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, is persuaded to act as his political decoy in an attempt to save the situation.

A modern reader might sympathize with Black Michael (the King's brother, kidnapper, and attempted usurper of the throne) because the King is introduced as a somewhat irresponsible and flippant individual, and because some quarters of the population prefer Michael to Rudolf. In the book itself, however, Michael is portrayed as cowardly and treacharous, while his supporters among the people are mostly dismissed as being of a "largely criminal" class and King Rudolf is stated to be preferred by other parts of the populace.

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.

Not to be confused with The Legend of Zelda.


Tropes used in The Prisoner of Zenda include:
  • Affably Evil, Enigmatic Minion, Reliable Traitor, Magnificent Bastard and The Starscream: All good descriptors of Rupert of Hentzau.
  • Anti-Villain: Michael
  • 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
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Bleed'Em and Weep: Antoinette. Somewhat subverted in that after she misses the first shot, she pauses and visibly forces herself to calm down. Rudolf doesn't wait for her to aim properly.
  • Did Not Get the Girl
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Fake King
  • First Installment Wins: And how. Nobody seems to remember there is a second part for Rudolf's adventures, called as his enemy, Rupert of Hentzau. The Downer Ending in which both Rudolfs die may have much to do with its fall into oblivion.
  • Foe Yay:
    • Rudolf and Rupert, arguably. The sequel features a scene where our hero "gripped Rupert's wrists, and with his greater strength he bent back the count's pliant body till trunk and head lay flat on the table. Neither man spoke; their eyes met; each heard the other's breathing and felt the vapor of it on his face."
    • While the original has a few moments, the sheer mass of them in the sequel may be a signal that Hope is trolling us rather than Have a Gay Old Time.
  • 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.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Princess Flavia, in this case.
  • Heroic Bastard: Rudolf, the hero, is illegitimately related to the royal family of Ruritania. Black Michael is a "double bastard".
  • 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.
  • Improvised Weapon: The tea-table used to Shield-Bash three men.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Pretty much every character, but especially Michael.
  • 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
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: Rupert and Black Michael's other minions, referred to in the story as "The Six".
  • 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.
  • Prisoner of Zenda Exit: A namesake trope.
  • Redheaded Hero: Rudolf, and this trait is associated with the royal family of Ruritania.
  • Redheaded 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
  • Royally Screwed-Up
  • Ruritania: The Trope Namer.
  • 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.
  • Succession Crisis
  • ~Sure, Let's Go With That~: At some point, someone becomes aware of the King of Ruritania being imprisoned and this reaches England. Everyone there thinks that Rudolf was jailed for making a pass at Black Michael's mistress and a minor international incident occurs to get him released. When he returns, his family assumes that his more serious attitude is from that situation and he lets them believe that.
  • Swashbuckler
  • 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 Streslau 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 Wrongful Heir to the Throne: While the heroes definitely think that Michael is the wrong man for the throne (Sapt would rather have the imposter 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 Rassendyl remain on the throne. As Fritz puts it, "Heaven doesn't always make the right men kings!"
  • You Fight Like a Cow: Rudolf and Rupert have several banter-filled duels of the kind affectionately parodied in The Princess Bride.

Adaptations of The Prisoner of Zenda
  • The paramount of the adaptations is the straight one made in 1937.
  • 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. It's regarded as one of his weakest films, and when Peter saw it he said to the producers: "I have only one comment to make - my lawyers will be in touch with you."
  • 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. Given the series' setup, Flashman claims 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 I).
  • 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 Prisoner of Zenda Exit.
  • 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.
  • 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.