The Little (big) Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince is due for a 21st-century reboot, with everything from an animated series to a 3D film, video games and a Paris exhibition.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of the most romantic figures of 20th-century French fiction, and he is also one of the most commercially successful. When the plane of this aviation pioneer and author went down over the Meditteranean in 1944 while on a reconnaissance flight for the Free French, he was next to penniless. Since then, his best-selling novella, The Little Prince, has become a children's classic, translated into 180 different languages the world over, with sales of more than 80 million. For many years a familiar sight on the pre-Euro French 50 franc note, The Little Prince has been subject to multiple adaptations, including musicals, operas, cartoons and film. This sweetly wise and poignant tale of a pilot who, after crashing in the desert, encounters a boy prince who is visiting the planet Earth from his own home, the asteroid B 612, is now due due for a 21st-century reboot.

The first project in the pipeline is a 52-part animated series, which will screen first on French television in 2011 and is the most ambitious cartoon project ever undertaken by French public television. A DVD and video games will accompany it, as well as, in October 2012, an exhibition at Paris's Cité des Sciences. The grand finale in 2014 will be the 3D cinema film, which will link the story back to the original version. Meanwhile, the French publishing house Gallimard will print around 100 works tying in to The Little Prince, ranging from a cartoon book to an edition of collected tales where well-known authors relate their own "Little Princes".

It was in 2006, following the 60th anniversary of The Little Prince's publication, that the decision was made to update this childhood icon for the media-minded children of today. Olivier d'Agay, director of the Saint-Exupéry estate and great nephew of the writer himself, decided to approach Aton Soumache, the founder of Onyx films whose animated series Skyland he had particularly appreciated. With the authors Alexandre de la Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte, the diminutive caped hero was subsequently re-animated. With two series of 26 episodes, at 26 minutes each, the authors have tried to remain faithful to the original tale.

"This series respects the graphic style that everyone associates with The Little Prince," explains the producer and creator of La Fabrique d'Images, Jean-Marie Musique, who is producing the series in collaboration with Method Films. "Saint-Exupéry's family considered that to be of great importance. However, just in order to keep going over 52 episodes, we've had to go some way beyond the original story."

Back on his asteroid B 612, the Little Prince is once again confronted with the serpent whose fatal bite sent him back to his own planet at the end of the original tale. This time, the wicked serpent has decided to extinguish, one by one, all of the planets in the Milky Way. Helped by his faithful and ironic friend the fox, the Little Prince must return each planet, including the planet of Time, the planet of Winds, the planet of Memory, of Invention and of Music, to its own orbit.

The series is already promising to be a great success: rights to air the show have been purchased in Italy, Spain and Germany, while Sony has acquired them across Asia. The 3D film, produced by Aton Soumache and Dimitri Rassam, has a large budget of ?45 million (Dh210m), although little is yet known about the stars, both home-grown and international, who are said to be providing the voices behind the characters. This year sees the completion of the film's literary and artistic creation - the dialogue, drawing and story boards - while filming is due to start in 2011.

So why does The Little Prince continue to entrance generations of readers with its parable of loneliness and loss? Perhaps because, like other successful genre busters (The Magic Roundabout or, more recently, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials), The Little Prince seems to have as much to say to adults as it does to children. In allegorical fashion, the Little Prince, who has left home in search of wisdom, offers up his child's eye criticism of the adult world; sentiments that are most often expressed by the wily fox: "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed" and "C'est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante." ("It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important.") The book's most famous quotation remains perhaps: "On ne voit bien qu'avec le c?ur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux." ("One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.")

For many readers, one of the intriguing elements of the story lies less in its philosophical musings and more in the parallels that can be traced with the author's own life. The story of a mysterious boy who vanishes in a flash once his story is told took on a haunting twist when the author disappeared without a trace a year later. Prior to the pilot's disappearance, Saint-Exupéry and his wife had been living in America after fleeing France after the German invasion of 1940. But in 1943, Saint-Exupéry redeemed himself in the eyes of his compatriots by joining the Free French air force in north Africa.

His body was never found after his plane vanished, although in 1998 a fisherman found an identity bracelet bearing Saint-Exupéry's name, that of his wife Consuelo and his publishers. The hazardous life of an early aviator feeds into the story in other ways. In 1935, Saint-Exupéry, son of an aristocratic French family, had crashed in the Libyan Sahara, an experience he relates elsewhere in his book Wind, Sand and Stars, where for three days he and his navigator suffered extreme dehydration and hallucinations before being found and rescued by a passing Bedouin on a camel. His encounter with a fennec, a desert sand fox, most likely gave rise to the Little Prince's fox companion in the tale. It is also said that the Little Prince's appearance owed much to the young Saint-Exupéry, who as a boy was known as le Roi Soleil (the Sun King), due to his mop of blond curly hair.

The life of this glamorous aviator has continued to attract newspaper headlines over the intervening years. When he died intestate, Saint-Exupéry was married to Consuelo Suncin, an already widowed Salvadoran writer and artist. Their tempestuous relationship, exacerbated by Saint-Exupéry's frequent infidelities, later became the subject of the 1997 movie, Saint-Ex, starring Miranda Richardson and Bruno Ganz.

Their marriage was without children, and when the pilot's plane disappeared, the rights to his literary ?uvre reverted to his family, that is his mother and his sisters. According to his biographer, Jean Claude Perrier, Consuelo later attempted to forge letters from her husband to herself in which he left her the rights to his work. In order to avoid scandal, his mother Marie de Saint-Exupéry decided on an out-of-court settlement which evenly divided all earnings from his literary ?uvre between his family and his widow, while retaining the intellectual rights for the family. After the mother's death in 1979, Consuelo continued to contest this arrangement, and to this day, her heir, her one-time gardener and confidant, continues the fight.

The intellectual rights to The Little Prince include all products derived from the book, including advertising revenue and film rights. Consequently, this is now a fight where the financial dividends are more significant than ever. If Saint-Exupéry memorabilia is worth a fortune - in 2007 Sotheby's auctioned 10 love letters from Saint-Exupery to a female military officer in Algeria, which fetched ?190,000 and last year one of his handwritten manuscripts sold at auction for ?250,000 - the amount of spin-off products from The Little Prince, especially across Asia, including films, musical comedies, theatre adaptations and mangas, are innumerable. With these 21st-century multimedia adaptations now thrown into the mix, the fortune of this once modestly renumerated pilot is as potentially astronomical as the Little Prince's celestial adventures are numerous.

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