Friday, 13 December 2013

Adults and adultery: Cleaning up Dumas onscreen.

Some time ago, I watched the recent film of The Three Musketeers. The one with the airships.

If that wasn't a big enough deviation from common sense, I then watched 1993 Disney version and promptly choked on my own boiling spleen. This blog article has been over a year in the writing, mostly because trying to work on it it causes me to start spewing blood before I collapse, shivering, in a corner in some literary form of post traumatic stress syndrome.

Oh, I wish I were joking.

It did not look like this.
Before anyone points out that a movie is not the same thing as a novel, I'll clarify; I wasn't expecting it to look exactly like the novel. Films and books are different art-forms, with different requirements. For example, in the novel, the fight between the Musketeers and the Cardinal's Guards is three against five. In these circumstances, D'Artagnan's offer of assistance brings a realistic chance of victory while still showing the Musketeers as superior fighters - four against five: more than plausible. In a film, though, that wouldn't look so hot, so I was fully expecting improbably large numbers of the Cardinal's guards and one heck of a sword fight. That's fair enough. In the same way, I'd hardly expect screen minutes to be wasted explaining the fact D'Artagnan had to serve out the equivalent of an apprenticeship in another regiment because the Musketeers isn't open to raw recruits. Alright, maybe it was going a bit far to disband them entirely, but we'll run with that, shall we? In movies, we do exposition differently.

And then the characters. Again, I knew there would be some drift. I get it, I honestly do. You want a sympathetic Athos, not an alcoholic psychopath. And, yeah, Richelieu needs to be a plain-dealing-villain, not an anti-hero politician trying to do what he thinks is best for France... Sure, we lose a lot of depth, but we also cut the need for a lot of exposition.

I can handle all that. Really. I can. It makes me itch, it makes me mutter, sometimes it elicits a scornful laugh or two, but it comes up every time I watch a film adaptation of a book I happen to love. It does not reduce me to putting my head into my hands and whimpering, “Make it stop, please, kill me. Kill me now.”

It does not make me get the fucking novel out and start shouting quotations at the television.

So what was the problem, then?

...or indeed an appropriate prize for Bible study.
And I will answer you, oh my dear hypothetical ideal and obliging reader, Sex is what bothered me. Well, sex and Milady.

Now, if I take a very deep breath, I suppose I can blame a lot of this on the persistent misconception that The Three Musketeers is somehow a children's novel. *breathes out* In a children's novel, it would unacceptable for D'Artagnan to screw Milady's maid (literally) in order to get into Milady's bedroom and essentially rape the woman herself. No. In a children's novel, D'Artagnan would have to find a much more innocuous way of seeing the naked shoulder of his nemesis. Even better, that puts our shiny little hero in the clear, doesn't it? Gets rid of some more of the troublesome moral overtones.

But Dumas... Dumas is much better writer than that. He wasn't afraid to show things being morally dubious. He was willing to show a bunch of heroes who are not particularly nice chaps. In the novel, all they do is drink, swagger, waste money and get laid. What makes the book so damned good is that I can detest the whole pack of 'em, and still appreciate their honour when it comes to each other, still respect their bravery. They are actual characters, not just the strong-jawed , golden haired embodiments of Christian virtue (or hard-drinkin', hard-talkin' bad-ass-ness, depending on your personal poison.) Athos – the same Athos who tells D'Artagnan that raping Milady was not the action of a gentleman - hanged his apparently beloved wife before even trying to get her side of the story. Porthos' treatment of his 'countess' is execrable and Aramis? Oh, I really hate Aramis.

And, because The Three Musketeers is not a children's book, tidying up the sex actually necessitates an entire rewrite of Dumas' plot, because The Three Musketeers is, essentially, about the consequences of a handful of blokes trying to get their end away with women who happen to be married to someone else.
Actually, let me revise that: Dumas pรจre's entire understanding of French History is about the consequences of attempting to get one's end away with someone else's wife. The whole book – every exposition, every character development, every single bloody beat of the plot is caused by intrigues and cuckoldry and people getting their legs over in places they really shouldn't be doing so. 

Seriously, without Anne of Austria weren't fucking Buckingham, it doesn't work. Dumas'1 reasoning behind Richelieu hating Buckingham so much is that he (Buckingham) is getting a piece of it2, and he (Richelieu) has been rejected.

But no, we can't be having that. One cannot sympathise with an adulteress - even if her husband is a weak willed, abusive piece of shit - therefore Anne of Austria becomes the passive recipient of Buckingham's ardour and Richelieu's lechery3. When these men aren't fighting over her, what we see that, really, the one she actually loves is Louis. After all, how could we possibly root for a woman who didn't love her husband?


Anyhow, while we're on the subject of driving the plot, how the hell is D'Artagnan supposed to get involved with girlfriend Constance if she doesn't have a husband who gets a bit concerned when she goes missing? 

Wait, no, that would mean BAD NAUGHTY ADULTERY and this is a CHILDREN'S FILM. Release Constance from that historically probable May-December marriage to a stooge, elevate her romance from groping in alleyways to a chivalric portrayal of adoration from afar. Breathe safely again! What's more, as we've already extracted that troublesome D'Artagnan- Milady thing, we can do this with a straight face.

Thank you, moral guardians! We don't mind that,  in addition to losing her married status, Constance goes from being lower-middle class, intelligent, daring and brunette, to being passive, beautiful, blonde and  the Lady-in-Waiting to the fucking Queen. I'll go one further, thank you. Thank you for reminding us that one must love neither one's social inferior nor one's neighbour's4 wife.

(If you were wondering whether she died at the end, she doesn't. Quelle surprise.)

and while we're on the subject...

Let's talk about Milday Clarick.
We all love Milady, right? In the film, she gets to fight and everything! Such a strong female character. 

In the novel, she is a mystery that bombs in from a sub-plot to hi-jack the entire narrative, snatching the POV for the entire climactic scenes from our so-called heroes, managing to terrify both the villain and the writer before getting killed off so that her sheer blinding awesome stops distracting the reader's attention away from what is supposed to be happening. 

...and said, "Stop distracting us!"
Okay, Milady is a femme fatal5 but she's not just a femme fatal. She's smart, resourceful and as tough as old boots. She does not forgive and she does not forget. She starts off being a nun, marries twice for financial gain, without even bother to check if her previous husband is actually dead. She then kills her second husband. She can, seemingly, drive any man utterly batshit crazy6 with desire, yet chooses her lovers carefully. She survives being branded and being hanged. She is sneaky and effective and even Richelieu is scared of her. It takes ten men to kill her, in the end.

 But she is not unsympathetic. She may be evil, but she's not repulsive - either morally or emotionally. What she does she does to survive, or because it's her mission, or because someone has done her an injury7. Female, poor, (perhaps a younger daughter) she snatches the upper class, male privilege of being able to chose her own destiny.  Poisoner, bigamist, spy, her death reduces even her avenging victims to tears.  We love Milady, just as D'Artangan loved Milady, as Athos loved Milady, as Felton loved Milady. Sometimes it does us good to love things which are terribly bad for us.

If I didn't love her enough already, she turns the book – the whole damned book – into a farce about how powerful men are tremblingly insecure about female sexuality. I won't go so far as to say The Three Musketeers is a feminist text because, well, it isn't. For all the admiration in the broad strokes, Dumas couldn't paint her as anything other than the baddie.

But what Milady does is it leaves that door just a little bit ajar, leaves that space for the faintest breeze of uncertainty to creep through. Her triumph is to prompt thoughts, to ask questions. Why the hell should Constance Bonacieux be married to that cowardly old fart, anyway? She's clever and loyal and politically minded. Why shouldn't she have a dashing chevalier?

And these men have mistresses left, right and centre, so why shouldn't Anne of Austria have a little bit of solace in her loveless marriage? Why shouldn't her husband's elite troupes spend their energies charging back and forth, concealing her indiscretions? 

And why shouldn't Milady use her looks, her intelligence, her brains to play all those male fantasies about female helplessness to achieve her political ends. Alright, Milady needs to lose because she's an unscrupulous murderer, but she ends up – even the characters know this – getting killed because she is a woman who unsettled the patriarchal order just that little bit too far.

But of course, we can't be having that. All that depth, all that complexity of emotion, all that intelligence and inventiveness and manipulation vanish. Too much. Let's just give her a handful of combat skills, an “it's-complicated” marriage to Athos. Let's kill her off with a little self-sacrifice which assures us it really was her husband that she loved all along. Let's make her strong and put her back firmly in that box.

Spare me. Just... spare me.

Offended? My carte blanche.
1Okay, rather implausible.
2Way to go objectifying women. But you see my point.
3Yeah, they kept that. Because he's a BAD MAN.
4Or, indeed, Landlord's, wife.
5She is the femme fatal
6 I don't use that word lightly. She induces a 'no thought for life, limb, vengeance or self-hood' kind of state.
7And in a novel of romance, those are about the best reasons going.

1 comment:

  1. So I guess I'll be reading The Three Musketeers next.