Long time readers may recall that I really liked the 2006 film V for Vendetta (if you haven’t seen it, you really should). V’s inspiration is Edmond Dantes, the hero of The Count of Monte Cristo and he repeatedly watches the 1934 black and white film with Robert Donat in the title role. You can see that scene here and it made me want to read the book and see that film.
I recently read the book since it was on the iPad that was loaned to me. The novel by Alexandre Dumas, creator of The Three Musketeers, is a classic adventure story centered on the themes of love and revenge. Set in France in the period just after Napoleon had been deposed from power for the first time and is plotting his comeback, Edmond Dantes is a worthy young sailor of humble origins whose merits are recognized by his employer and promoted to captain of his ship at a very early age. He is also betrothed to the beautiful but poor orphan Mercedes.
On the eve of their wedding in his hometown of Marseilles, the apolitical Dantes is framed as being a Bonapartist conspirator by Mercedes’ cousin Mondego, who is Dantes’ rival for her affections, and Danglars, Dantes’ second-in-command of the ship, who is jealous of his promotion over him. These two send an anonymous letter implicating Dantes to the ambitious local magistrate Villefort. The ‘evidence’ against Dantes also implicates Villefort’s father so, in order to protect himself and further his own career, Villefort summarily consigns Dantes without even a trial to solitary confinement in the prison dungeon at the Chateau d’If. (When reading this I thought of places like Guantanamo and the treatment of Bradley Manning. It is depressing how little has changed.)
The bewildered Dantes has no idea why he is being treated this way and becomes increasingly despondent and bitter as the days in his damp and dark dungeon stretch into months and years. After eight years he makes contact with Abbe Faria, a highly educated monk, who is in another dungeon cell and whose attempts to tunnel out take him by mistake to Dantes’s cell. They become friends and for the next six years they try to tunnel out together while the Abbe tutors him so that he receives a much better education than what even a nobleman would receive. More crucially, the Abbe is able to figure out and tell the naïve Dantes who the people are who are responsible for his plight and their motives.
But then the old Abbe dies but before he does so reveals to Dantes the location of a great fortune that has been hidden on the rocky island of Monte Cristo in the Mediterranean. Dantes uses the Abbe’s death to carry out a daring escape and find the treasure and becomes an extraordinarily wealthy man. He creates a luxurious home on the island and acquires the title of the Count of Monte Cristo.
In the intervening years all three of Dantes’s enemies had prospered and moved to Paris. Mondego had married Mercedes and become a count, Danglars had become a wealthy banker, and Villefort had risen to the post of the king’s attorney. All of them moved in the same high social circles.
Dantes, as the Count of Monte Cristo, decides to use his newfound wealth and power to plot revenge on his enemies. He also moves to Paris and his great wealth and personal magnetism take the city’s elites by storm. Physically changed by the harshness of his long captivity, this mysterious newcomer is not recognized by his enemies. Only Mercedes recognizes him but does not reveal her knowledge even to Dantes.
The playing out of his plan constitutes the major part of the book. The book is a great read in the old-fashioned storytelling sense and is a page-turner. As soon as you encounter them, you know if a character is good or bad so one has no doubt about whom to root for. The plot is Dickensian in that it is full of surprises and consists of different story threads that intertwine. There are many improbable coincidences and characters who briefly appear early on suddenly reappear later, and relationships suddenly emerge between characters whom one thought were unrelated.
Such a complicated plot has to necessarily be trimmed to become a film. A lot of characters and sub-plots and story threads are eliminated, several characters are combined into one, and some relationships are altered. There have been many film adaptations, two of them in English. The 1934 version, which I saw after reading the book, is praised as being the most faithful adaptation but even there they take what seem to me to be unnecessary liberties. I did not see, but did read the plot of, the 2002 remake and they seem to have changed the story even more. You can see the entire 1934 film on YouTube, part 1 of which is below.
In making these adaptations, the film loses much of the richness and complexity of the book. What bothers me are those changes that are made not to simplify the complicated story (which I can sympathize with) but also to eliminate some of the darker elements of the book and to replace the book’s bittersweet ending with a more formulaic one. Part of the book’s message that is lost in the film version is that some injustices cannot be avenged, some things are irretrievably lost, some things cannot be made whole, and that Dantes’s’ single minded focus on revenge and his remorseless quest to destroy his enemies can result in incidental cruelty to others.
I can’t think of when I have seen a film adaption of a great book that was as good as the book. The closest that comes to mind is David Lean’s 1946 version of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations with those two wonderful actors John Mills and Alec Guinness.
Maybe I should just stop comparing them.