On the Scarlet Pimpernel

Quick, think of your favorite fictional hero with a secret identity. Superman? Batman? Spider-Man? There’s no wrong answer. (Well, there probably is, but never mind). Hero stories are arguably more popular now than ever, and I’m definitely not complaining!

But where did the concept of a hero who conceals his efforts and distances his public persona from his vigilante alter-ego begin? With a female author in early 1900s England, naturally!

Origins Week seems like the perfect time to throw out a serious fist bump* to Baroness Emma Orzcy, who wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel—widely believed to be the first instance of a fictional hero with a secret identity and disguises.

*I’m trying to sound cool. For the youths. Is it working?

For those unfamiliar, The Scarlet Pimpernel, first published as a play in 1903 and as a novel two years later, takes place in 1792 during the French Revolution, and follows the efforts of an English vigilante who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, allowing them to flee to safety in England. By day, Sir Percy Blakeney, a wealthy and fashionable Englishman, presents as a foppish dandy who would never be suspected of heroic efforts or political discourse. Marguerite St. Just, a celebrated French actress and Percy’s wife, admires the Pimpernel’s efforts without knowing her husband is involved. Meanwhile, Citizen Chauvelin, a French agent who is desperate to stop the Pimpernel, blackmails Marguerite, who feels she has nowhere to turn for help. (Amy Dallen gives a great summary of the plot on her Talkin’ Comics vlog!)

The novel has been adapted for the screen multiple times, first as a film in 1934, then as a TV movie in 1982, and most recently as a BBC miniseries in 1999. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll note that I’ve only seen the ’82 movie, and I recommend it!)  Over at GeekGirlCon, Alan Sizzler Kistler observes that the Pimpernel probably doesn’t qualify as a superhero since he doesn’t have one standard costume or live in a fictionalized version of society, but the character was likely still the first step in the evolution of heroes that eventually produced the cape-wearing vigilantes of today.

I say it’s high time for a remake! Rumors in recent years never seemed to amount to much, but here’s hoping that the first-of-his-kind hero will soon get his own feature film. We’re already obsessed with hero movies (guilty) and period pieces (also guilty). What better time for a film adaptation about the origin of superheroes set in 18th-century Europe? Furthermore, how is it that I never once heard the name Emma Orzcy in college—not even in British Literature—and only learned of the significance of her brilliant work from Twitter?

Now, I realize the gravity of this situation; adapting this for the silver screen could easily result in disaster. But I say it’s worth a shot. I mean, consider the casting possibilities:

Henry Cavill as Sir Percy Blakeney, aka The Scarlet Pimpernel


Cavill in Stardust via Pinterest

The role of Percy calls for the actor to switch between a wealthy, extravagantly dressed foppish dandy and a witty, courageous leader. I can’t think of a better Englishman to take on the role of the Pimpernel than Henry! Imagine him reciting silly poetry in one scene and then plotting cunning deceits in the next. You’re welcome, Internet.  


Marion Cotillard as Marguerite St. Just / Lady Blakeney


Cotillard via Twitter

Marguerite is known as a remarkably clever woman and bravely risks her life to save her husband after she learns of his true identity. I think Marion would soar in this role the way she did in Inception and Midnight in Paris, among many others. From her frustration with her seemingly aloof husband to the suspenseful moments where she is blackmailed, to a final romantic conclusion, she’d bring a dynamic range and complex depth to the character that would make the Baroness proud. Plus, I think she could pull off that gravity-defying 1700s hair with ease.


Lambert Wilson as Citizen Armand Chauvelin


Wilson via Zimbio

Citizen Chauvelin is the villain of the story, a French envoy who seeks to learn the true identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel so he can put a stop to his interfering in French executions. Lambert has proven that he can handle the pompous creep routine with his portrayal of the sinister Merovingian in the Matrix sequels, plus he seems like he’d excel at making Cersei Lannister faces while Percy insults his fashion choices. The world needs to see this.

While I would watch the hell out of this movie, these are just my humble suggestions. Somewhere out there is a Scarlet Pimpernel expert who could probably school me in fancasting these characters—please don’t hold back.

Also, it’s worth noting that the Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t the only hero who hasn’t seen his fair share of screen time—what other groundbreaking hero stories should be adapted for film or TV? Let us know your ideas in the comments!


Alicia Kania

Alicia Kania

Alicia is a feminist mermaid on a never-ending quest to find the ultimate grilled cheese. She enjoys flower crowns, air conditioning, and singing to her cat. Please send her any and all funny animal gifs set to music. You can follow her on Twitter and visit her magical blog Alicia of Earth.

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