Do bad books make better legends?

I’m watching the Three Musketeers on BBC1, and I can’t help reflecting on the fact that this is a story which has improved through time with multiple reworkings, some of them involving cartoon dogs, and others steampunk airships. There have been some pretty rough versions, but, by and large, every ten years there’s a new Three Musketeers, and it’s almost always watchable. The BBC is doing very well to get it into a second series, particularly with the departure of the Cardinal Richelieu for his new role as a Time Lord, but it’s by no means the first never-ending-series to come from the Musketeers stable.

The funny thing is, the book is really, really boring. I’ve read it twice, once in English, and once in French. Apart from an increased awareness of soupçon and its derivatives, I didn’t get a great deal out of it either time. Nonetheless, Dumas did rather well out of it, with sequels Twenty Years After (you can see where that one is going) and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, usually translated in part as ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’, which is set ten years after the Three Musketeers.

One of the book’s problems is that it’s an awful lot easier to do a compelling sword fight on television than it is in a book, and the other is that the TV and film versions have successively honed the story into something much tighter (at least some of the time) than Dumas did.

The Three Musketeers is not the only book to have benefited from dramatic reinterpretation. Mark Twain was in no doubt about his disdain for The Last of the Mohicans, as he sets out in J Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Excesses. Someone pointed out to me that many of the literary excesses that Twain took offense at are not actually in the original, and have benefited from exaggeration. Nonetheless, anyone who has seen any of the film or TV versions of The Last of the Mohicans will be disappointed by the book, which is long-winded, meandering, over-written, and nowhere near as seminal as reputation would make it.

I can’t work out which I dislike more: The Last of the Mohicans or The Three Musketeers. What I can say is that I absolutely love the Daniel Day Lewis film version, even though the surviving Mohican is a different character from in the book. Mohicans went through a number of evolutions in its film and TV versions, and the most recent film was based as much on the plots of the earlier films as it was on the book. It’s harder to trace the provenance of the Musketeers, but successive versions have reworked the book and clearly learned from each other.

Two bad books, two steadily improving series of film and TV versions.

Now, what about The Hobbit? One of the top ten selling works of fiction of all time, it is, in my opinion, one of the most perfectly written children’s books in English. As such, it’s quite different from the Lord of the Rings, which, although greater in scope and majestic in conception, and an even bigger seller than the Hobbit, is full of plot holes. I quite enjoyed the film version of the Lord of the Rings, and absolutely detested the trilogy of the Hobbit. I mean no disrespect to Sylvester McCoy, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage or Martin Freeman, nor even to Peter Jackson. My problem is that the Hobbit lives so powerfully in my imagination that any film would have had to get the tenor of the book exactly right to make it enjoyable for me. The Lord of the Rings films got the tenor of the book pretty much right. The Hobbit films retained the tenor of the Lord of the Rings, and thus missed the deft humour of the original.

Ursula K LeGuin was deeply disappointed by a cable TV version of A Wizard of Earthsea. Having seen it, and also the Studio Ghibli version, I understand why. Again, a near perfect book whose TV and film versions do it no justice.

This is by no means scientific (and why should it be?), but I’m beginning to think bad book -> great film goes hand in hand with great book -> bad film. But not quite. It’s the books which have been progressively reworked that end up being magnificent in film. There are lots of bad books which made bad films.

What interests me in all of this is that the process of reworking is surely similar to the reworking we see in legend and myth. We can track urban myths round the internet and see how they evolve. With Greek myth, progressively reworked through extant plays, we can also follow the development of extensive, multi-stranded myth.

Since the Renaissance, authorial ownership of story has been a crucial part of the work of writing. It’s enshrined in copyright and, today, even in trademarked characters. I sense that we have lost the reteller’s art. Copyright is no bad thing, but in an ever-increasingly connected world, I think the time has come for a movement of collaborative storytelling. These things are beginning in corners of the internet. Some of it has grown out of role-playing-games, and the results, such as the famously dreadful Eye of Argon, are sometimes laughably bad. However, the same is true for legendary stories: some of the less known King Arthur stories lack even the strength of narrative jokes. Nonetheless, these movements have to come from somewhere.

I look forward to seeing what these movements may bring.

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