In April 1943, a short children’s story was published in America. Little did its author know then that it would become a global success read by millions still today, 75 years later. The book was written in French, its author a French national exiled to America during the second world war after France’s armistice with Germany in 1940. But Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was not just a children’s author. He was also a renowned aviator, who had served as a pilot in the French air force until the armistice of 22 June 1940, which saw Nazi officials occupy northern and western France. Saint-Exupéry returned to war duties for the French air force nearly three years later, the very same month that The Little Prince appeared in print in the USA. But his book did not really take off until it also appeared in France, published by the major French publishing house Gallimard in 1946.
Since then, the book has become the most translated work after the Bible. My own bookshelves house copies of the book in French, German, and Italian, and I have often gifted copies of the book in various languages to my nephews, nieces, and godchildren.
But what makes a book a best-seller? What makes a French book so attractive to so many people, in so many countries, and for so many years? Nothing compares to Saint-Exupéry’s success but works which enjoy a long life are often aided in their cause by being turned into another media format. Victor Hugo’s 150-year-old novel Les Misérables might not have remained so famous were it not for the long-running 1980s West End and Broadway musical based on it—and even the musical has then been adapted into a Golden Globe and BAFTA award-winning film with Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, and Russell Crowe. The same can be said of Charles Baudelaire’s 150-year-old poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), which might not have retained so much interest internationally were it not for the thousand or so musicians who chose to set poems to music in languages as varied as English, Korean, or Norwegian.
This seems to be one of the reasons why a book lasts: it gets translated into lots of different languages, and it gets adapted into ballets, films, musicals, operas, or plays.
Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince is no exception. A charming American radio play was produced in 1956, a Japanese anime series The Adventures of the Little Prince aired in 1978, and an English-language feature film came out in 2015 with characters voiced by Marillon Cotillard, Ricky Gervais, and Benicio de Toro–becoming the most successful French animated film abroad of all time.
But we still have to ask the question: why did The Little Prince become such a hit? Was it down to the cute illustrated story of a little adventurer from planet B-612? Or was it because of the tragedy associated with its author, who disappeared mid-flight during a reconnaissance mission after taking off from an airbase in Corsica on 31 July 1944 (his plane wasn’t found until 2000, off the coast of Marseille)? People have often associated the story of the author with the story of the prince. There are clear resonances between what happened to them both, but the tale is also so multi-layered—like all the best children’s books, they can be read on different levels, so that whether children, young adults, or grown ups are reading The Little Prince or Harry Potter, they all get something from it.
We might however think of the success of The Little Prince as down to something quite different altogether—that thing that seems to come from another planet or fall from the sky when we least expect it: good fortune.
For more information about adaptations and translations of French literature see Professor Abbott's latest project.