In a world dominated by American, or at least Anglo-American, popular culture, successful exceptions are encouraging. Especially if they’re healthy exceptions too.
A surprising such counter-instance to cultural Americanization is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic Le Petit Prince.
Far better literary analysts than I have written of the plain force & beauty of this extraordinary tale which as I child I read & re-read, listened to & re-listened to in fascination – without understanding too much of it at that time. For although the book time & again derides “grown-ups”, it isn’t a children’s tale in any straight way. It is, rather, a deeply mysterious book, to children & grown-ups alike one of the most puzzling ever written.
So let me instead touch on one eminently “grown-up” – but equally enigmatic – aspect of Le Petit Prince: Its ever-renewing vitality as a multimedia meme.
No, this isn’t just more Americanization, this time from people who happen not to be American. Instead, I suspect our Little Prince is slowly & subtly engaged in transforming, for his private, perplexing ends, the arsenal & arguments of his intimidating acquaintance the Businessman. Quite as he does in the story.
A more straightforward list of media adaptations of Le Petit Prince – audio & radio, film & TV, ballet, opera, & theatre, graphic novel & games – is available here. The tale has also inspired or illustrated museums & exhibitions, coins & stamps, several elementary schools, as well as of course astronomy. So here are just a few personal or recent highlights:
– First & last, the book itself, published with author’s illustrations 1943, as a meticulously crafted produce of the universalist aspiration of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a year before his sad & dramatic disappearance on a mission flight over the Mediterranean. Among the most celebrated figures of France’s 20th Century, Saint-Exupéry was aristocrat, pioneer pilot, aeronautical inventor, amateur mathematician, & author of literary masterworks such as the undisputed novel of early air flight & human heroism, Vol de Nuit. Or of sublime ethical-autobiographical prose like the widely influential Terre des Hommes. (For detailed references, see below.) But in Le Petit Prince, his own breathtaking, minimalist watercolours further animate this story of friendship, love, fidelity – & intense curiosity.
Even by the lone standard of the Prince’s antagonist the Businessman – numbers – that one book performs sensationally: Translated in a record 270 dialects & languages including Latin (by several accounts only the Bible has wider international reach), it has also sold 145+ million copies, bringing it neck-to-neck with fiction’s all-time mastodons: Dickens, The Lord of the Rings, or the very first Harry Potter. Class it as fully author-illustrated – thus granting it only a single, but far less popular contender, Tolkien’s Hobbit – & its popularity reigns supremely alone, bar no single such book ever.
I had no prior idea my beloved child hero had done so well by those cutthroat measures of modern fiction. I’d have thought he’d long fallen silently behind in so brutal a race – dated, forgotten, or shackled by his modesty & naturally unassuming air.
– The first French audio version from 1954 has, in many’s opinion, never been surpassed. With one of France’s most immortal film superstars Gérard Philippe narrating, child star Georges Poujouly as the young Prince, & support from other excellent actors from this great age of cinema & broadcast. This is the vinyl which, decades later, I was still so fortunate to grow up on as a kid.
– The brand-new Parc du Petit Prince opened 2014 in Alsace on a shoestring budget. Here’s a theme park with a few differences. Watch the website intro video, you’ll get some idea. Yes, you can rise in great helium air balloons (a specialty), plus ride a few conventional amusements. But remember the Fox, the Sheep, the Rose, or her cherished Butterflies? They’re not in fiberglass carousels, but as live foxes, sheep, a real butterfly hothouse, & a resplendent rose garden. Or recall “If I had 53 minutes to spend as I like, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water”? That experience is here too, its poetry preserved. Saint-Exupéry’s age of heroic flight is well-featured. So is astronomy & space exploration.
Far more foundational: The park’s entire mission seems spirited & different. The new creators’ earnest starting-point is that our Little Prince has again journeyed to Earth from his micro-planet, landing this time at that very spot in Alsace, & that the park is thus a bodily manifestation of his singular radiance, incarnating his timeless message through a very contemporary medium. Looking how – literally, physically, see image above – they structured the entire park around that single spatial impact, you almost believe them. Indeed with so elemental a vision, you want to believe them, want them to meet popular acclaim.
(As a complete but perfectly proper aside – different company, different concept – I’d like you to register that the French already have a spectacular track record at developing alternative & vastly ambitious theme parks.)
– The Businessman has himself been richly rewarded by his princely acquaintance. Does he sit, red-faced & ever-calculating, behind his desk as Le Petit Prince’s brand license manager, or is he frantically working the Paris merchandise store cash register? Either way, this is a less glamorous side. But honestly? I’m not alarmed. Our Prince’s tiny voice isn’t all that easy to distort or corrupt, despite the considerable financial stakes now involved. For some arcane, fundamental reason you better stay faithful to its simplicity. Even as a Businessman, or your overeagerness would turn against you.
Note: This hasn’t prevented a complex, interminable legal battle among heirs for the invaluable Saint-Exupéry intellectual property. Yet crucially again, this conflict has only ruffled financial interests – vast but ultimately trivial – rather than so-called “moral rights”, ie vital control over the legacy’s aesthetic-philosophical integrity. Miraculously, that key issue was settled as early as 1947 to the favour of a single, descendant side, collectively known as the Succession Saint-Exupéry, which backs or rubberstamps pretty much every initiative listed here.
– Finally, there’s that ultimate consecration, postmodern culture’s apotheosis: the obligatory big-budget Hollywood adaptation, out later this year. While formally a French production (but Paramount-distributed & with a US director), this does look to become an unapologetically global product. Saint-Exupéry’s original tale is here embedded as a story-within-a-story, a narrative trick which may shelter the old part fiercely – or irreparably distort it. So it’s an open question whether even our Prince’s steely integrity can survive such an assault. Still why not? Stranger things have happened in his entourage. At the very least, as grown-ups say in such dilemmas: It will get people to read the book.
Which indeed goes for all the above. I’ve endeavoured to hint there are deeper & subtler cultural forces than mere profit in these developments. But even were I wrong (& I could well be): At worst it makes an ever-wider public discover the book, & that book… is eternally untainted. So, read & re-read the book.
& for Heaven’s sake, read it in French. Saint-Exupéry ranks among France’s greatest, most delicate prosaists. Yet at the same time it’s schoolboy French – often used as a beginner’s text. Plus, it’s brief. Resist global linguistic Americanization, declare defiance at our own planet’s Businessmen, Kings, & Conceited Men, inauguring your disobedience by one simple, easy act: read Le Petit Prince in its majestic, incorruptible original. Or imbibe Gérard Philippe’s & Georges Poujouly’s velvet postwar voices. Or settle for far the noblest & most loyal translation – the earliest, by K Woods – but read it. Then perhaps, journey to Ungersheim in Alsace & visit that strange theme park with its balloons, butterflies, & sheep. You might even do it on the leg of some Paris or Ruhr business trip, while your own kids are at home. This is as much about your childhood as theirs. A childhood which they too will forget soon enough.
Yet possibly summon to life years later, as the more fortunate among us sometimes do.
Cerisier, Alban, & Delphine Lacroix (eds). Le manuscrit du Petit Prince: Fac-similé & transcription. Paris: Gallimard, 2013. ISBN 978-2070142613. (Full facsimile of the original hand version & its 35 leafs of author’s preparatory illustrations, plus print transcript & expert preface; an edition of quality & ambition. 464 pp, ill. NB: This is a first-version manuscript edition. It is thus very different from the final, “canonic” version – but with, for instance, interesting unpublished illustrations, or earlier sketches of later ones. Acquire it only in supplement to any modern standard illustrated French edition.)
Schiff, Stacy. Saint-Exupéry: A Biography. NY: Holt, 2006 (Knopf 1994). ISBN 978-0805079135.
Aeronautical patents of A de Saint-Exupéry, chronology 1934-1941. Paris: Official Saint-Exupéry memorial website.
Patent US2536728A: “System of Position Finding by Electromagnetic Waves”. Alexandria, VA: US Patents & Trademark Office.
(Webfront illustration caption & credit: “I believe that for his escape he took advantage of the migration of a flock of wild birds.” Watercolour c 1943 by A de Saint-Exupéry, frontispiece for Le Petit Prince.)