Let’s talk about the Count of Monte Cristo (original French: Le Comte de Monte-Cristo).
There is perhaps no more definitive story of revenge in all of literature. First written in 1884 by Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo has been adapted into newer books, television, movies, and even an anime about vampires… really. My first interaction with the work came about ten years ago, with the 2002 film adaptation starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pierce. As such, while I could talk about the book on its own – I will tackle the two together. The Count of Monte Cristo, how I discovered it and how it was originally made.
For starters, I should say right now that I enjoy both of these. The 2002 movie adaptation stays fairly true to the source material, but with the clear consolidations that come in adapting a 500-page book into a two-hour movie. Unfortunately, most of those cutbacks come to the titular Count’s revenge plot.
For those who don’t know, The Count of Monte Cristo follows Edmond Dantès… and his sad, sad, miserable life. When the book/movie starts – everything is looking up! He’s advancing in his career and is engaged to a beautiful woman, Mercédès. Do we know much else about her? Not really, this was written in 1884 after all.
Very shortly into both book and movie, he is betrayed and falsely imprisoned for many years. During his incarceration, he learns of an incredible treasure that he uses, upon his escape, to unleash full fury on all those who have wronged him. You know – the typical jail story.
Okay, so there’s three main differences between movie and book – let’s talk about the first one now. In the book, Edmond is betrayed largely by three individuals – these are all strangers that he has limited relationships with (the closest being a coworker). In the 2002 film, one of the conspirators – Fernand Mondego – is elevated to the role of Edmond’s best friend. In the book, he is little more than a rival suitor, trying to win the hand of his cousin, Mercédès (you read that right).
This revision of Mondego’s character creates some issues for the movie, as he is still presented as a self-serving jackass. This leads the audience to naturally question: “Why was this guy, THIS GUY, Edmond’s best friend?” Like it makes it odd that Edmond never saw Mondego’s chief motivations, as they are largely on display. Now perhaps, before the movie started, Mondego was much better at hiding his weasel-y nature… but no one can realistically judge a movie on what may have happened before the cameras started rolling. As is – it is a change that sounds appealing, but ultimately could have been implemented better.
The second change to mention is Mercédès. As I said, in the book she is described as a beauty… and not much else. She has dark hair… that’s a thing. It also, according to my modern delicate sensibilities, strikes me as a little unfair how she is treated. In the book, once Edmond gets out – keep in mind, he’s been in jail for like, 19 years – he goes at once in search of his father. Tragically, Dantès senior has passed away. Edmond next inquires about his beloved.
According to the book, Mercédès: stayed with Edmond’s father until he died, mourned Edmond for years, heard he was executed, then finally (again want to stress that years have passed) moves on and marries Mondego – having no knowledge of his involvement in the betrayal. To this, Edmond simply concludes: “frailty, thy name is woman!”
Dude – that’s harsh. There’s love and there’s fanaticism, and Edmond clearly wanted a zealot to his love. Then again, many people in this book are prone to suicide (at least suicidal thoughts) at the loss of a loved one, so at least it kinda fits the world.
Mercédès in the film, by contrast, marries Mondego immediately after Edmond’s imprisonment. This gives Edmond’s rage a lot more credibility. I mean, pretty understandable to be ticked that she moved on so quickly. That she moved onto his best friend turned betrayer is salt on the wound.
That said (spoiler alert), Mercédès is given more agency in the film. See, she too has a plan. In the film, she is pregnant with Edmond’s son at the time of his arrest. So, being a smart woman and knowing how well unmarried mothers do in the 1800’s raising a child – she tricks Mondego into marrying her, thus giving unknowingly giving his fortune to Edmond’s son. Clever girl. Is it more convoluted than the book – a little, but it’s one new plot twist that I don’t mind.
The last change to mention is the most important. The nature of revenge is different between the two. In the film, it’s all very neat. Edmond gets punished – Edmond takes vengeance – and only those directly responsible suffer. At the end, Edmond is back to his old self and finally ready to lead a normal life.
The book presents a far harsher view on revenge, how it affects not only the people be revenged on, but the revenge…er, that’s definitely not a word. Anyway, Edmond’s plan is far bloodier in the book. I believe he is indirectly responsible for the deaths of at least seven people, many of whom never really wronged him. They just happened to be part of the wrong family at the wrong time.
Edmond is seen as a man consumed by rage and hate, unable to even live among people once his plan has been carried out. There is no “happily ever after” for him in the book – not really. His only hope at the end is to sail away from everything and (nearly) everyone he’s ever known or loved.
It is this thorough exploration of every aspect of revenge that makes the book a classic, while restricting the film to merely being enjoyable.