Anthony Hope

Born - Feb 9, 1863   |   Died - Jul 8, 1933   |   Genres - Adventure

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Biography by Bruce Eder

During the quarter century between 1894 and 1920, Anthony Hope was England's rival to Alexandre Dumas, with his books The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau matching the popularity of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask -- those and other adventure novels earned the humble Anglican clergyman's son a life of luxury and a knighthood, and made him a popular and highly influential author for much of the first half of the 20th century. Anthony Hope Hawkins was born in an Anglican rectory in the London suburb of Hackney, the son of the Rev. E.C. Hawkins. He grew up in poor surroundings, attending public school and Oxford University on scholarships, and pursued a legal education. For four years, he saw little success as a barrister and was forced to reside in his father's rectory, where he took up journalism, authoring stories to earn some kind of an income, in publications such as the St. James Gazette. He also started writing plays and novels in the late 1880s, financing his first book's publication (under the name Anthony Hope) at a huge financial loss in 1890. Then, in late 1893, while finishing work on the Dolly Dialogues, he began work on The Prisoner of Zenda. Both were published in 1894 and were successful, but The Prisoner of Zenda became a major cultural phenomenon. Indeed, few books have had more of an impact on literature, theater, or movies, establishing a setting and a cast of characters, as well as presenting plot elements that were assimilated into popular culture in a chain stretching out a century or more. He took a Central European locale in Bohemia and created the mythical kingdom of Ruritania, based in part on the dukedoms and principalities that still existed on the continent at the time -- into this setting, he put the character of Rudolph Rassendyll, the dashing British tourist who is pressed into service at a critical moment in Ruritania's history to impersonate a missing crown prince; Rassendyll ends up romancing the prince's royal consort in order to maintain the masquerade and rescuing the imprisoned monarch. There was also a charismatic villain in the guise of Rupert of Hentzau, who assumed a life of his own in a later work. The novel was an instant success when published in 1894, and suddenly Anthony Hope was one of the most popular authors in the English-speaking world. Over the next five years, Hawkins wrote four more novels -- including Rupert of Hentzau, which was published as a serial -- that followed up on this initial adventure. His books were translated into dozens of languages and read by millions of people around the world. Yet, even with the prolific pace of his follow-up adventures, including The King's Mirror, Quisante, Tristram of Blent, Sophy of Kravonia, Captain Dieppe, and Beaumaroy Home From the Wars, there seemed to be ceaseless demand for more work in the same vein. His Ruritanian books were dramatized on-stage, beginning with Edward Rose's theatrical version of The Prisoner of Zenda -- with kidnapping, romance, palace intrigue, swordplay galore, and a kingdom in the balance, it was a natural for the stage. The play received dozens of productions in England and America from 1896 onward; additionally, the story was musicalized by Harry B. Smith and Sigmund Romberg as Princess Flavia and A Royal Pretender during the mid-'20s, and, later still, as Zenda, by Everett Freeman and Vernon Duke; and Hope himself wrote the stage version of Rupert of Hentzau.

Movie adaptations began arriving in 1913, and the 1922 version of The Prisoner of Zenda is regarded as one of the jewels of silent cinema, although the definitive screen version is the 1937 Selznick production. The latter, directed by John Cromwell and starring Ronald Colman as both Rassendyll and the prince, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert, became one of the defining roles of Colman's career. Along with Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, it was the part with which the actor was most identified. The Ruritanian setting of the book and the film, with its mixture of political intrigue, 18th century royal sensibilities, and 19th century late romantic opulence -- all somewhat akin to a turn-of-the-century Viennese operetta -- was immediately embraced in popular culture, reappearing in dozens of literary works by other authors and manifesting itself on the screen in such varied movies as Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), Ford Beebe's Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), and Sidney Gilliat's State Secret (1950). That kind of locale, in more modern times, has come to be called a "Mission Impossible principality," a reference to the television series that always seemed to find any number of small sovereign states scattered around Europe (especially the Balkans) in which to set its adventures. Yet, if one looks closely at the plot of The Prisoner of Zenda, one finds that it is, in reality, the blueprint for the original Mission Impossible -- a man who bears a striking resemblance to a kidnapped noble is pressed into service as a replacement for the missing royal, passes through numerous close calls, and even manages to fool the victim's consort, all in the name of maintaining the stability of a nation and undermining a plot against the government. Hope's Ruritania became such a cultural touchstone, that it was easily burlesqued as well. Thus, in the "King for a Day" episode of The Adventures of Superman television series, hapless cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson) is recruited to substitute for a missing European prince. And in the series Get Smart, Don Adams did his own version of The Prisoner of Zenda, brutally satirizing most of the familiar elements of the story, right down to the final duel. Indeed, an early-'60s cartoon series, King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, was built upon a parody of the entire Ruritania mythos, right down to a character mimicking Colman. Though his plays were never as popular or enduring as the novels, Hawkins actively pursued theatrical work -- one collaboration with Edward Rose, English Nell, was scored by Sir Edward German. In later years, Hawkins turned away from fiction to the writing of social criticism, where he was much less successful. He served as a writer of propaganda on the Allied side during the First World War, and was knighted in 1917. Hawkins spent the last 16 years of his life in relative obscurity, his post-World War I novels finding little popularity. He and his wife, the former Elizabeth Somerville Sheldon of New York, retired comfortably in Surrey, where he wrote his memoirs, published as Memories and Notes, in 1927. He died on July 8, 1933, his memory secured by the enduring popularity across the decades of The Prisoner of Zenda. In Hawkins' own lifetime, that book was filmed twice, in 1913 and 1922, as was Rupert of Hentzau (1916, 1923), while Sophy of Kravonia, and Phroso were filmed once each (1920, 1922), and Captain Dieppe was brought to the screen as An Adventure in Hearts (1919). During the sound era, only The Prisoner of Zenda has found further history on the screen -- the 1937 Selznick production (still one of the greatest swashbucklers ever made) was followed by a shot-for-shot remake in 1952, and a 1979 version of no great distinction, as well as a 1999 animated film.