Every generation gets the version of The Three Musketeers it deserves. In our era’s own 3-D extravaganza, opening Oct. 21, director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) tries to turn the story into a steampunk superhero adventure, building most of the action around sci-fi airships. It’s just the latest version to radically change Alexandre Dumas’s novel. To the premise of the 1844 book—a callow youth joins up with three older swashbucklers and fights to save the honour of France— films have added cartoon animals, musical stars, and Raquel Welch. Given that Hollywood did a film with the title characters played by the cult comedy team the Ritz Brothers, is there any version that can still shock us?
Literally since feature films began, there has been a Three Musketeers movie about twice a decade. While many adaptations of 19th-century literature are money-losers, Musketeers movies usually do well. Stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly and Michael York have successfully appeared as the callow youth D’Artagnan. Even the now-obscure 1993 film with a bunch of guys who later went into TV (Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris O’Donnell) was a hit. And animated short films can’t stay away from the idea either: The Two Mouseketeers, a Tom and Jerry cartoon version with a French-speaking mouse, won the Academy Award for best cartoon.
That track record could explain why last year studios were in a race to see which one could develop a Musketeers movie first. After its success with Sherlock Holmes, Warner Brothers was working on its own Three Musketeers reboot, which Variety said would “play up the action and sexier elements of the story.” A German company rushed the current version into production, causing Warners to abandon the property; the new film has gotten poor reviews from the critics, but just getting a Dumas film on the market was considered enough of a triumph. Even more than Sherlock Holmes, who hadn’t been in many big-budget features before Robert Downey Jr. came along, the Musketeers are always seen as a viable movie project.
The popularity of the Three Musketeers might seem surprising because, unlike other classics, it doesn’t have much of a literary reputation. For a long time, it didn’t even have a faithful English translation, mostly making do with Victorian-era versions that took out anything naughty; it took until 2006 for a new English rendering, by Richard Pevear, to get back to something resembling the original. Unlike the stories of Dumas’s contemporary, Victor Hugo (Les Misérables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Dumas hasn’t quite made it to the status of a true master for students to worship; when reviewing Pevear’s translation, the New York Times’s Terrence Rafferty argued that Dumas wasn’t, technically, a great writer, just a good potboiler novelist: “Dumas’s novels are shameless word-guzzlers, big and plush and almost sinfully comfortable.”
But unlike the many swashbuckler novels that followed in its wake, there’s something about the Three Musketeers story that almost seems to make things easy for scriptwriters. If Gulliver’s Travels, the subject of another critically savaged recent 3-D movie, seems hard to adapt, The Three Musketeers is the type of pop fiction that lends itself to film: not only does it include plenty of action, but it has many of the character types that movies have always loved, like the evil femme fatale (Milady De Winter) and the cynical good guy with a broken heart. And because most people don’t remember the book that well, apart from the title and the catchphrase “all for one and one for all,” adapters feel free to change whatever they want, without being accused of trashing a classic. That means each movie can fit the obsessions of its time: some versions pacified religious authorities by making Cardinal Richelieu a secular villain, while the cynical ’70s version took a more anti-war, anti-religion attitude. And the new version? With its anachronistic flying devices and booby traps, it seems to take the attitude that technology is more interesting than religion, war, or love. What could be more appropriate for the ’10s?