Reality Conditions

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sporking of The Three Musketeers, plus some reflections on beautiful children

Today I wanted to write something for the blog, but didn't know what. Maybe write my promised and long delayed third post on Kripkenstein? Or a review of Torretti's The philosophy of physics? I didn't feel too motivated for either of them. Fortunately I discovered that the expected sporking of Stephen Herek's The Three Musketeers has come at last, which provides me an opportunity to link to it, recommend you to go and read it for a laugh, quote a a few of my favorite bits, and make some serious reflections about the film, the book, and Alexandre Dumas. Done already the first two of these four things, next comes the quoting:

Richelieu: Homesick, Your Majesty? You seem a little unhappy in your new home.

fourth_rose: Erm, didn't they just say they're on the brink of fighting England? So we're in 1627...

cutecoati: ...and King Louis XIII and Queen Anne have been married for twelve years!

Queen: Wah, I'm loooooooonely!

Richelieu: Austria's loss is France's gain.

cutecoati: Ok, guys, some facts. Her name is Anne of Austria because she's a Habsburg and therefore a member of the Casa de Austria, the House of Austria, but she's from the Spanish line, the daughter of King Philip III of Spain. Therefore, if anyone lost her, it would be Spain, not
Austria – apart from the fact that neither country gave a damn about marrying off another princess.

fourth_rose: Besides, if she really were Austrian, she shouldn't be homesick at all right now because she's standing in the Imperial Castle of Vienna in this scene. In a part that hadn't
been built yet in 1627, but still.

Richelieu: You have bigger problems, boy. The Duke of Buckingham is about to attack La Rochelle!

fourth_rose: Of all the places they could have picked, they took the one city that had an alliance with Buckingham.

cutecoati: Well, I guess they read something about the siege of La Rochelle in the novel, and they got the alliances backwards somehow.

King: *ogles queen* *blushes*

cutecoati: *sighs*


Constance: I'm sooo in love with a guy whom I saw acting like a complete idiot just once!

Queen: Tell me about it, I'm sooooooo in love with my dumbass of a husband!

fourth_rose: A-ha. Who are you and what have you done with Anne of Austria who couldn't stand her husband?

Rochefort: I killed your father.

fourth_rose: Thanks, everyone got it at this point.

cutecoati: That's the foyer of the Vienna State Opera, isn't it?

fourth_rose: With all this overdone 19th century decoration, it definitely is.

OK, now the serious reflections.

When I said a couple of weeks ago that I was expecting with glee the sporking of this "awful" movie, my suspicious friend reacted defending it in the comments. In a conversation we had afterwards, he made clear that his point was that a movie should be judged just by itself, and not by comparison to (and fidelity to) its historical or literary sources. Perhaps he is right in that if I hadn't read the book nor knew about it, and just saw the movie as an ordinary adventure film, I could enjoy it and not find it awful. And so perhaps my judging of the movie as a horrible corruption is not sound on aesthetic principles. However...

It seems to me that if a film deliberately presents itself to us as being an adaptation of a novel, particularly one with the cultural resonance of The Three Musketeers, it is in a way inviting us to do this kind of comparison. It is conditioning our view of it, and there is no way we can shake off our previous knowledge and get a "pure", "intrinsic" appreciation of it: seeing Richelieu as ally to the Duke of Buckingham and the Queen in love with the King brings an inevitable jolt of cognitive dissonance; "this is NOT how it is!". Even if we try hard to not see the movie in the light of the book, we will see it mediated by unconscious expectations, cultural influences and dozens of mental factors we are not aware of; a "pure" viewing is simply not possible. Rather than trying it, then, I think is better to live with our prejudices, and be as fair as we can while acknowledging them.

Of course that the mere fact that the plot from the book has been changed does not count against the movie. However, the fact that the plot has been changed in (artistically) unnecesary ways, to make it more silly, stupid and "flat", does count against the movie, and it counts against it more than a similarly stupid plot would count against an ordinary adventure movie not based on a better book. One could argue against my position that the original novel takes itself a lot of liberties with the historical record, so if inaccuracy is an aesthetic fault I should decry it in that case as well. This is answered by quoting the memorable words of Dumas, when he was accused of "raping History" in his novels; he famously replied: "True, I rape her; but I make her beautiful children." And this is it: the children produced by Dumas were much more beautiful than their mother, while those produced by Herek are much uglier than her. Rape becomes an unforgivable crime in this case.

And how beautiful were the children Dumas produced! Building up from partial records of little-known historical figures, he created a complete mythology with replaces reality and continues to enchant readers all over the world. Athos, Porthos, Aramis, d'Artagnan and Milady (and the diamond jewels!), had all a real basis, but an utterly uninteresting one, with the possible exception of d'Artagnan. But the swashbuckling, romantic, rich and colourful world that Dumas made up in his novel and its two sequels Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne defines our vision of 17th century France, at least for those of us who aren't professional historians, almost as much as Tolkien's works define our vision of Middle Earth. The only comparisons I can think of are Conan Doyle defining for us what we understand by "detective" or Stevenson defining what we understand by "pirate". Not coincidentally, the three are authors I loved as a child, and have grown up to love more and more.


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