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Lupin Pulls an Adaptation Heist on Its Audience

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Most recent adaptations of public-domain stories have been so desperate to provide fresh new spins on familiar characters that they end up forgoing the iconography that made those characters classic in the first place, instead focusing on building up the promise of a sequel that actually delivers the story audiences could be interested in. The last Robin Hood lifts most of its plot and aesthetic from Batman Begins and doesn’t reach Sherwood Forest until the last scene, while the last King Arthur movie doesn’t make the titular character king until the very end. As YouTube filmmaker Patrick Willems put it back in 2018, “No one cares about a radical new take if they don’t remember the last traditional one.”

Netflix’s latest international hit, the French series Lupin, plays with that lack of familiarity by simultaneously riffing on its title character and teaching the audience what it’s riffing on. Before Lupin’s January debut on U.S. Netflix, most Americans were unlikely to have heard of Maurice Leblanc’s early-20th-century novels and short stories revolving around the legendary gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (the last American film made on Lupin was 1944’s Enter Arsène Lupin), and before a commercially disappointing 2004 film, there hadn’t been a French adaptation since the 1990s. Viewers could very easily dive into Lupin without even knowing it was an adaptation — until, that is, the show makes that fact explicit.

In a way, Lupin itself pulls a heist on its audience. Its title indicates an adaptation, but rather than directly adapting any particular novel or short story, Lupin stars Omar Sy as a man named Assane Diop. Assane shares many characteristics with Arsène: They both exude charisma, are able to transform themselves into whomever they need to be in order to get a job done, and both are bighearted thieves who steal from those who deserve it. Except Assane is hardly a monocle-wearing aristocrat in a black cloak and a top hat but rather the son of a working-class Senegalese immigrant who never fully blends in with the Parisian upper echelon from which he steals. Leblanc’s Lupin still exists in the world of the show, albeit as a work of fiction that a young Assane becomes obsessed with, and serves as a frame of reference from which he’ll mold his behavior and his work — the show’s full title, Lupin: dans l’Ombre d’Arsène, translates to “In the shadow of Arsène.”

Like most public-domain adaptations of the past couple of decades, this is an origin story, kind of. The show jumps back and forth between the present, where Assane stages a dazzling heist at the Louvre in order to steal a necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, and 25 years earlier, when Assane’s father was accused and imprisoned for stealing that same necklace from the rich man he worked for. Assane receives a copy of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar from his father and is inspired to take up the mantle of Lupin and set out on a Count of Monte Cristo–like quest for justice against the family that put his father in prison. Via flashbacks, we see Assane reading the book and taking notes as he starts imitating Arsène’s behavior and methods. Like his hero, Assane is a master of disguise, capable of changing his posture and voice to completely transform himself, even though Sy’s Assane is six-foot-three, devastatingly and distractingly handsome, and also as wide as a fridge.

While Arsène’s personality and use of gadgets invites comparisons to James Bond, his closest counterpart in terms of adaptation history is Sherlock Holmes (a character who already met Lupin in a 1906 short story titled “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late”). Despite countless adaptations throughout the centuries, the character’s central iconography has never wavered, and even when something like the BBC’s Sherlock takes away the hat and makes Watson a blogger, they still make sure to poke fun at viewers’ familiarity with that iconography and comment on its absence. This is not unlike the approach taken by manga artist Monkey Punch in the more comedic manga (and long-running anime) Lupin III, which follows the fictional grandson of Leblanc’s hero and tells mostly original stories while still keeping most of the iconography of the original character intact. Netflix’s Lupin, on the other hand, uses its metafictional connection to Leblanc’s work in order to pay homage — and also to comment on it with a modern lens.

Just as Assane lifts his personality and behavior from Leblanc’s books, so do showrunner George Kay and Lupin lift locations, names, and plot elements — but you won’t necessarily know what happens next just because you read them. The first episode is heavily inspired by the 1907 short-story collection Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar, which is the same one Assane’s father gifts him, and includes the story about Arsène stealing a necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. That same collection includes stories of Lupin’s surprisingly easy escape from prison and a story called “The Mysterious Traveler,” which the show loosely incorporates into its own story. The show employs police detective Youssef Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab) as both a foil to Assane and an audience guide through the adaptation itself, pointing out references and Easter eggs to those who haven’t read the books. In the first episode, he realizes all of Assane’s aliases are anagrams of Arsène Lupin, and he starts figuring out how much of Assane’s plans are lifted directly from the books.

By casting its leading man not as Arsène himself but as a man inspired by Lupin, the show is able to cleverly weave Assane’s race and background as the son of an immigrant into its plot. In the books, Arsène would constantly disguise himself to become invisible in elite circles; in the show, Assane hides among those deemed invisible by said circles. He’s often the only Black man in the room, and he uses that as either a cloak of invisibility or a megaphone to call attention to himself, using his adversaries’ assumptions and biases against them. To sneak into the Louvre, Assane blends in among the janitors, most of them people of color, because no one notices them. Once inside, he takes the role of a rich entrepreneur, knowing that it will draw attention and therefore divert suspicion. Though the show has drawn some criticism for its portrayal of characters of color, as they are very few and far between and mostly serving as plot devices, the show makes a point to focus on its very white elite and how — to them — no one outside their circle deserves to be seen. That allows Assane, and the show, to sneak in and provide some poignant commentary of French society.

This extends to the heists themselves. In the books, Arsène Lupin was a moral criminal, stealing from those who hoard too much while the people have too little. Assane’s targets are recontextualized with a different edge: They are intrinsically connected to France’s history of colonization and its current problems with racism. The main villain of the show is revealed to have been involved in weapons trading and indirectly involved in a terrorist attack on a French Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Later in the season, one of Assane’s targets is an unassuming elderly lady who is conned into giving Assane her most valued jewelry. Before the audience has a chance to empathize with the old lady, the script is quickly flipped, and the lady reveals the jewels were looted from the Belgian Congo. “We just helped ourselves,” she says. It’s a small exchange, but a significant one, as the show adds an extra layer of nuance to its version of Lupin and his exploits, one that the source material was never able to because Arsène still belonged to the same social elite he was stealing from.

As more adaptations of public-domain characters are announced, as we debate on whether Idris Elba should play Bond or whether there is anything yet to be said about Robin Hood, Netflix’s Lupin shows there is still a way to make a famous 116-year-old character feel fresh and relevant. Assane may be living in the shadow of Arsène, but Lupin has already cast its own shadow on future literary adaptations.

Lupin Pulls an Adaptation Heist on Its Audience