Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher

The Count of Monte Cristo

I just watched the 6-hour Gerard Depardieu version of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO over four nights, and I think I maybe found some useful lessons there. The special power of the story lies in the way that Edmond Dantes remakes himself as a machine for vengeance and then reappears to engage with his enemies, none of whom shares the audience’s knowledge of who he really is.

It’s an enormous story hook and it never fails – it was the structural model for one of the best science fiction novels I ever read, Alfred Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION. Put a mask on him, and he’s Batman. Flip it around to the enemies’ point of view and it’s Friedrich Durrenmatt’s THE VISIT.

It’s all about vengeance as a whole-life strategy, and the effect of its complex pressures and conflicts on the avenger. You wouldn’t want to be the Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes tells one of his confidantes – he’s a cold-hearted bastard who knows no happiness. I’d much rather be Edmond Dantes again, but they took that away.

In the 2002 Kevin Reynolds movie (which I liked a lot, by the way), the final answer to it all is a Hollywood sword fight. Good guy fights better than bad guy. But in this more resonant version he has a more subtle and complex revenge. He shames one enemy and drives him to suicide, puts another one into a personal hell by making him face the truth behind his family values, and finally finds his way back to being Edmond Dantes again by showing mercy to the last (albeit after ruining him financially).

It’s far from perfect. The first time we see Dantes, it’s as a prisoner of eighteen years’ standing. He kicks away the thin gruel he’s given and insists that he doesn’t want food, he wants to die. But Depardieu looks more like a man who’s eaten all his cellmates. Nose-and-wig disguises and melodramatic subterfuges that may work on the page don’t work on the screen. And Dantes’ ultimate reconciliation with his old love doesn’t ring true and is, apparently, a significant divergence from the book.

But it felt like six hours well spent. And quite a bargain, too – the version I bought had a copy of the novel boxed in with the discs.

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3 responses to “The Count of Monte Cristo”

  1. I really liked this too – though the bit where he applies a false nose (when he plays a priest, if memory serves?) seemed slightly as if Depardieu was about to play Cyrano de Bergerac once again (not that I’d mind – that, too, is a great version of the original source material).
    I think the only problem lies in that, even at 6 hours or whatever, a lot of the crafty planning (especially the financial side of things) is lost, which is a shame, as in the novel it makes Dantes’ revenge seem all the more well-planned and vicious.

  2. I thought I’d tackle the novel straight away but it really is too much and too soon… I’ll need to let the viewing recede a little.

    Fascinating introduction, though, about the setup and economics of serialised newspaper fiction in mid-century France.

  3. If it’s the Wordsworth edition which comes with the DVDs, it might be a slightly older translation than the one I read, which was a Penguin edition with a tie-in cover to the Reynolds film, so had a different introduction, though I know a little about its serialisation.
    As I recall, he farmed out some of the work to other writers in the way that James Patterson does today!