Black tulips and Chinese whispers


One should not be ashamed to admit that the first thing coming to mind when “The Black Tulip” is mentioned is the 1960s movie starring Alain Delon. Why? Because so little is known about the novel of the same name. Surprisingly, the historical novel written by Alexandre Dumas senior has nothing to do with France, the French Revolution and the XIX Century. Instead, it is set in 1672 and tells the story of how the people of the Netherlands overthrew the government of brothers Jean and Corneille de Witt in order to allow the return of King William III of Orange-Nassau. As chaos ensues, Cornelius de Witt’s godson, Cornelius van Baerle, reacts rather indifferently and only thinks about creating a black tulip, since the Horticultural Society of Haarlem had offered a reward of one hundred thousand florins. The bad guy is envious neighbour Isaac Boxtel and his love interest is Rosa, the daughter of jail guard Gryphus. They eventually meet when Cornelius is falsely accused and later imprisoned for murder.
In this novel, the tulip is not a symbol of justice, and actually it is not a symbol at all: on the contrary, it stands exactly for what it is: a flower. The tulip had been imported from Turkey a century prior and if anything, all that it represented was power and wealth.

All of its first adaptations were coherent with the original plot: “Das Fest der schwarzen Tulpe” directed by Marie Luise Droop and Muhsin Ertugrul in 1920 wasn’t a big success. the following year a new production brought the subject to the big screen: “De zwarte tulp” by Maurits Binger and Frank Richardson, followed by Alex Bryce’s 1937’s adaptation “The Black Tulip“, which presented a mixed cast of British and Dutch actors.
But then again, why do we associate the words “Black Tulip” to a guy with a sword fighting during the French Revolution? One name is the answer: Karl May. In fact, in the 1960s it was particularly frequent to adapt novels into movies but only with a limited number of original features, a process made popular by author Karl May with his movies of the same time. This is how the “Black Tulip” turned from flower to name of a hero. Alain Delon played both Guillaume de Saint Preux and his twin brother Julian, who covers for him when he is injured in a fight. The twist almost recalls another novel by Dumas senior: “The Three Musketeers“. The process of reinventing plots, mixing characters and changing elements of the original source can only be seen as a pastiche, a typical post-Modernist attitude.

One can safely assume that the movie has ultimately overshadowed the original plot, forcing it to become a thing of the past. Reinforcing the 1960s plot is the Japanese cartoon seriesLa Seine no Hoshi“, although implementing further changes in the plot. The Tv series was quite popular in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s and despite featuring the presence of the Black Tulip as an aristocrat who secretly fights injustice in the years preceeding the French Revolution, the main character is Simone Lorène, a poor girl who later becomes the Black Tulip’s adopted sister and who later discovers to be half-sister to Queen Marie Antoinette. In the same fashion as the Black Tulip, she fights injustice as a masked heroine named “The Star of the Seine“.

Remember that game called Chinese whispers? The word the first person whispers to someone else’s ear always turns out to be another after a series of whispers to other people. Same goes for this novel and the way it influenced other works of arts. But, is it better to be imitated coherently as in film adaptations or never to be, implying that it stands on another level?

5 thoughts on “Black tulips and Chinese whispers

  1. Very interesting. I’ll need to check out the film. I read the Dumas book many years ago and always assumed that that was what the film was about. Silly me :)

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