Lupin writer reveals challenges of bringing ‘the French Sherlock Holmes’ to the screen

The French-language series – a very different sort of adaptation – has become an international hit for Netflix.

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“I didn’t know about Arsène Lupin,” admits George Kay, the screenwriter who took French writer Maurice Leblanc’s original stories of a top hat-wearing, monocle-sporting gentleman thief and adapted them into a hit Netflix series – with Lupin Part 2 dropping on Friday 11th June. “It’s perhaps not as big in France as Sherlock Holmes is in the UK, but it’s in that canon of stories that we all recognise. So we have Raffles, and we have Sherlock Holmes, these turn-of-the-century characters like those two or Scarlet Pimpernel.

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“They’re these escapist adventures, from a time when we could all explore and fun machinery was being invented… it all seems to chime with a certain type of pop literature, so when I found out about Arsène Lupin, I recognised ‘that guy’ automatically. We know that kind of character – the gentlemen thief.”

Beginning with 1905 short story The Arrest of Arsène Lupin, Leblanc wrote 17 novels and 39 novellas featuring his “gentleman thief” character, inspiring dozens of films, TV series and stageplays. Netflix’s Lupin, though, is an adaptation unlike any other – rather than take the same approach as the BBC’s Sherlock and transplant Leblanc’s character into the present day, this reimagining follows Assane Diop (Omar Sy), a fan of the original stories who is inspired to emulate his hero, undertaking wild heists to avenge his late father, who was framed for a crime he did not commit.

It was this opportunity to put a different spin on the Lupin stories that chiefly appealed to Kay, who is also known for co-creating Netflix’s multi-language police procedural Criminal. “There’s certain things that you may want to remain faithful to if you are to update that [original] character – but what I wanted to do was create this modern man and force him through the filter of Lupin, and running alongside that, in the earlier stages of development, I was really into the idea of the intellectual property sitting as a character within the show.

“A lot of our favourite shows have their own podcasts and fanbase and all of that stuff, and I thought it’d be cool if that was incorporated into the series itself, so it becomes like an adaptation ‘live’ within the series.” This twist allowed Kay to create not just a lead character in Assane who is a Lupin obsessive, but also a detective character – Youssef Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab) – who is able to pursue our hero using his own knowledge of Leblanc’s stories. “It takes someone who knows Lupin to recognise he’s here at all, and then to start exploring that as an idea felt quite fun because you can back-reference stuff, you can lay a load of breadcrumbs that relate to the books and bring those back in again.”

The first five episodes – framed as Lupin Part 1 by Netflix – landed on Netflix on 8th January 2021, earning a warm reception from critics and becoming the first French series to rank in Netflix’s top 10 in the United States, while also ranking no. 1 across Europe and in Canada, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa. In April, Netflix revealed that the series was its most-watched title for the first quarter of 2021.

So what is the secret to its success? His initial lack of familiarity with the Lupin stories was, Kay says, more a positive than an obstacle to be overcome, since it allowed him to “take out only the bits I found exciting” and “scrap a lot” of what wouldn’t easily translate to a modern setting. “If you read Arsène Lupin, he’s ludicrously successful with women in a very sort of disposable way, which felt probably at the time quite fun but now feels really dated,” Kay suggests. “I don’t want to write that guy, I want to write a guy who’s amazing at breaking into a museum but also can’t work out how to explain certain things to his kid or his ex-partner. It felt like we could do something really modern and thrilling but also quite grounded with that, so not knowing about Arsène Lupin was not a big issue, because it felt like we could go somewhere really new.”

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Assane and Juliette in Lupin

Kay’s character, then, might maintain an on-again / off-again romance with Juliette Pellegrini (Clotilde Hesme) – an old flame who also happens to be the daughter of Assane’s nemesis, the corrupt businessman Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre) – but he is also a loving father to his son Raoul (Etan Simon), with his outlandish capers often putting a strain on his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child Claire (Ludivine Sagnier).

“With both the relationship with Claire, and Juliette, I wanted those to be really complex and really grounded,” Kay explains. “So they’re a modern family – Claire, Raoul and Assane – and there’s ways to be a really good, functioning modern family when the parents aren’t together, and I wanted to make that a positive, because you don’t want to be saying ‘You’re only working if you’re a nuclear family’ so I really want to have positives to be drawn from the status they’re in…

“And also, Claire has to have strong views about Assane. We can’t just have Claire be someone who tuts or rolls her eyes at the exploits of her ex-partner the whole time – and what I love is that nobody seems to know Assane Diop except for Claire. Who is this enigmatic man? And the whole thing is earthed by the fact that Claire knows. You can con the President of the United States if you’re Assane Diop but you can’t get anything past Claire – that’s the thing.”

In Lupin, Assane is portrayed as skilled, charismatic and at times almost supernaturally lucky, but he is not invincible – Part 1 closed with his family being targeted, with Pellegrini’s henchman Leonard (Adama Niane) kidnapping Raoul, leaving our hero desperate and seemingly without a clue. “You don’t want a guy who’s a bulletproof superhero,” says Kay. “You have to have flaws – if you don’t have flaws, you don’t have drama. His flaws are often not in the fact that he’s a bad parent or bad in his domestic life, he’s not, he’s well-intended and he knows the right things to do, but the love he has for his family leads him into making the odd error or two, which makes him vulnerable, which creates the tension and the drama.

“So as the show develops, others cotton on to those weaknesses. I suppose it’s a cliché in itself, but it works – when hunting someone down you don’t go after them, you go after the ones that they love.”

Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab) in Lupin
Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab) in Lupin
Netflix

Lupin Part 2 – again comprising five episodes – will arrive on Netflix on Friday, 11th June and has to resolve another cliffhanger too – as Assane searched desperately for his son, he was confronted by Guedira, who had managed to locate his quarry and had apparently uncovered his true identity. “When you have a series which is about an amazing thief, you do run the risk that the police might appear, when so regularly outwitted, like they’re Keystone Cops or like Colonel Decker in The A Team, always clenching his fists and saying ‘I’ll get you next time!’ – but the way to solve that is to create division within the cops themselves.

“It’s not that they can’t get Assane, it’s just that they can’t agree on how best to do it in the context of their own hierarchy, so that makes them more rounded as characters. We grew into writing those characters as we went as well, and found more layers for them.”

Fans of the series have speculated that, rather than arrest Assane, Guedira could team up with our hero to take down Pellegrini, though Kay is coy on that possibility. “Well, that would be fun, for that to happen! In terms of Assane’s priorities, all I would say is… if I was Assane I would do whatever it takes to get my boy back, so you stop at nothing and any accomplice is valid in that situation.”

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Part 2 will, he reveals,  “answer a lot of the questions” posed by the first season – including, presumably, the truth about how and why Assane’s father Babakar (Fargass Assandé) was falsely accused of stealing from his employer Pellegrini – but added that the new episodes will “kick up a few more [questions] as we go long” and with the reinvention of Arsène Lupin for the 21st century having worked so well, there are certainly no plans for Assane Diop to hang up his flat cap any time soon, with another batch of episodes beyond Part 2 having already been confirmed.

“The reaction to the first five episodes would suggest that we’ve got every chance that [season two] would be coming next year [in 2022],” Kay concludes. “Unless something goes completely wrong!”

Lupin Part 2 arrives on Netflix on Friday, 11th June – check out our guides to the best series on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix.

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