Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faith and the Romantic Child in The Little Prince

I had just recently read the original book version of The Little Prince when I watched the Netflix movie adaptation of it. The movie was gorgeous, and I think it did right by its source material. It managed to include a great deal from the book in beautiful stop-motion animation sequences that looked like folded, textured paper, while adding an additional plot that stayed true to the message of the original. But it drove home (perhaps too heavy-handedly) a few points that I had not fully grasped while reading the book: faith in the improbable and death and childhood innocence as two sides of the divine-encounter coin. This latter idea first became popular during the Romantic period (which peaked somewhere between 1800 and 1850), and has been with us in Western society ever since. Unlike some Romantic poems, though, and even arguably the book itself, the movie manages to convey these messages in a hopeful, uplifting manner.

Major spoilers for both the book and movie versions of The Little Prince below!

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The Little Prince started out as a classic children’s novella written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and published in 1943. It is narrated by an aviator who crashed his plane in the Sahara Desert, and there encounters a little boy (the eponymous Little Prince) from Asteroid B-612 journeying around the universe to various planets. The Little Prince tells the aviator about his journey; each small planet he visited was inhabited by a single small-minded adult, such as a king with no subjects, a vain man, and a businessman who was busily trying to count all the stars in order to own them. On Earth, the Little Prince discovers that the rose he fell in love with back on his asteroid is not in fact unique in the universe when he finds a whole row of rosebushes. He later befriends and “tames” a fox, who tells him that his rose is in fact special, because he loves her. In order to return to his planet and his rose, the Little Prince agrees to let a snake bite him. The aviator is afraid the boy will die, but the Little Prince assures him that he is doing this simply because his body would be too heavy to take with him back to his planet.

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On its own, the Little Prince book is an excellent example of the Romantic ideal of the innocent child. Before the Romantic period, Western society did not have a very well-defined idea of childhood as distinct from adulthood. The goal was typically to get your children to grow up as soon as possible so they could help you with work, and, you know, help the family stay alive. With Romanticism, however, came a new interpretation of childhood as its own special period, in which children were seen as innocent and naturally inclined toward good, not yet “corrupted” by the adult world. Because it had been such a short time since their souls had left the spiritual plane where the Romantics believed God to be, children were considered somehow closer to both nature (God’s creation) and God himself. Of course, viewing children as morally perfect puts a huge, unfair burden on them, but that’s a post for another time.

Seeing children as innocent and close to God was not necessarily a new idea; the New Testament recounts, in three out of the four Gospels, the story of Jesus blessing the children. While the disciples tried to usher the children and their parents away as nuisances, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (This quote appears in Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, and Luke 18:16!) Later, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3–4). The implication is that children are simple, guileless, and like many of the people Jesus ministered to, seen as “lesser” by the society around them. Thus, Christians view the act of voluntarily humbling yourself to admit your dependency on God just as children are dependent on their parents/caretakers, and seeing the world in the simple way children do, as ways to grow closer to God and to the “kingdom of heaven” discussed in these quotes. Christians were aware of this before the Romantic era, but this period marked the first time in Western history that actively delineated childhood as a specific, special time in life, supported by these ideas from the Gospels and by a reaction against the empiricism of the Enlightenment that seemed to sap all the mystery and beauty from nature and humanity.

The Romantics took this one step farther, though, in a direction that I’m not sure Jesus meant. They viewed adulthood as somehow mundane and corrupt as compared to the wonder and innocence of childhood. But how could children maintain this innocence and closeness to God, if they all inevitably grow up and are “corrupted”? The answer for many Romantics was death. Romantic poems are chock-full of dead children. This allowed the children’s innocent souls to return to God before they had a chance to be corrupted. One can only hope that this morbid trope remained confined to poetry and literature! But it also could very well have been a way to reconcile with the painful realities of the untimely death of children during that time, before child labor laws and access to modern healthcare became widespread. Still, though, this is awfully depressing, and its effect on media is definitely still present today.

The Little Prince is but one modern example of the (possibly) “dead innocent child” trope. The book begins with a famous vignette from the aviator’s childhood, celebrating the innocence and imagination of youth in the form of the young aviator’s drawing of a boa constrictor eating an elephant, which unimaginative adults interpreted as a simple hat.

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The book goes on to reinforce this message of childhood innocence vs. the small-mindedness of adults in the encounters the Little Prince has with the petty, “corrupt” adults on the planets he visits. The story ends with what seems like the Prince’s death, but he is convinced it will send him back home to the planet and rose he loves—i.e., back to a kind of “heaven” from which he started out. This is very appropriate for a Romantic child, whose soul started out in paradise and returns there through death before the child can grow up and be corrupted by the ways of the world. On the other hand, though, he might never have made it home. He might have just… died. The book doesn’t say for sure, and thus it could be a sad ending rather than an uplifting one.

The movie expands on all of these themes by adding the plot of the unnamed Little Girl, whose single working mother has over-scheduled her into a rigid “life plan” that will ensure she becomes a “wonderful grown-up”. Essentially, she is treated like a little adult, just like children before the Romantic period. But true to the Romantic ideals of the story, the movie’s narrative views this stifling of childhood as a bad thing. The Little Girl begins to deviate from her “life plan” when she meets the Aviator—meant to be the same aviator who met the Little Prince and wrote the book. In this universe, however, the book was never published, and he is generally dismissed as a senile old man. The movie continuously reiterates, though, that he is an adult who never forgot what it was like to be a child. The girl is captivated by his story, even though she is skeptical both of it and of the Aviator’s dream to get his old plane up and running again. When she finds out about the snake bite, she’s convinced that this was the end of the Little Prince, despite the Aviator’s assurances that he’s definitely still out there, back on his asteroid. She swears to have nothing more to do with the Aviator and his story, re-dedicating herself to her summer studies–until, one day, the Aviator ends up in the hospital. That night, the Little Girl decides to go looking for the Little Prince to help save the Aviator. While sneaking out of her house, her gutter falls off and she crashes into the Aviator’s yard. There, she finds the plane miraculously repaired.

Here’s where things get interesting. The girl flies the plane to an asteroid covered by a drab city, in which adults rush around, constantly working. She encounters the adults the Little Prince ran into on his journeys, such as the king of nothing, the conceited man, and the businessman, who has now succeeded in buying all the stars, trapping them all and turning them into sources of energy to continue fueling his business on this planet. When the girl finally finds the Little Prince, he is now “Mr. Prince”, a grown-up who has forgotten his old life and is only concerned with his job. He takes the girl to the Academy for the same “reconditioning” that turned him into an adult. The girl manages to get him to remember his childhood, and the two of them escape and free all the stars. They fly back to his asteroid, where they’re dismayed to find that the rose has died. But then the Little Prince sees his rose in the sunrise, and the sight transforms him back into his “true” child self. Armed with this new understanding, and having come to terms with what death, love, and “seeing with the heart” truly mean, the Little Girl returns home and lives happily ever after with her now much-subdued mom. The Aviator is last heard laughing with the Little Prince, so make of that what you will.

Clearly, the theme of childhood imagination and innocence vs. adult closed-mindedness is carried through heavily here. Whereas the Little Prince’s encounters with absurd caricatures on small planets might have been easy to dismiss as fantasy, the Little Girl’s overly scheduled life contextualizes the message in a contemporary setting that is harder to deny. Then, in her adventure, just in case we didn’t get the point yet, she visits another caricature that takes “adult” valuing of work, productivity, and profit to an extreme. In the meantime, the girl is continually developing her own imagination and sense of wonder, going from being skeptical that the Little Prince ever existed to being able to fly a battered old plane to actually find him. As she comes to resemble the Romantic child more and more, abandoning her studies in favor of playing with and listening to the stories of the Aviator (who never lost his childlike innocence), it makes sense for her to meet this epitome of Romantic children, and to help him return to his childlike roots and the “kingdom of Heaven” represented by his planet and rose.

The theme of death as close to the divine/sublime is emphasized in the girl’s plot as well. The Aviator tells the girl that he needs to go be with the Little Prince, and while we don’t see him dying for sure, it’s pretty clear that this is a euphemism for death. The Prince’s flower has died but is still present in the rising sun. And in order to return to the state of “divinity” in which he can understand that “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the Little Prince must become a child again, a sort of “death” in his stint as an adult and rebirth as a once again innocent child (yup, you guessed it, Christ figure). This could have been a blanket condemnation of adulthood, just like the Romantics who killed off children in their stories could imagine no better fate for them than to “escape” this world before reaching adulthood. But instead, the movie gives us the example of the childlike Aviator, who shows us that “growing up is not the problem. Forgetting [childhood] is.” He tells the Little Girl after her adventure that she’s going to make a “wonderful grown-up,” but this time, it’s in a different context from when her mother said it. This time, we know it means she’ll make a good adult because she won’t forget what she learned from childhood, the Aviator, or the Little Prince. In this way, the movie subverts the trope in a positive manner that gives hope to all of us adults that we can reclaim our inner child.

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The other quasi-religious message the movie conveys is the issue of faith. At first, the girl is skeptical that the Aviator’s story of the Little Prince ever happened. Indeed, there are multiple possible alternate interpretations, such as the Prince being a hallucination brought on by dehydration in the desert. But the Aviator has fervently believed all his life that it actually happened, and also has faith that the Little Prince didn’t die, but instead returned home. Eventually the girl comes to believe it too, to the point that she goes looking for the Prince. When she falls from the gutter and hits her head in the Aviator’s yard, her entire adventure afterward could be interpreted as a mere dream. We viewers don’t get to see how she returned to her house; we just see her awake the next morning. We just don’t know if the Little Prince ever actually “existed”, if he died or returned home when he was bitten by the snake, or if the girl’s adventure actually happened. And that’s the point. We have no proof one way or the other. Just like the Aviator and the Little Girl, we just have to have faith that it all happened, even though it’s implausible, much like the unprovable beliefs of people of faith. But what if it did all just happen inside the characters’ heads? Well, as Harry Potter‘s Dumbledore says, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Whether the people and events in religious traditions are literally true or not, the effect they have on people of faith is real. And by the end of the movie, the girl understands that “seeing with the heart” is so much more valuable than whatever we can empirically see and “prove” with our eyes. The exact faith depicted here is pretty hazy, except for a vague notion about life after death, but that’s okay because it allows the general message of the importance of faith to have resonance among a wider audience, no matter their background. It doesn’t even have to be religious faith, since the movie never directly refers to any religion.

The point in the movie at which the ideas of “childhood innocence and death as close to the Divine” and of faith in something “invisible to the eye” converge is the moment when the Prince sees his rose reflected in the rising sun. Not only is that the moment when he returns to the ideal of Romantic childhood, but it also acknowledges the rose’s physical “death” as a way for her to ascend to a more “sublime” state—a beautiful, inexhaustible star. In the meantime, the Little Prince has faith that she’s still out there, despite her apparent physical death, while also uttering his iconic line about seeing with the heart. One can only accept death as closeness to God if one has faith that life continues beyond death. And “seeing with the heart” is exactly the kind of idealized innocence that Romantics and the child subjects of their art espoused.

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There was not a dry eye in the house after watching this scene, let me tell you.

So, in the movie, instead of a possibly dead Little Prince like in the book, we have one who’s alive and well, de-corrupted from his adult state to become the innocent Romantic child again. We also have the Aviator, an adult who has “humbled himself like a child” and shown that Jesus’ direction to remain childlike is possible even for grown-ups, thus subverting the dead Romantic child trope. And we viewers are asked to accept this all on faith. The movie ties these themes together and emphasizes them so strongly that even young audience members should be able to pick up on them, which is not necessarily the case with the book. The story refers to no specific religion, but, as often happens, it’s replete with religious themes. Understanding the background of these themes helps us enrich our interpretation of the story.


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One thought on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faith and the Romantic Child in The Little Prince

  1. I didn’t know about the film…I’m going to have to see it, definitely

    Did you ever see the animated series of The Little Prince back in the day? It was Japanese-produced, and it was on Nickelodeon in the 1980s; to my knowledge, it went pretty far beyond what the original book had as well. (Whether successfully or not is another question…just the trailer of this more recent film tugs at my heart-strings harder than anything in the cartoon series did.)

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