I have enjoyed various versions of The Count of Monte Cristo since I was in high school. It began, not with Dumas’s novel, but with an old movie version starring Richard Chamberlain. It was part of a double-feature one Friday night on TNT or TBS. My parents remembered it and recorded it (along with another favorite, The Scarlet Pimpernel). My father liked the sword-play and that is most of what I remember about Chamberlain’s version.
In college the University theater did a production of the story, adapted by one of the faculty. The student performers were joined by one professional actor, brought in to play Edmond. I went with a friend and we both fell for the actor at once. Going back stage to meet him was a thrill.
I hadn’t thought of the story for some time, until I came across the 2002 movie version. The cast list alone made me gape: Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris, James Frain, Luis Guzman, and Herny Cavill (with such a baby face you’ll hardly recognize him). How was this not a run-away hit? Somehow it wasn’t, but it is most definitely my favorite adaptation of the tale.
You probably know the story. Edmond Dantes is betrayed by his best friend, Fernand Mondego. He goes to prison for 13 years. His fiancee is told that he’s dead. His father hangs himself. His boss winds up swindled out of his business. Edmond, in the meantime, suffers beatings and near starvation. He also meets a fellow prisoner who, as they attempt to tunnel to freedom, teaches him to read and write, mathematics, economics, philosophy, and fighting. With his dying breath the man tells him where a treasure is. He urges him to use it for good, but Edmond says no, he will use it for his revenge.
In Dumas’s novel, the revenge plot becomes convoluted. Here it is simplified and straight forward. It is my favorite part of the tale. Edmond plays his enemies like violins, using their own greed and lust for power against them. He sets the traps but they enter them willingly. They bring about their own destruction. There is justice in what befalls them. Everything goes perfectly, save one thing. Mercedes, the woman Edmond was to marry, is not so easy to deal with. He wants to hate her. She married his best friend, the chief architect of all his suffering, and yet he cannot. His henchman urges him to take his treasure and Mercedes and to leave – to give up his revenge and go find happiness. Edmond refuses, at least at first. Here again we deviated from Dumas. Mercedes doesn’t slink away to live in a convent. She confronts Edmond, tells her side of the story, and he realizes that it will not enough to destroy the men who hurt him. He wants the chance at happiness with her.
In Dumas’s tale Edmond has a single-minded quest for revenge. In this film version, the story becomes about more than just pursuing revenge. Edmond lost his way in the prison, but in the end he is able to find it again. He started out on a quest for vengeance but in the end he finds a chance for redemption and he chooses that. Of course, Fernand being the petty man that he is, he can’t let Edmond go and there must be a final confrontation (with swords, naturally, because Dumas did write the original tale).
It’s a fun tale, with great visual spectacle, an amazing cast, and a highly satisfying conclusion. If you haven’t seen this version, I highly recommend it. As I said, it is my favorite. Besides, look at that cast!