Take a visual journey through Voltaire's Candide

Candide: Plot, Characters and Adaptations



"The Holy Alliance." One of twelve plates from a translation/adaptation of Voltaire's Candide by the pseudonymous Lord Hail-Fair, published in Boston in 1826. The translator took Voltaire’s critique of religious authority to an extraordinary length, adding his own anti-Catholic diatribe in the preface and bracketed comments throughout the narrative. Writing ten years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Hail-Fair attacks the rulers of Austria, Greece, Prussia, France, and Spain, penning a parody of the American Declaration of Independence, as the author imagines the Holy Alliance would have it: “We hold these truths [to] be sacred in the sight of the Pope — that all men are not born free and equal — have not free and equal rights....”

NYPL, General Research Division.


Candide: Adaptations

Candide’s satire on optimism was updated to the 20th century in the 1961 French film Candide, or the Optimist in the Twentieth Century [Candide, ou l’optimiste au XXe siècle], in which Candide’s experience of the world includes inspecting a World War II concentration camp. Directed by Norbert Carbonnaux, the film starred Jean-Pierre Cassel as Candide, Daliah Lavi as his much-raped beloved, Cunegonde, and Pierre Brasseur as Dr. Pangloss.


O Lucky Man! (1973), Lindsay Anderson’s picaresque film about the adventures of young Mick Travis (played by Malcolm McDowell), is generally considered a loose take on Candide, although the relationship is not acknowledged in the film’s credits. On the other hand, Candy, Terry Southern’s 1964 novel and its 1968 film adaptation, is clearly inspired by Voltaire, but Southern’s satire is directed at pornographic literature, not optimism. Directed by Christian Marquand, the film featured Ewa Aulin as the naive Candy, who proceeds from one sexual exploit to another, and, in cameo roles, such major stars as Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and even ex-Beatle Ringo Starr.

By far the best-known adaptation of Voltaire’s work is the musical composed by Leonard Bernstein; like its hero, it has gone through changes over time. With lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself, and a book by Lillian Hellman, Candide premiered on Broadway in 1956. Bernstein’s gloriously witty music could not compensate for the production’s uneasy mixture of operetta and satire, and the show ran fewer than ten weeks. In 1973, for a revival at Brooklyn’s Chelsea Theater Center, director Harold Prince commissioned a new book from Hugh Wheeler and additional lyrics from Stephen Sondheim. Prince’s environmental staging of the revised work was a great success, moving to Broadway for a run of almost two years. The work was then revised again, incorporating music cut from previous versions (some of it never previously performed), for the “Opera House Version,” which premiered, again under Prince’s direction, at the New York City Opera in 1982 and has since been produced by opera companies around the world.

More recently, in 2006–2008, Robert Carsen’s controversial staging of Bernstein’s work in Paris, Milan, and London was hypersaturated with pop cultural and political references ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna to world leaders George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi, Jacques Chirac, and Vladimir Putin.

Other adaptations of Candide include a ballet by Charles Weidman, produced by the Federal Dance Theater (part of the Works Progress Administration) in 1937, and an experimental theater piece by Len Jenkin set in a gigantic, crumbling bust of Voltaire. Jenkin’s play premiered in 1982 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and was produced off-Broadway in 1992. In the program notes for the New York City production, Jenkin explained that he wanted to “evoke from the ‘mind of Voltaire’ a challenging dialectic between the 18th-century view of the world and our own contemporary culture.” He continues, “In a chaotic and unpredictable world, is ‘optimism’ a form of naivete or survival? Can we still believe in the concept of progress at a time when faith in our political and financial leaders is at an all-time low?”

Another stage adaption, by Stuart Gordon’s Chicago-based Organic Theater Company in 1971, was performed by a youthful cast in commedia dell’arte style.