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Classics Reissued: TheThree Musketeers

The Three Musketeers

By Alexander Dumas (translated by Richard Pevear)

Penguin Classics, 2011

In October a troika of production companies coagulate to bring out yet another movie version of Alexander Dumas’ unsinkable classic, The Three Musketeers, and Penguin Classics has wasted no time in re-issuing its paperback of the book, now festooned with a movie poster on its cover (temporarily replacing the one by Tom Gauld that has to rank as the single oddest cover this much-covered book has ever had). The new movie was filmed in Bavaria and stars three Englishmen as our French musketeers and young American Logan Lerman as Gascon dreamboat d’Artagnan. Lerman stands a robust 4 foot 9 inches in his stocking feet and weighs 115 pounds after a big meal, and since he smokes five packs of cigarettes a day, he can’t climb a steep flight of stairs without horking up a lump of lung, and yet this is his second stab at being the action-hero of a novel adaptation (in 2010 he starred in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, with less than stellar results) – and now it’s the big time, the role of d’Artagnan having kept busy some of Hollywood’s greatest B-movie actors for over a century.

The new movie also stars Orlando Bloom as the villainous Duke of Buckingham (his ten-inch pompadour is rumored to have its own agent), Milla Jovovich as Lady de’Winter (now with new and improved stop-action ninja fighting skills), and Christoph Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu (he’s been contracted to play every single movie villain for the rest of time). The movie trailers flooding the Internet feature frantically jump-cut action-sequences, black-clad assassins firing steam-punk machine-guns, and a fleet of ominous canon-firing dirigibles, so the first person who’ll walk out of the premiere will probably by the ghost of Dumas himself, muttering “ces batards…”

That sloshing, syphilitic old ghost will have a point. His book (using harried, underpaid, and sometimes physically beaten collaborators, he wrote almost 300 of them, including the equally-splendid The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo, but this one has out-sold all the rest combined), featuring the drolly-recounted adventures of the aforementioned D’Artagnan in the company of musketeers Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, hasn’t lost a single particle of its power to entertain. Readers of this re-issued Penguin paperback will discover what millions have discovered before them: Dumas’ combination of wry humor and honest, breakneck pacing keeps the pages turning like no other novel in the world. No dirigibles need apply.

The translation here is by Richard Pevear, whose name may be familiar to some readers as one-half of the translating team that’s been serially desecrating the Russian classics for the past twenty years. Massachusetts-born University of Iowa-vet Pevear has been industriously turning these finished masterpieces into dot-and-dash rough drafts in collaboration with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky, but it’s a solo performance in this Three Musketeers translation, and it’s marvelous: sharp, witty, and more faithful to Dumas’ hurtling pace than any other English translation (although it should be stated that Dumas in the original is enough fun to justify the three days necessary to learn the French language). Penguin is to be commended for so optimistically re-issuing it.

It’s probably misplaced optimism, and it springs from a mind-frame diametrically opposite to the one guiding the new movie. Wire-fights and super-ninjas (all in 3-D, of course, to the tune of 200 million dollars) imply as loudly as possible that poor old Dumas needs all the help he can get if he’s going to entertain a modern audience, yet here’s Penguin Classics pumping out even more copies of the 160-year-old original book in the transparent hope of getting at least a few people to read it.

Let’s hope it works, because the book deserves it and always will. It will excite, thrill, and amuse you. Those are all things that could likely be said of this new movie, but the book will also enchant you, and if you find yourself enchanted by a Dolby-augmented 3-D special effects extravaganza, a prankster has slipped something illicit into your popcorn.