The Three Musketeers has always been a popular choice for film adaptations. After all what’s not to love about a swashbuckling tale about intrigue, friendship and love? So every few years Musketeer-fans can enjoy a new take on Dumas’s classic as film, TV-series, animated tale or as musical; ranging from versions that follow the book closely enough to have taken dialogue-lines from it to those that take not much more than the characters from the book and send them to new adventures.
Directors can be forgiven if they decide not to keep to close to the book as that can easily lead to troubles. The obvious one is the length. An over 800 page long novel is hard to fit into one film and most who did in fact adapt the whole book and not only the first part (ending with the return of the diamond needles) did it in two or even three parts.
Another, less obvious, problem getting the mood right. Most of the films are comedies and it is true that the book has hilarious parts: d’Artagnan getting challenged to three duels in a day or Athos getting knocked out by a tree-branch while on horseback. But it can also get incredibly dark at times: several characters meet quite a grizzly end (sadly basically all the female ones), especially Athos is in fact a broken character, haunted by his past and during the siege of La Rochelle one character questions the point of the whole war by asking why it is a crime worth dying for that their opponents say their prayers in French instead of Latin.
That is not easy to translate on screen so perhaps you can’t really fault directors for not even trying and turning it straight-up in a comedy.
There are dozens of versions so I won’t be able to cover all of them but here are at least some of the more popular ones:
The Three Musketeers (1973) & The Four Musketeers (1974), US/UK
For a long time the ultimate version. It tells the whole book in two parts. The first ends with the return of the Diamond Needles and focusses on the light-hearted side of things with many of the fighting-scenes bordering on slapstick. Athos isn’t defeated by a tree but by a windmill and especially d’Artagnan gets some of the most glorious stunt-scenes, involving washing lines, ladders and much more.
The second part is somewhat darker but still does not lose its humour. Both contain a lot of shirtless Michael York scenes (of course all of them highly relevant for the plot). The Musketeers also have actual muskets in this version. You would not believe how rare an occurrence that is.
It’s the first Musketeer-adaptation I saw and so it will probably always have a special place in my heart, despite (or perhaps because) of all the silliness.
д’Артаньян и три мушкетёра (D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers) (1978), USSR
A musical-comedy mini-series in three parts. Everybody is singing almost constantly (at one point even a horse). Porthos is wearing a hair-bow, Aramis sings about his crisis of faith because God is against duels but he is so good at it, Aramis and Porthos stare dreamily in each other’s eyes a lot, Athos has absolutely no concept of personal space, especially when it comes to d’Artagnan. D’Artagnan, by the way, is portrayed by a 30-year-old man (Mikhail Boyarsky, who also plays Lestrade in the new Russian Holmes films) but the script says he is 18 so acts like a rash teenager who almost challenges a guy to a duel because he did not like d’Artagnan’s hat. (Of course Michael York was also 30 when he played the role but the 73/74-version doesn’t even try to convince the viewer that he is younger). The cardinal is the best kind of moustache-twirling villain though sadly has no cat, so he has to stroke his black dog instead.
I was completely sober while watching the series and I did not make any of this up.
The Three Musketeers (1993), US/AUS
For films like this the description very loosely based on the book is used. Among other things they apparently decided that the viewers would not be able to cope with Queen Anne actually having a love-affair with Buckingham (GASP!) so she is pure as snow and faithful to her husband and it’s just an evil plot by the cardinal and Mylady to descredit her. Also at the beginning of film d’Artagnan’s father gets murdered and he turns into Inigo Montoya for the rest of the film.
At least the soundtrack is nice and Tim Curry makes a glorious Cardinal Richelieu.
The Man in The Iron Mask (1998), US
Based – again very, very, very loosely – on The Vicomte de Bragelonne, the final part of Dumas’s trilogy. Historians probably cry a lot while watching this film (to be fair, historical accuracy isn’t high on the priority list of any of the adaptations but this one is extra-special). The cast must have had some sort of bet going on about who can find the most creative way to pronounce d’Artagnan because there’s no other explanation for the fact that not even Gérard Depardieu manages to get it right. All the characters seem constantly amazed at how long their hair is and don’t quite know how to deal with this. Also Jeremy Irons is a great ‘I don’t give a shit about anything anymore’-Aramis.
It’s all very cheesy but the ending is somewhat less depressing than in the book.
3 Musketiers (3 Musketeers) (2003), NL
A musical in which focusses a lot on the relationship between Mylady and Athos and makes Mylady in a much more complex character than most of the other adaptations (actually she’s also a lot more complex than in the book). There is a lot of exploration of complex religious topics through the medium of song.
There is a German version of it which didn’t just translate the songs but also added some more. Mylady got a really awesome one:
Yes, you could probably re-name this musical Mylady. I have no problem with this.
The Three Musketeers (2011), UK/US/FRA/GER
Possibly the first version in which d’Artagnan as actually played by a teenager which is great. It also stars Christopher Waltz (as hilariously genre-savy villain Richelieu ) and Mads Mikkelsen and the scenery is really beautiful (I have to mention the scenery every time I talk about this film, OK?) so it all should at least make for some amusing 90 minutes of entertainment but alas it fails. Mylady appears more like a sulky teenager than a world-class assassin and Aramis gives out parking tickets which is simply not funny.
It’s also one of the few versions that includes Planchet, the servant, and makes him the butt of almost every joke the Musketeers make. While they certainly also teased him in the books there was never any doubt that they appreciated him and what he did for them, in the film the mocking lacks any warmth and borders on abuse. Even after he saved their lives he can’t catch a break…because apparently the fact that he is slightly overweight (and possibly has a crush on d’Artagnan) is a perfectly valid reason to bully him, right?
All For One indeed.
Три мушкетера (Three Musketeers) (2013), RU
A quite literal adaptation with gloriously choreographed fighting-scenes with every cliché in the book: walking up walls (or trees) and backfliping behind the attacker, fighting with two swords at once, fighting on horseback…everything you could wish for. D’Artagnan does most of these stunts because he is a much better fighter than the three (in fact the film vaguely suggests that after having seen him fight the cardinal’s guards they don’t call of the duels with him out of gratitude but because they’re not sure if they could win). That’s rather surprising considering in the first scenes where we see him back home he does very little fighting and a lot of reciting love poetry to women and running away when the husband comes back home early.
It runs just a little under two hours but contains the whole book which makes it all appear very rushed.
(Sadly nobody sings in this version)
The Musketeers (2014), UK
A BBC-series that, despite also not following the book-plot very closely, manages to capture the whole ‘this is a very silly but also very sad story’ really well. Though on occasions the change from one to the other is very abrupt. For example in the third episode we switch from hilarious chase-scene to discussion of the horrors of slavery in a matter of seconds (as an homage to Dumas’s father in this version Porthos is the son of a freed slave).
In one interview Tom Burke (Athos) also pointed out that it’s not only a story about friendship but also co-dependency which is a great observation and very well done in the series. On their own each of those men would probably be lost and every episode shows that.
I am not saying that the show is perfect (so far we still need a guest-character who survives an episode and we already had a completely unnecessary attempted-rape-for-the-sake-of-drama scene) but it’s an adaptation that did make my remember again why I fell in love with the book.
My knowledge of animated versions is sadly lacking. I haven’t watched any of them (not even Barbie and the Three Musketeers which, I have been told, is a massive oversight and should be changed as soon as possible).