Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Three Musketeers, Today

To go by the innumerable film versions, one would scarcely imagine that Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers is as much satire as swashbuckler. Dumas, a man of the nineteenth century (indeed, the son of a prominent general of the French Revolution), spent much of the novel having fun at the expense of those pillars of the Old Regime--monarchs and aristocrats, soldiers and churchmen, and all they represented, not least their moral squalor.1

The result is that, as the reader quickly finds, the musketeers popularly associated with not much more than high spirits, loyalty and camaradrie are basically a pack of thieving, deadbeat, colossally entitled hoodlums--and that on their better days.2 Charming as they are for all that in print, the movies tend to curtail this (especially after D'Artagnan's memorable first meetings with his future comrades, which they dare not drop and can scarcely modify), filmmakers finding this all a bit much for characters presented as "our heroes"--while in our relatively conservative times, they also hesitate to mock soldiers and priests. And of course, along with contemporary conservatism, there is contemporary feminism, which looks askance at such types as adulterous airheads, damsels in distress and villainnesses who fight with traditional "women's weapons" like lies, seduction and poison--so that in Paul W.S. Anderson's 2011 version Constance is a secret agent (and unmarried to a doddering old man); and Milla Jovovich's DeWinter is Resident Evil's Alice in period costume. Meanwhile, rather than all the derring-do being driven by the heroes' effort to stop a potentially war-starting exposure of the French Queen's astonishing indiscretion (a striking indictment of the stupidity of the politics of an era in which war was the sport of kings), what we get is their disrupting Cardinal Richelieu's scheming to create the appearance of adultery.

Alas, in the process the satire is reduced to nearly nothing, and a good deal of texture gone too, leaving us with just a sanitized early fragment of the adventure (few moviemakers bother with more than the first third of the story). This being the case one may wonder at the eternal eagerness to refilm it for the umpteenth time.3 (Just check out Dumas' IMDB page.) But those who have been paying attention know that faithfulness to a classic, or even an interest in what makes it a classic, has less often been part of adaptations than one might wish, for all the tediously pious protestations of the PR people. Those looking to film the story simply seem to think cloaks and rapiers are cool, and have a name everyone knows attached to them, which spares them the trouble of making stuff up like a writer should, or still worse, trying to sell something under--horror of horrors--an original title.

Even going by this standard Anderson's version is uneven, but it does at least reflect an all-too-rare recognition of the truisms that if you have to leave behind a big chunk of what makes a story worth telling in the first place, you ought to replace it with something else; and that the millionth version of the same story ought to have something setting it apart from the nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine versions preceding it. In this case, it is an abundance of clock-punk that performs the role, and at the least, it gives the production an interesting look. Still, filmmaking would be a whole lot better off if there was a little more readiness to say "Do it right or not it all," a bit more broad-mindedness toward classic stories' content, and moviemakers did not have to slavishly wrap up original ideas in the trappings of established names.

1. In this Dumas is a lot like Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, another, contemporaneous classic of French and world literature distorted out of all recognition in the popular memory by the film versions.
2. Living by sword and by gun and disdaining industry and those who do it; regarding it as unthinkable to be unattended by a servant, while usually being flat broke; quick to arm and quick to anger and thinking themselves quite entitled to take what they want and take advantage of anyone they need to do in order to do so; they comprise rather an unflattering portrait of aristocratic, "leisure class" mores.
3. Even Richard Lester's attempt to shoot the fuller story wound up split into two films--with the stuff after the first third generally going into the second film, The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge (1974).

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