The Literary Origins of Netflix’s Latest Smash Hit

Lupin, the French-language series about a charismatic thief, embraces its source material—and then transcends it.

Man in museum
Emmanuel Guimier / Netflix

Before Arsène Lupin was the inspiration for an out-of-nowhere Netflix smash hit, projected to be watched by 70 million subscribers, the character was a French literary legend, a gentleman thief with the moral code of Robin Hood, the wits of Sherlock Holmes, and the anti-aristocratic instincts of Robespierre. In the 1906 story “The Queen’s Necklace,” one of Maurice Leblanc’s first outings for the character, his origins are explained: Lupin’s first robbery was staged when he was 6 years old, after witnessing his mother, an impoverished gentlewoman, being ill-treated by her monied employer. The necklace the child managed to pinch also features in the first episode of Lupin, in which a janitor working at the Louvre stages a dazzling heist inspired by his fictional hero. Both crimes are audacious, seemingly impossible, and conducted with a strong amount of swagger: Lupin might be a master of disguise, but he’s also a peacock who learns to play on his notoriety as often as he makes himself invisible.

As adaptations go, Lupin is close to perfect. Rather than directly translate the character to television, the writer George Kay imagines Lupin as the inspiration for a 21st-century con artist named Assane (played by Omar Sy), whose history mirrors Lupin’s and whose balancing act as a moralistic thief is given extra depth by his race. At the Louvre, dressed in a formless jumpsuit and clutching a box of cleaning products, Assane blends in among the other janitors—people of color like himself—vacuuming carpets and taking out the trash. But in the same scene, when he shifts into his next character, an entrepreneur attending an auction, Assane saunters into the museum resplendent in a purple suit, smiling broadly and nodding hello to all the wealthy white patrons around him. The con relies on his conspicuousness in some circles as much as it does on his ability to be unseen.

The five-part series is Netflix’s first French-language megahit. Certainly, this is in part because Lupin is a thrilling caper show, with the theft of a historic necklace dating back to Marie Antoinette (as in Leblanc’s story), a mystery, and an irresistible hero—Sy’s Assane could charm les oiseaux out of les arbres, and his magnetism, in one scene, outshines the Mona Lisa. But the original story’s ethos of righting wrongs is baked deeply into the show too. Assane’s backstory—his father was a Senegalese immigrant who was framed for a crime he didn’t commit—is unique, but both characters are motivated by injustice. If the original Lupin was an ethical criminal, stealing only from those members of high society who deserved it, Assane’s thefts are even more pointed: Many of his schemes are acts that reckon with racism in France and the country’s legacy of plunder. “The locals were sitting on a fortune,” an elderly Parisienne tells Assane (who’s pretending to be a policeman) during one con as she entrusts her most precious diamonds, looted from the Belgian Congo, to his care. “We just helped ourselves.”

Kay, an English writer who worked on the BBC America series Killing Eve, brings to Lupin some of his previous show’s impudent spirit, as well as a willingness to tweak its audience’s expectations. In the first episode, an unkempt Assane heads into a housing project in the outskirts of Paris and is held over a balcony by a loan shark he owes money to. With the setting (the banlieue), the company (steroid-puffed heavies), and the scheme itself, the show plays with assumptions about what kind of criminal Assane is that it then proceeds to totally upend. The con is on the viewer as much as anyone else, and their own biases might be part of the reveal. The series has drawn some criticism for its limited portrayals of Paris; its fictional world, the writer Tirhakah Love argued, “cherry-picks systematic racial dynamics from reality and simply erases Blackness elsewhere.” This is a fair critique of much of the first five episodes, where—Assane aside—characters of color tend to recur as minimally fleshed-out stereotypes. But in the finale, which takes place outside Paris at a festival dedicated to Lupin, the series seems to be setting up a thesis that it hasn’t quite delivered yet: that Lupin’s biggest fans and rightful successors are people of color, and for good reason. (More episodes are supposedly coming “soon.”)

The word gentleman recurs throughout the series, just as it appears in the title of the first collection of Lupin stories: Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Cambrioleur. Not gentilhomme, which implies nobility, but the familiar English word, which defines its subject’s manners. Assane, like Lupin before him, is an outsider who infiltrates an Establishment that he politely and defensibly robs from within. The series uses flashbacks to illustrate how many of Assane’s tricks as a thief draw on the stigmas he faced in his youth. In one scene, Assane’s father tries to help the wife of the man he works for when she has car trouble; seeing him approach her car, she quickly locks the door. When an anonymous donor pays for Assane to attend private school after his father’s death, another student tells him, “I didn’t know they let janitors in here.” Later, Assane’s robbery schemes play on these sorts of aggressions in intricate ways, relying on the fact that people will see him as a threat or a surprise, or—in the right context—not see him at all. In one episode, Assane meets a contact dressed as a food courier, then evades police by ordering a dozen lunches to the same location, all delivered by men dressed identically to him.

The thrill of heist stories has always come from both a willing suspension of morality and an internal reorientation of what it means to be a hero or a villain. Crime dramas are escapist; few Netflix viewers are going to be plundering the Louvre anytime soon. But Lupin’s trick is that the confrontation it forces isn’t just between cops and robbers. It’s between an orphan and a social hierarchy built on dirty money and immaculate manners, in which a diamond necklace can be a work of art but also a symbol of European aristocratic corruption through the ages. (In the show, the Queen’s necklace passes from the court of Louis XVI to Napoleon to czarist Russia to the Third Reich.) Assane, whose victims are the same wealthy men and women who despoiled his childhood, isn’t just a worthy heir to Lupin. He’s also a righteous and timely reconfiguration of what it means to be a French hero.