prisoner of Zenda as inspiration and even includes a character named Tarlenheim.
  • Coronets and Steel (Dobrenica Book 1, 2010) by Sherwood Smith is a modern fantasy version, which reinterprets the story in the European kingdom of Dobrenica with a young American woman playing double to her distant European cousin. The Flavia character becomes male and is merged with Tarlenheim as one of the instigators of the decoy plot. The remainder of the trilogy gives the star-crossed lovers resolution, without negating the original Zenda ending.
  • The Henchmen of Zenda, a novel by British author KJ Charles (2018), is a retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda from the point of view of one of the king's brother Michael's henchmen, Jasper Detchard.


In a popular but very questionable account, a German circus acrobat named Otto Witte claimed he had been briefly mistaken for the new King of Albania at the time of that country's separation from the Ottoman Empire, and that he was crowned and reigned a few days. However, the date of this claim (1913), and the lack of any evidence to back it up, suggest that Witte made up his story after seeing the first film version of the novel.

Author Salman Rushdie cited The Prisoner of Zenda in the epigraph to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the novel he wrote while living in hiding in the late 1980s. The novel has been part of the syllabus of higher secondary schools in Pakistan for over three decades.[8]

See also


  1. John Clute and John Grant, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p. 826 ISBN 978-0-312-19869-5
  2. "The London Theatres", The Era, 11 January 1896, p. 9
  3. The Brits in Hollywood Sheridan Morley, Robson Books 2006, p. 161, ISBN 978-1-86105-807-2
  4. VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2008, Visible Ink Press ISBN 978-0-7876-8981-0
  5. Halliwell's Top 1000, John Walker, HarperCollins Entertainment ISBN 978-0-00-726080-5
  6. Halliwell's Film Guide 2008, David Gritten, HarperCollins Entertainment ISBN 978-0-00-726080-5
  7. B-Berry and I Look Back, Dornford Yates, Ward Lock 1958, p. 148
  8. Masroor, Aroosa (28 July 2010). "Recycling textbooks, ad infinitum". The Express Tribune. Karachi. Retrieved 7 March 2018.
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