Essay on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas - Personal Revenge or Divine Retribution
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas-Pere
The Count of Monte Cristo is a serialized novel that has been adapted many, many times. It is often seen as a classic tale of revenge in which a young, promising and innocent youth is wrongly imprisoned for life. He spends decades in prison training his mind and body with the help of another inmate who was also wrongly incarcerated. When Edmund escapes the island prison, he delivers retribution to all three of the conspirators that locked him up in the first place.
It's very easy to label this as a revenge story and move on., but I will endeavor to show how the notion of revenge in the original work by Dumas had far greater spiritual implications than most of the tv and film adaptations we are exposed to. I'll be looking specifically at the 1975 TV movie directed by Al Greene (Rich Man, Poor Man / Roots) because it's the first version I ever saw and it is pretty representative of the tendency adaptations have of getting hung up on the personal side of this revenge instead of focusing on Dantes' transformation from innocent young man to a tool of divine justice.
However, at the same time that Greene succeeds in retaining this clear division of character between Danglars and Dantes, he fails to preserve the role of Fernand or Caderousse. Dumas has Fernand fleshed out as an impetuous Catalan who only avoids murdering Dantes because of Mercedes' wishes. He is full of a passionate hatred for the virtuous Dantes who has managed to woo Mercedes. In the film, Fernand plays a minimal role. Greene keeps the bar scene where the three conspirators work against Edmund but aside from an isolated outbreak, Fernand seems more gloomy than impetuous. He is not the covetous and impassioned individual found in the novel and his grossly immoral actions seem less realistic when they are revealed later in the novel.
Furthermore, Dumas' Caderousse is remarkable in that he stands to gain nothing concrete from Edmund's downfall. While Danglars wishes to be a captain and Fernand wants to clear the way to Mercedes, Caderousse simply dislikes the fortunate protagonist. His crime is one of complacency. While the other two conspire to frame Edmund, Caderousse sits and watches in both the book and the film. Although he plays no direct part in writing the letter of accusation and he expresses some concern over the legitimacy of this act, he fails to turn in the conspirators. The film captures this moment perfectly, but it is undermined by how Greene chooses to introduce the characters. While Dumas was satisfied making Caderousse a jealous neighbor, Greene introduces him as a thief and common criminal who was captured on board the ship. While this alternate origin for Caderousse might make more sense to an audience, it removes the very element that made his complicity so scandalous. Caderousse should turn in the other two men since he has nothing to gain from this act of evil, but he sits by to see Edmund fall. This change is important because Greene presents Caderousse as a man who was caught stealing by Dantes which distracts the reader from the immorality of his inaction.
Another change from the novel is that nearly everybody who will play a part in this story seems to be standing at the dock awaiting Dantes' return in the first scene of the movie. While this is dramatic and a little silly, it places an incredible focus on the relationship between Edmund and Mercedes who receive thunderous applause from the gathered crowd as they embrace, elevated above all the rest very theatrically. While the overplaying of the relationship between Edmund and Mercedes might be the downfall of every adaptation I have seen of the Count of Monte Cristo, I think this is an accurate way to begin the film. At the beginning of the story, Mercedes is very much the focus of his life along with his father and his love of the sea. Greene stays truthful to this beginning modus operandi for Dantes who speaks in his own defense at the allegations of being a political extremist by saying, "All I know is my work. I love the sea. I love my fiancé. I love my father. These are my affinities; if they are political, then they are, as you say, sir, extremist." Edmund, at the beginning of the story, is a boy who knows only an unadulterated love for his father, wife-to-be and his hard work. He is a morally upstanding young man who is so innocent and free of sin that he cannot even fathom the dark deeds that surround him in this time of intrigue.
This scene where Dantes speaks to Villefort about his love of sea, father and fiancé is another stunning success of the adaptation. It follows a striking shot where an unnamed government official, with his back to the camera, points accusingly at Dantes, his hand taking up a large portion of the screen, and tells him of the warrant for his arrest. Dantes, faced with a legal official of the king, is honest and cooperative. He even reluctantly turns over a letter that the deceased captain made him swear to deliver. Interestingly, Greene removes Edmund's direct dealings with Napoleon from the story. Not only does this save some time in the movie, it also serves to make Dantes more innocent than his literary counterpart, if that is even possible. After establishing Edmund's innocence, de Villefort, the prosecutor, is about to release the young man. However, when de Villefort learns of his own father's implication in this Bonapartiste plot, he changes his mind and imprisons Dantes in the Chateau d'If. This portrayal of de Villefort as a dastardly political animal willing to hurt anybody to protect his own career is accurate and compelling. Richard Chamberlain exhibits an epic level of purity and innocence across the screen from Louis Jourdan's villainous de Villefort which is especially remarkable since Jourdan was cast in the role of Edmund Dantes only fourteen years earlier. In the last few scenes before Edmund is put in his cell, Greene highlights the extreme cruelty of the prosecutor who pretends to be Edmund's ally while sending him to one of the worst fates imaginable for our protagonist and later points a gun at his own father.
When Dantes is first imprisoned, in both the book and the movie, he is completely unaware of the circumstances leading to his arrest. He fails to understand how he could possibly be intended for the Chateau d'If since he has committed no crime and the prosecutor himself told him that he would be released in time for his wedding. While serving his lifetime sentence in the prison, Dantes would shed this innocence which practically defined his character upon his arrival. His last words as Edmund Dantes might have been, "At least take a letter...to my wife. What have I done? What is my crime?" He pauses briefly as he remembers Mercedes and the camera performs a dramatic zoom, again showing that Dantes is driven by his innocent love for those close to him.
While the film seems to capture the important plot elements of Dantes' prison term, a few key changes change the entire meaning of this part of Dantes' life. In the novel, he is in the process of killing himself-the first sin he even considers committing-when a deus ex machine saves him. The appearance of Abbe Faria is a not-so-subtle form of divine intervention in Edmund's life. Faria reinstills hope within Dantes, educating him and giving him the promise of freedom. All the resources, thoughts and plans come from Abbe Faria in the novel. In the movie, Faria loses hope upon finding that he has miscalculated and it is Dantes who designs new plans for escape. This is a major change that prevents viewers from seeing Dantes as a lost sheep. He was not about to kill himself and he still has some spirit in him.
At one point, Faria and Dantes use deductive logic to discover what circumstances could have led to his unjust imprisonment. After this realization, Greene depicts Dantes as driven and includes a voiceover from the Abbe-one of the few voiceovers that does not belong to Dantes-in which he expresses some concern over the boy's new obsession. Dantes is shown tunneling through the prison walls repeating the names of his accusers and prosecutor as he violently chips away at the stone. While Dumas had Dantes change in a similar fashion, his version of Dantes was on a quest for divine justice. The Dantes depicted in the film adaptation is on a personal quest for vengeance which happens to be righteous.
The film's transformation is striking and Richard Chamberlain is an imposing figure as the hardened Count of Monte Cristo, but this transformation has its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to maintaining the integrity of Dumas' message. It seems like the Dantes in Dumas' story has already changed a great deal because of his time in captivity and his new divine mission whereas the Dantes in Greene's adaptation is still very vulnerable. Dumas' version finds the will to swim to a nearby island while Greene's gets lodged on some driftwood. Dumas shows Dantes lying to the smugglers who find him whereas Greene has them simply sympathetic to a stranded stranger who can help them navigate.
Then, to finally find the treasure, Edmund lies again to the smugglers. Feigning an injury so that he can stay on the island and seek out the fortune, Edmund becomes the Count of Monte Cristo alone. In the movie, he goes to the island with them, and they simply wait for him outside while he finds the treasure. This change, like the omission of Dantes' suicide, reflects Greene's desire to keep the Count relatively free of any morally questionable actions, but the point of the novel is that Edmund has really been replaced by the Count of Monte Cristo. He is a tool of divine justice by this point in the book, and if he has to lie to smugglers in order to successfully dole out what is right, that is something he can do.
Upon finding the treasure, the film shows him making two very important vows that are absent from the novel. He vows to Abbe Faria, "Dear priest, dear saint, I promise you by the god I have so long forsaken...there will be a flood of good things in a hundred abandoned corners of the earth and all in your name." This promise is never fulfilled in the movie since Greene's version of the Count of Monte Cristo becomes rather obsessed with pursuing his second vow in which he promises, "Edmund Dantes, imprisoned at the prime of life, banished from the world for fourteen years, I promise you shall have your revenge." The burning hatred in Chamberlain's eyes could have conveyed his plans without the addition of this vow, but his words make it clear that he will exact a personal revenge.
Dumas uses Edmund Dantes as a tool of some sense of justice that is imposed from a greater power. Dantes rewards those who were loyal to him such as Morrel and he punishes those who caused his turmoil. Greene loses sight of the fact that the Count of Monte Cristo was bound to exact revenge in the pursuit of justice. He was not breaking his word to the Abbe by pursuing this course of action; he was fulfilling it. Important proof of this lies in the particular punishments of each criminal. He does not try to expose the three conspirators and his prosecutor for framing him so many years ago. Nor does he choose to simply kill these men. The Count spends several years uncovering the secret wrongs of these men and their weaknesses in order to afford each of them an appropriate and ironic end which is a result of the very traits that put them at odds with Edmund Dantes. And when given the opportunity, he actually questions Caderousse about the nature of God and Providence.
As he stands over the first victim of his revenge, Caderousse, the Count begins to ask if the man believes in God or Providence. They argue for some time about its existence before he leans over and reveals his true identity to the criminal. Upon this revelation, the man shouts out that he does believe in God. This is clearly lacking from the film in which Caderousse is simply killed when the Count arranges what seems like a chance encounter between him a criminal who he once crossed paths with. Furthermore, this is one of the many moments in the novel when the Count is disguised as Abbe Busino, a persona that further enforces the image of him acting in God's will. It seems clear that Dumas has the Count on a mission of divine justice while Greene depicts him on an elaborate personal vendetta.
Furthermore, the cases in which the Count rewards those who are good have been dropped from the film entirely, losing a significant theme of the novel. This furthers the idea that the Count of Monte Cristo is just Edmund Dantes out for revenge. In the novel, the Count acts as the hand of god, protecting Valentine from her wicked mother's attempts to poison her, saving Morrel from certain financial failure, and allowing for Morrel's son to marry Valentine. These are good acts which reward deserving people, and the way in which the Count executes this charity enforces a notion of divine justice. He puts Morrel, Morrel's son and Valentine through a series of trials before finally bestowing his divine bounty upon them. This encourages a sense of divine intervention in their minds as well.
This is what Dumas seems like he was trying to convey when he wrote Le Comte de Monte Cristo. He wanted to portray how a man's life could become devoted entirely to carrying out what he saw as just and the will of God. When the film ends with Mercedes leaving a disappointed Count of Monte Cristo, it does a disservice to the novel. Surely, it's already good that Greene avoids changing the story so that the Count and Mercedes live happily ever after-an act that might have been influenced by Greene's own seven divorcesbut-but the story should not end on the ruptured relationship between Edmund and Mercedes. The movie never shows the Count returning to the Isle of Monte Cristo which is a key moment in the novel that allows him to put the persona of the Count to rest and go back to being Edmund Dantes. While the adaptation maintains a remarkable amount of the plot of the novel, key changes and the way Dantes' actions are presented result in a lot of the meaning of the books being lost. Dumas wrote an excellent novel about how much a man's life can change as he becomes the hand of Providence and Greene made an excellent movie about revenge, but a true adaptation of Dumas' work would remain faithful to the themes of justice and Providence. It is surely possible to avoid the changes and keep on the topic of divine justice, but it remains to be done.
How this applies to revenge in general
There are different kinds of justice. In the original novel, Edmund Dantes is totally possessed as he becomes a tool for divine justice whereas most of the film adaptations make his lifestory into a tale of personal justice.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on how the novel or movies have portrayed revenge to you.