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The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

by Amanda LaNier

The Count of Monte Cristo
(not to be confused with The Monte Cristo—a delicious sandwich) is a mainstream film loosely based on the historical novel by Alexandre Dumas. Set in early nineteenth century France, amidst the tumultuous time following the French Revolution, the movie is one full of action, adventure, and beautiful scenery.

The story commands attention with a twisted plot of betrayal, sacrifice and revenge. Not surprisingly though, connoisseurs of the book will find the movie leaves much to be desired. With the obvious budgetary and time constraints of a film, as well as the attitude of entertainment at all costs, the movie is less imaginative and complex than the book. As far as historical accuracy goes, the movie is correct in costume, music, dance and attitudes of the time period. The political situation concerning Napoleon and the fire raging through Europe at the thought of his return (no matter which persuasion one happened to be) is also accurately portrayed. These are well made representations of the book and reflect on the director’s attempt at historical accuracy. Still there are some faults of the film but those who wish to know the basic story and theme of the great novel or those who simply wish to be awed by the fantastic nature of it all will not be disappointed.

The movie opens with a small row -boat in dark water off the coast of the Island of Elba. The narrative caption tells that this is the same Elba in which Napoleon Bonaparte is held in exile by the British. Also told is that the captain of the Pharaon is sick and as a result, the second mate, Edmund Dantes has rowed the boat to the nearest shore, Elba, in hopes to have his captain treated Along for the trip from the main vessel is Dantes’ best friend, Fernand Mondego. After a misunderstanding, action ensues as the British attempt chase down the two men on the beach. Napoleon asks his British “protectors”/captors to spare the young men’s lives at least long enough for them to explain themselves. In the hours of that night, the captain is seen by Napoleon’s personal physician and as a result, Napoleon asks Dantes to deliver a letter (supposedly innocent) to someone in Marseilles, the port city to which the Pharaon is headed. Fernand, somewhat jealous that Napoleon wished to speak to Dantes alone, watches their every move from a window and sees the letter being handed over. This is the beginning of the motive for the actions that follow. Shortly after, the captain is pronounced dead and the two men must be on their way.

Upon arrival in Marseilles, Fernand heads off as Danglars, the first mate and Dantes meet with Morrell, the ship owner. In this meeting, Danglars angrily tells that Dantes disobeyed his orders and took the captain to shore. Dantes confesses that he thought he should do everything to help save the dying captain who was his friend as well as his superior. Morrell agrees, surpasses Danglars and promotes Dantes to captain of the Pharaon, a promotion Dantes did not expect for a few years. He rushes off to find his fiancé, Mercedes, and tell her the great news. In the meantime, Fernand has already found her and is asking for her hand. She refuses, professing her love for Dantes and this further infuriates Fernand. Dantes finds them, spends the night with Mercedes, and tells her of his promotion and his intention to marry her.

At this point, Danglars and Fernand, both angered at Dantes, happen to meet in a pub. They get drunk together, and Fernand tells Danglars about the letter. This sets Danglars’ mind into motion and he concocts an evil plan. The next night, during his betrothal dinner, Dantes is arrested and taken to the public prosecutor, Monsieur Villefort. Villefort questions Dantes and realizes his innocence, for Dantes knew not of the content of the letter. It was supposedly intended for a Bonapartist as means of helping Napoleon escape his captors. But Dantes could not read, told no one of the letter and is thus unaware of its content or seriousness. Villefort is about to let him go when he asks who the letter was for. Dantes replies, Monsieur Clarion and Villefort’s face changes completely. Villefort then requests that for the trouble he has caused, Dantes should be allowed to use Villefort’s carriage home instead of walking. Dantes accepts but once inside, realizes this is a prison carriage. He attempts to call out to Villefort to no avail. He has been deceived and does not understand why.

Once out of the carriage, he escapes for a short while and rides a horse to Fernand’s house thinking that he will help him out of the situation. Instead, Fernand tells Dantes that he will not help him, that he should go to prison because he is a man of noble birth and he should not wish to be “a clerk’s son.” This gives further insight to Fernand’s jealousy over all the happiness Dantes has while he, with many riches, is not happy at all. Dantes realizes Fernand is not his friend and gives up fighting, is rearrested and taken away.

Later, Dantes is taken to the Chateau D’If, an infamous prison for political prisoners. He is treated harshly by the warden, and whipped brutally upon his arrival. He stays in the prison for seven years, whipped and beaten on every anniversary of his arrival. He becomes so withdrawn and alone, on the verge of insanity that he attempts suicide, but cannot follow through. One day, he hears and sees the ground of his cell moving. Scared, he huddles in a corner as a man emerges from the dirt. It is the Abbe Faria, a fellow prisoner who miscalculated his attempted dig for escape from the prison. New found friends, they decide to dig together, and for the help, Priest will give Dantes the gift of knowledge.

Dantes is taught many languages, science, mathematics, history, philosophy and techniques of fighting. He also helps Dantes concoct the theory of why he was put into prison and how the jealousy of his so-called friends led him to this fate. With his new-found knowledge and skills, he vows revenge on those who wronged him. Faria tells Dantes of a hidden treasure that only he knows of, the Treasure of Sparta, hidden at the Isle of Monte Cristo. At first, Dantes doesn’t believe him but eventually comes to trust his word. Just as the tunnel is almost finished, Priest is hurt during digging and eventually dies of internal bleeding. The guards discover him, sew him in a burial sack and wait until time to get rid of the body. Dantes however, has a plan. He decides to put Priest in his own bed and sew himself in the sack. As a result, Dantes is taken out of the prison and thrown into the sea. As he is being thrown in, he reaches for the keys on the belt of the warden and inadvertently pulls him in as well. With the keys, he can unlock the chain tied to his ankles and swim to safety.

Upon the beach of a nearby island, he meets his new friends, pirates whom he joins in an attempt to get out of the area, as well as to learn some tricks of the trade. He makes close friends with Jacopo, a fellow pirate and as a result of Dantes’ saving his life; Jacopo is indebted to him for life. Dantes plots his revenge and waits until the perfect time to go with Jacopo to look for the treasure. They find it together, on the Isle of Monte Cristo and together start exacting Dantes’ revenge.

Dantes uses the money to buy a house, to learn of all rumors, and to throw a huge party announcing him as the Count of Monte Cristo. He, through acts of politics, fortune and deception (in collusion with his pirate friends), gains the trust of Villefort and wife, Fernand Mondego and his wife (who just happens to be Mercedes) and son (Albert), as well as other prominent social figures. He has aged quite a bit in his 13 or so years away, and since it was reported that he was executed, no one suspects that it is Dantes, except Mercedes. Unhappy in her marriage, she attempts to talk to the Count, but he refuses her, says she knows nothing. He is somewhat distracted by her though, and as a result cannot completely exact revenge upon her for marrying Fernand. Instead, he helps her save face in front of her son and family on his birthday, and eventually reveals his true identity after forcing her to tell why she married Fernand so soon after Dantes’ arrest. It is because of this that Dantes learns that Albert is actually his own son, not the son of Fernand.

Utilizing his financial resources, Dantes ruins Fernand financially, gets Danglars arrested for smuggling and forces Villefort to confess that he knowingly put an innocent man in jail. This enacts his revenge upon the key players in the story but he still feels he is missing something. Cornering Fernand in family’s former chateau which is now in ruins (obviously symbolizing the financial and familial ruin in Fernand’s life); Dantes attempts to duel with his adversary. Stopped by the brave Albert, who is attempting to defend the man he believes is his father, Dantes is taken aback. Mercedes is also there and confesses to Albert who his father is and in the confusion, Fernand shoots Mercedes in an attempt to hurt Dantes and Albert equally (he at this point knows Albert is not his son). In the field outside the chateau, Dantes and Fernand duel, with the death of Fernand ending the battle. The ending scene shows Dantes, Mercedes and Albert together visiting the Chateau D’If, walking away, and thus leaving all the pain and all of the past, behind them.

As mentioned earlier, although the main theme is maintained, many things differentiate the movie from the book. The movie does have great scenery, awesome acting, beautiful costumes and the basis of a great plot, but it still falls short. Characters, complexity and motivation are the key differences that can be noted in comparison. These differences stand alone but are also intertwined into the story together causing a thickening plot, complicated for even an accomplished reader and admittedly, too complicated for a movie.

The book has far more characters than presented in the movie and the characters’ lives, personalities, personal dialogue/motivation, are explored with further depth and more insight. In the book we are introduced to Caderousse (a somewhat unwitting conspirator of Danglars and Fernand), Danglars’ wife, Villeforts’ daughter, Villefort’s father, Albert’s close friends and a few other characters of note. The reader also given more information about the characters, the background of their lives, families, and what happened to them during the time of Dantes’ imprisonment, supposed death, and rebirth as the Count of Monte Cristo. The movie missed out on this key bit of information that would have made the story even more exciting for the viewer. Without the knowledge of the happenings, the foes of Dantes seem less evil, less due for vengeance, etc. However the book, giving us this insight, provides for a more formidable case, if you will, built on the side of Dantes basically justifying his vengeance to an extent.

Dumas weaves a tight and complex cloth of converging storylines that are too complex for a three hour film. All of these complex stories are the key to the intricacy of Dante’s revenge. The fact that Danglars’ wife was once in love with Villefort, who as a result buries the unborn illegitimate child of their affair, comes to play out and ruin Villefort politically. With this piece of information, the reader finds hatred for Villefort for actions that exceed his previous behavior in the imprisonment of Dantes. This further entangles the reader into the emotions of the story: something the movie simply does not accomplish.
This is just one example of Dantes using his foe’s personality traits, or reason for their betrayal of him as a method of his vengeance (i.e. Villefort punished Dantes to save face politically in the light of Clarion/Nortier, his father, as being a conspiring Bonapartist and as a result, Dantes punished him politically). Furthermore, in the book Dantes punishes Danglars because of and with the use of his greed for money and power. He doesn’t simply get him caught smuggling (as in the movie), he instead uses Danglars boasting of financial resources to take out a line of credit wherein Dantes (as the Count) draws Danglars dry and thus holds him unable to guarantee the credit of other financiers. This ruins him financially and forces him to flee, leaving his wife with her lover. Subsequently we find out another intriguing detail, that Madame Danglars’ lover was only with her for her husband’s fortune. Here Dumas shows human nature at its worst, noting that even those not outwardly conspiring against others, can have ulterior and evil motives.

One large character difference is the story portrayed in the film when Mercedes marries Fernand only one month after Dantes’ sentencing, supposedly because the night they spent together resulted in a pregnancy. She married Fernand in order to have herself and child taken care of, by him who thought he was the father. In the book, no such situation occurred, and as a result Albert was the true and legitimate son of Fernand but there is no mention of quick marriage in the book. Mercedes is unhappy in her marriage to Fernand, her former good friend, and is all the time pining for Dantes but Dantes still feels betrayed by her and as a result, never forgives her. This is another key element of difference. At the end of the movie Dantes, Albert and Mercedes essentially “ride off into the sunset,” making a happy Hollywood ending for the protagonist and his family. However, the novel leaves a much less appetizing ending with Mercedes committed to a convent, Albert in the military and Dantes and Haydee (former slave of Fernand) sailing off to elope. A not so nicely wrapped up and packaged ending, but the one that still maintains Dantes’ true emotion of vengeance and the feeling that his life cannot go back to the way it was before.
In addition to the vengeance enacted by Dantes against his betrayers, there is also much compassion and gratitude showed by the Dantes (as the Count) to his true friends. The Count gives money and inspiration to Morrell, who stood by him during his arrest and later (as told by Caderousse) by his father in the aftermath of Dantes’ execution. Dantes also sees true love blossoming between Villefort’s daughter, Valentine and a friend of Albert, Maximilien. He, however, tests their love for each other by giving Valentine a potion to appear dead and watching Maximilien’s reaction. When he sees that his mourning is true, he reunites the two and gives them a home. This shows compassion and that Dantes still believes in young love, and the passion between two people that cannot be stopped; He has not given up hope. But with this action he shows one huge theme of the book; that one cannot experience true bliss without first having suffered. He realizes that this is true in his own life, and as such, wants those around him who are worthy of happiness, to appreciate it completely. Hence, the scenario with Valentine and Maximilien and also the scenario which plays out with Morrell, in which he experiences horrible devastation and then the bliss of Dantes’ help.

Dantes also realizes towards the end of the book also, that he may have taken things to far. He comes to this understanding only after the innocent son of Villefort dies as a result of poisoning by his own mother. Dantes feels sorry that the innocent boy died as a result of his own actions. But here again, Dantes finds that he is just in his punishment of Villefort’s wife for her selfishness and greed. It is in this plot line that we see the true knowledge of Dantes, as learned from Abbe Faria (Priest in the movie) come out. He uses skills and knowledge of chemistry to make the poison which Madame Villefort uses to her own demise. He also uses chemistry to aid in the aforementioned fake death of Valentine. The movie does not show as much use of the gained knowledge as the book and does not show the complexity of Dantes’ thoughts during the plotting and execution of his revenge.

With all these examples, it is easy to see how much the movie left out. Characters, plot lines, background info, differ or are left out completely and more importantly the ending is changed. Having read the book as a required assignment in junior high, I gained insight into the great symbolism contained within and learned to appreciate the complex story, the intricate details and the intertwining of history the account. This insight to post-revolutionary French culture, history, etc. has proved a godsend in giving me a love and fascination of the time period; one that I later found out, my ancestors belonged to. The movie provided stunning visuals, some faces to characters unimagined and a happy ending, but it did not completely fill the expectation of this adoring fan of the book.

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