Why Won't 'The Three Musketeers' Go Away?

The new 3D flick adapts the same classic as Charlie Sheen, six silent films, and Barbie

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If you've never read The Three Musketeers—the masterful 1844 swashbuckler by Alexandre Dumas—stop reading this article now and pick up a copy. It's only 560 pages. I'll wait.

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Now, wouldn't that make a great movie?

Hollywood certainly thinks so. There's no shortage of Three Musketeers adaptations already available on screen, but an enterprising studio executive realized—woe of woes—that none of those adaptations were in 3D. Friday sees the release of The Three Musketeers: In 3D, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (notable, unfortunately, as the mastermind behind the Resident Evil film franchise) and starring Logan Lerman and Milla Jovovich. Based on the film's trailer, we can expect plenty of swords and explosions flying toward the screen. And—perhaps needless to say—very little that truly resembles Dumas' original story.

Has there ever been a story more beloved (and more abused) by filmmakers than The Three Musketeers? The Three Musketeers is so irresistible as a cinematic property that it was adapted for the big screen six different times before movies had sound. And even now—more than 150 years after its original serialized publication—the novel's popularity with filmmakers has never abated; since 1900, every decade has seen at least one new version of The Three Musketeers on film or television.

What is it about The Three Musketeers that continues to inspire each new generation of filmmakers? Of the many, many versions released, the best is probably a 1973 American adaptation helmed by Richard Lester (who originally sought the four Beatles to play d'Artagnan and the three musketeers). Lester's long, original cut of The Three Musketeers was eventually split into two films, with The Four Musketeers continuing the story a year later. They're far from perfect films, but taken as a whole, The Three/Four Musketeers is a reasonably faithful retelling of Dumas's original story.

Since 1900, every decade has seen at least one new version on film or television

But Lester's adaptations are the exception, not the rule. When looking at the long arc of The Three Musketeers remakes, it's impossible not to notice how many end up veering radically from the source material. For filmmakers, adapting The Three Musketeers is a little like a Rorschach test: They look at the source material and see what they want to see. And then they make a movie out of it.

The most famous contemporary version of The Three Musketeers was released by Disney in 1993—an action-packed, almost impossibly dopey movie that takes massive liberties with both the source material and French history. Screenwriter David Loughery and director Stephen Herek transformed The Three Musketeers into a tailor-made vehicle for 1993's hottest young stars: Chris O'Donnell, Charlie Sheen, and Kiefer Sutherland. (It was a strange time). The changes made to Dumas' original story aren't quite as offensive as giving The Scarlet Letter a happy ending or turning Gulliver's Travels into 85 minutes of fart jokes, but it's safe to say that if he were alive, Dumas would hardly recognize 1993's The Three Musketeers as an adaptation of his work.

Naturally, 1993's The Three Musketeers was a massive hit for Disney. But viewed today, it's fascinating primarily as a cultural relic—the kind of film that, in many ways, could only have been made in 1993. There's the aforementioned hyper-'90s cast, which also includes such where-are-they-nows? as Rebecca De Mornay and Tim Curry. There are so many wonderfully awful one-liners in the film that it would take an entirely separate article to list them all (OK, just one—Tim Curry's Cardinal Richelieu: "All for one, and more for me!"). It even, inevitably, features a ballad by Bryan Adams—the No. 1 hit song "All For Love," which somehow only qualifies as the second-most irritating ballad Bryan Adams wrote for an early-'90s adventure film (see: "Everything I Do" from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which continues to plague high-school proms across the nation).

But anyone interested in diving into the long, strange history of Three Musketeers adaptations can do better than a by-the-numbers blockbuster. Indeed, the most fascinating thing about cinema's long love affair with The Three Musketeers isn't the sheer number of adaptations. It's the sheer breadth of them. Would you rather see d'Artagnan and company's story as a three-part Russian musical? You can. Or a version that stars Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy? Knock yourself out. What about a long-running cartoon series that transforms all the characters into anthropomorphic dogs? Allow me to introduce Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds.

The list goes on and on, getting stranger and stranger. There's an episode of the Jonas Brothers' Jonas: L.A. built around a theatrical production ofThe Three Musketeers. And a recent direct-to-DVD version of the story stars none other than a creepily animated version of Mattel's Barbie, and makes the musketeers into Barbie-proportioned women (which somehow seems simultaneously pro and anti-feminist).

Maybe the real tribute to Dumas's original story is its sheer adaptability. Every generation gets its Three Musketeers, from the French silent of the 1920s to the bombastic 3D version we're getting today. All for one and one for all, indeed.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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