The movie is better. Much better, in fact.
In 1903, Baroness Orczy wrote a successful stage play about a foppish English noble who mastered the art of “disguise and redirect” in order to save the lives of French royals destined for the Madame Guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Building on the success of The Scarlet Pimpernel production, she converted the story into a novel which launched a series of eleven novels and two collections of short stories. The concept is quite intriguing and was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. The title, The Scarlet Pimpernel, became so emblematic of resistance to terror that several decades later a number of distinct WWII spies were assigned the moniker. For example, Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty was dubbed “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” for his use of disguises and underground rescue operations for escaped Allied POWs, Jews, and refugees during WWII.
The 1982 movie is better. I know, I said that already. As a bibliophile, it pains me to write that. But, sadly, it is absolutely true. And sadly, the same is true of my other favorite Pimpernel story. The movie The Scarlet and the Black with Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck is much better than J.P. Gallagher’s The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican. (More on that in another review.)
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a quirky book (or series of books). The writing is uneven. In places, it is beautiful. In other places, it is enough to drive any good reader to the brink of insanity. How many times must she use “superhuman” to describe an effort that Percy or Marguerite is making… at least twice in one chapter and again later. It doesn’t fit the first, second, or third time! Let alone three times in one short novel.
This story is so interesting, that it has become a classic without really proving itself a specimen of good literature. Perhaps someday it will go away. But I suspect that this one will hang around. The idea of a consummate actor with nearly limitless resources, power, and influence putting his life in danger to save innocent men and women from the satanic bloodlust of the French revolutionaries is classically intriguing. The story is brilliant. The writing is subpar. The concept has gone on to inspire the back story for many other super heroes like Batman and Zorro.
Towards the end of the novel, there is a long and irritating windup before the conclusion. Frankly, it is ridiculous and incredibly repetitious. We hear how much Marguerite loves this man, whose life is in peril, every other page. Far from romantic, it feels like a record that keeps skipping. Marguerite’s superficiality is distracting and takes away from the story itself. The final section of the novel, however, is lovely. The conclusion is creative, elegantly written, and rosy.
I keep saying that the movie is better. It is. The screenwriters took all of the Marguerite novels into consideration when writing a strong story arc with nuanced plot twists. (Over the 13 Pimpernel books, Sir Percy’s wife Marguerite only features in a few.) In the 1982 movie, Jane Seymour’s Marguerite is a much stronger and more interesting character than the Marguerite of the novels. Likewise, Anthony Andrews’ Sir Percy is warmer and more lovable than the character in the novel. By combining several of the best storylines into one movie, we get the best that the book series has to offer.
Uneven as it is, the story is a wonderful way to introduce teens to the historical setting of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Of course there are more well-written historical fiction books in this setting, A Tale of Two Cities, for example. This one, however, is unique, compelling, exciting, wholesome, and romantic. A little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Charles Dickens, a little bit Victor Hugo, and a little bit Alexandre Dumas. Clean, noble, and clever, this story could help young men and young women fall in love with the period and develop an interest in the complexities of that time.
The Audible version that I have is both excellent and horrible at the same time. The narrator is fantastic. The cover art and music are horrendous. If you choose to get the audio, don’t let the music turn you off of the really great narrator.
Note: I would not pass along the other novels in the series to teens without previewing. I am re-reading The Elusive Pimpernel right now (another Marguerite novel) and am irritated with how much like a cheap romance novel it reads. It is not immoral, but it is loaded with over the top descriptions of romance and marital bliss. To quote Fred Savage’s character in The Princess Bride, “is this a kissing book? I HATE kissing books.”