In Mark Osborne’s fantastically clever film adaptation of “The Little Prince”, the French aviator and novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry lives on in a daringly counterfactual way. According to history, Saint-Exupéry died when his plane went down in 1944, on a reconnaissance mission over occupied French waters. The previous year, before leaving New York for North Africa to rejoin his squadron, he had tossed a paper parcel containing some handwritten drafts and drawings onto the hall table of his friend Silvia Hamilton. “I'd like to give you something splendid,” she remembered him saying, “but this is all I have.”
Those pages, printed as a book the same year, went on to become one of the most popular works of fiction in the world. They told the story of a downed aviator in the desert, desperate for water and on the point of death, who encounters a tiny aristocratic alien wandering in the dunes and settles down to hear his stories about his tiny home planet, the vain and capricious rose he cherishes, and his journey through the cosmos to Earth on a flock of birds. Saint-Exupéry died before he could bank a single royalty cheque, but in the seven decades since then, more than 140m copies of “The Little Prince” have been sold – fewer than “The Hobbit”, but more than any of the Harry Potters, any of the Beatrix Potters, any Agatha Christie mysteries or “The Catcher in the Rye”. Its mournful story has been adapted for television, for the stage, as an opera, as several musicals (one by Lerner and Loewe) and as films in Germany, Russia, France and America. (Orson Welles, fascinated by the book, once got as far as setting up a meeting with Walt Disney to discuss a joint adaptation; the plan collapsed when the great animator stormed out proclaiming that there “wasn't room on this lot for two geniuses”.)
Osborne’s animated film takes a thrilling approach to the weight of history pressing on its material. It imagines a world in which Saint-Exupéry – or, at least, a philosophical ex-aviator with a sheaf of drawings about a little prince – lived on to become an enthusiastic old crackpot in a tumbledown house, pottering away at toys and inventions and trying to restore an ancient biplane to life. Around his home stretch miles and miles of identical boxy suburbs (square trees, square houses, square cars) inhabited by grim-faced adults dedicated to lives of work and order. In one of them lives an eight-year-old girl, enslaved by her high-strung mother to a summer of lessons and a formidable Life Plan that occupies the entire kitchen wall. But on her desk, one evening, lands a paper plane which, unfolded, reveals a handwritten story about a prince, a planet and a rose.
These and other narrative liberties make Osborne’s film less an adaptation than an elaborate conversation with the book. While almost everything in “The Little Prince” is present in the film, rendered in a paper-and-clay style that makes a glorious contrast with the computer-generated animation of the contemporary scenes, there’s also a much larger framing story that expands the cryptic parables of the original. Many of the characters who occupy a bare page or two in Saint-Exupéry’s novella – the king who reigns over his tiny planet, commanding the sun to set at precisely 7:20 “so you will see how well I am obeyed”; the businessman who claims to own the stars “because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them” – are given second acts, or set in a narrative framework that teases larger stories out of their emblematic figures while leaving the templates, visible and intact, at the core.
With its complex mixture of adult disenchantment and childlike longing, dream and reality, misanthropy and hope, “The Little Prince” has always been a difficult book to parse. Like a number of other not-quite-children’s stories – Tove Jansson’s “Moomins” tales, Russell Hoban’s “The Mouse and his Child”, Astrid Lindgren’s “The Brothers Lionheart” – its story skates above yawning abysses of melancholy and sadness. Biographers have pointed to the death of Saint-Exupéry’s brother in childhood as the motor for the book’s story of unreclaimable loss, and to his troubled marriage with his wife Consuelo as the model for the Prince’s desertion of his manipulative rose; more conspiratorial commentators have seen the mood of wistful gloom, and the sinister consolations of its serpentine angel of death, as the literary expression of the author’s death wish. The book has been read as an allegory of the dehumanising effect of war, as a hymn to the value of friendship and compassion, as an outgrowth of Saint-Exupéry’s own existentialist philosophy and as everything in between; its very sparseness and mystery have invited 70 years of readers to insert themselves into the gaps.
The striking double story in Osborne’s film, flitting between the desert scenes of the novel and a sequence of wilder contemporary fantasies, also lets him offer compassionate glosses to these mysterious aspects. The aviator’s sorrow at the death of the prince is reflected in the modern heroine’s realisation that her elderly friend will also die; the troublesome elements of the rose’s characterisation are balanced by the decision to build a larger story around a girl and her mother. The result is a film that seeks to accompany rather than imitate, one that tells a modern children’s story around “The Little Prince” but still resonates with its most important themes. P.L. Travers, whose Mary Poppins books often inhabit similarly ominous territory, correctly noted in an early review that “The Little Prince” was likely to “shine upon children with a sidewise gleam” and “strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it”. But why wait? This splendid and sensitive adaptation, a lesson in its own particular field, offers the best of both.
“The Little Prince” premieres on Netflix on August 5th