Alexandre Dumas

Born - Jul 24, 1802   |   Died - Dec 5, 1870   |   Genres - Adventure

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Alexandre Dumas may well have been the most popular novelist of the 19th century; to be sure, along with Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, he stands among those 19th century novelists who retained their popularity best in the 20th century. His books, including The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask (which comprise only a small fraction of his fiction) continue to sell, as well as find a place on both the big and small screens.

Dumas' first theatrical works, written in conjunction with Adolphe de Leuven, dated from 1820 and 1821. With his first success on stage in 1829, the historical drama Henri III et sa cour, he started becoming widely known. He was involved with the Revolution of 1830, but it was primarily as an author that Dumas was recognized, through works such as Anthony (1831) and La Tour de Nesle (1832). As a novelist, Dumas didn't come fully into his own until 1844, with the publication of The Three Musketeers. One can safely say that the character of D'Artagnan was loosely based on his own background and family history, and perhaps his father's exploits as well, while his perceptions of friendship and loyalty as expressed in that book and its sequels, Twenty Years After (1845) and The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1848-1850), seemed to stem from the loyalties that people felt toward his father. The elder Dumas was clearly one of the key models for the character of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo (1845), which was not only successful as a book (with an English translation following a year later), but also as a play, adapted by Charles Fechter in 1848, with James O'Neill famously playing the lead. Those became Dumas' most popular works and they made him a wealthy man, though they were strongly disliked by literary critics of the day who, in their turn, loved his plays. He, thus, had a two-tiered career, loved by the public on several continents for one body of work and adored by the critics and intelligentsia at home for another.

Dumas' total output included hundreds of plays, novels, and stories, including rewrites of other authors' works (copyright was a very different matter in those days), among them The Nutcracker, based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, which he turned into a fairy tale that Tchaikovsky subsequently used as the source for his ballet of the same name. Outside of France, however, it was as an author of adventure stories that Dumas became one of the best known writers in the world after 1844. He never made any claims for the accuracy of the historical details in his stories, but they have become so well-known through retellings and screen adaptations over the ensuing 160 years, that most people's perceptions of such a genuine historical figure as Cardinal Richelieu are rooted in Dumas' The Three Musketeers, rather than in any actual biography of the 17th century nobleman and cleric. Richelieu has, thus, been consigned to that same odd corner of popular culture "villainy" occupied by such figures as England's Prince John and the composer Antonio Salieri, as represented, respectively, in the Robin Hood legends and the film Amadeus.

Dumas' books were also an influence on countless authors around the world, including Mark Twain, who emulated Dumas' brand of fiction in The Prince and the Pauper and japed at it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. More than 130 years after the author's death, phrases such as "One for all and all for one" are still almost universally understood and recognized from his stories of the Musketeers, thanks to numerous screen adaptations of their exploits. In the 1890s, more than 20 years after his death, Dumas' only real rival appeared on the literary scene in the guise of Anthony Hope, another author of adventure novels and plays, but this only served to extend the Dumas legacy.

Dumas died in 1870, long before the advent of motion pictures, but his fiction has served as the official basis for over 100 screen adaptations from 1898 through 2002 and beyond. Actors from Douglas Fairbanks Sr. to Leonardo DiCaprio have starred in film versions of his work. Among the dozens of movies based on Dumas' books, notable productions include Fred Niblo's 1921 silent version of The Three Musketeers, which established Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as a hero in costume adventure films; Edward Small's 1934 production of The Count of Monte Cristo, starring Robert Donat; the 1939 version of The Man in the Iron Mask, produced by Small and directed by James Whale, starring Louis Hayward; Edgar G. Ulmer's 1946 film The Wife of Monte Cristo, starring Lenore Aubert and Martin Kosleck, which may be the most interesting of the group for its mix of offbeat casting, rich portrayals, deep passion, moody atmosphere, and breezy pacing; George Sidney's 1948 MGM version (in Technicolor) of The Three Musketeers, starring Gene Kelly; RKO's 1951 At Sword's Point, directed by Lewis Allen, starring Cornel Wilde and Maureen O'Hara; and Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1975). The Small production of 1934, Ulmer's movie, and the two Lester films probably best captured the essence of the books, while the Lester movies veered a little too broadly between slapstick comedy and serious drama. Also worth seeing, as a burlesque of Dumas' work, is Bud Yorkin's Start the Revolution Without Me, which managed to parody every previous version of The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, etc. Dumas' son, also named Alexandre and usually referred to as Alexandre Dumas (fils) (1824-1895), was also a celebrated novelist and dramatist of the 19th century.