Original blog post here.
You may be what a Greatest Living Author watches when he’s not writing. Well, how about one of the best bad adaptations of a classic work of literature in cinematic history?
Funny story: I distinctly remember that I watched this movie with my best friend when I was kid. I distinctly remember opening the door to the storage room in his house where the toy swords were and then going wild.
But I remembered absolutely nothing about the movie. Luckily, I stumbled across it on Disney Plus — I don’t think I remembered that it even was a Disney movie. I was almost immediately ashamed of myself for forgetting.
This movie is great! How did I ever forget it?
Incidentally, this one is not even the most free-handed adaptation of The Three Musketeers out there. There’s a Three Musketeers anime from 1987 that goes pretty fast and loose with the source material. d’Artagnan’s twelve, Aramis is a woman in disguise, the Man in the Iron Mask is basically a supervillain and the main bad guy, and the plot is less based on the book and more just a series of vaguely swashbuckling 17th-centry adventures that occasionally align with the plot beats of the novel.
There are a lot of peculiarities with the book that make it hard to put on film. For one thing, it was written (in French) in 1844 and set in the 1620s (in France), so there’s a lot of cultural and artistic tastes and preferences that have changed since then.
For another, it’s not nearly as exciting as most adaptations make it out to be. It’s not really an action story. Honestly, it’s more of a Ancien Régime-era spy novel. Basically, Cardinal Richelieu (a real person, by the way) is trying to do something dastardly to discredit the Queen, so he can manipulate the King, so he can
It’s interesting, but it’s not big, exciting, in-your-face action.
The other problem is that film isn’t the right medium to convey the novel’s greatest strength. Clearly, there was something the style of French literature at the time that made sarcastic narration very popular, because The Three Musketeers has that in common with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (which, incidentally, also has nothing in common with its Disney adaptation; no, seriously, everybody’s a jerk in the novel — except the goat — and then everybody dies).
The narration of the novel is, admittedly, rather long-winded and not always on topic (it was originally published in serial, so it kind of had a vested interest in not getting to the point), but it’s very conversational and absolutely full of snarky little comments and shots at the characters and events. It’s probably my favourite part of the novel, but, again it’s not something that you can really convey on film, unless, perhaps, you’re going to include a Wonder Years-esque voice over to keep up a running narration.
Which, honestly, doesn’t seem like a terrible idea…
Notably, however, the scene where d’Artagnan gets challenged to a duel by all three Musketeers in the span of about fifteen seconds is still present in the film and presented on screen with only minimal changes.
Makes sense; it’s one of the best scenes in the book.
Even though the plot has only about a 3% connection to the source material, the main characters are all how they’re supposed to be: d’Artagnan is young, hot-blooded and constantly picking fights, Athos is grim and stoic, Aramis is well-read and constantly trying to seduce married women, and Porthos is jocular but vain and self-absorbed.
On the other hand, primary antagonist Cardinal Richelieu is downgraded from ruthlessly pragmatic master of realpolitik (much as he was in real life) to cackling, moustache-twirling supervillain, played by Tim Curry in a rare villainous role (I’ve made that joke before).
Basically, in the book, Richelieu is antagonistic, but not evil. He may be at odds with the Musketeers, but he genuinely has France’s best interests in mind (as you’d perhaps expect from the Prime Minister of France). In fact, he actually works with the Musketeers at certain points in the novel.
Similarly, Rochefort — the Darth Vader to Richelieu’s the Emperor, so to speak — is changed from a worthy opponent to the Musketeers who ultimately ends up allied with them to … a moustache-twirling supervillain. He has no depth, gets not character development, and exists primarily to be defeated in a big, awesome climactic sword fight.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. I’m always down for a good cinematic sword fight.
Simplifying the story and the characters is inevitable while changing a 700ish-page novel to an hour-and-three-quarters movie.
But if, for some reason, you’re really passionate about the integrity of Alexandre Dumas’s original stories, you should probably not watch this movie…
Aside from the fact that absolutely nobody is even remotely trying to be French — or even acting all that hard, for that matter — the casting is pretty good.
Kiefer Sutherland is getting some solid practice in for Jack Bauer as Athos, Tim Curry is turning in … every Tim Curry performance ever, Charlie Sheen somehow manages to be simultaneously horribly miscast and absolutely perfect as Aramis, Chris O’Donnell delivers d’Artagnan‘s youthful exuberance and hotbloodedness, and while Oliver Platt doesn’t really look big enough to be Porthos, he absolutely nails the swaggering, boastful, “I’m BFFs with the Queen of America” — no, that statement doesn’t make sense; yes, that’s the point — aspect of the character.
Also, he fights a ninja for reasons that are never made entirely clear…
To recap: bad adaptation, good historical(ish) action movie. Excellent way to pass an afternoon.
Copyright 2023 J.B. Norman. Adapted from a post originally written 2021.
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