In addition to its one thousand pages of text, Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” is a daunting work for many reasons. Dumas’ novel is also difficult to imitate–and much more so to adapt– because of its breadth of subject. The novel parades the virtues and the vices in one nearly mythological man’s quest for revenge, all against a textured historical backdrop.
Kevin Reynolds’ film adaptation of the work manages to swashbuckle its way through the novel, paring down Dumas’ spectrum of emotion to an easy-to-swallow trifle of an adventure film. But in doing so Reynolds shreds significant spans of the novel to bits. He liberally supplements and alters the original plot where it is unnecessary and, for time’s sake, speeds through the exact elements that gave the novel such scope.
The basic story of “The Count of Monte Cristo” is simple enough to relate, at least as Reynolds tells it. Edmund Dantes (the somewhat dry James Caviezel), a na•ve, happy-go-lucky sailor finds himself betrayed by his closest friend Fernando Mondego (Guy Pearce), who capitalizes on a treasonous letter that Dantes unknowingly carried. After 13 years of imprisonment, Dantes begins to exact a slow revenge on his antagonists, including Mercedes, his former fiance. But of course, this is the Cliffs’ Notes version of the book.
The intricacies of the original novel’s plot are innumerable. Perhaps the reason there are over a dozen adaptations of the work is that it is so hard to pin down in two hours. The coincidences, twists, turns and serendipitous circumstances reach soap opera levels of disbelief.
Because it is highly improbable that a film of normal length could contain so much, the events lend themselves to melodrama. They must be skimmed, and without any emotional and circumstantial context, they seem haphazardly fabricated and sloppily sewn together.
But Reynolds goes one step further, actually elaborating on a plot that needed no elaboration. The original work provides a rich historical context, but Reynolds feels the need to make Napoleon Bonaparte an actual character, who exchanges words with the lowly Dantes.
Not only is this segment not in the novel, but it makes absolutely no dramatic difference in the film. In fact, if the film had stuck to the Dumas plot, it would have created more complexity in its characters: Dantes would not still be trusting but he wouldn’t be a fool, while Mondego would be more inventive in his conspiracy.
Reynolds and first-time screenwriter Jay Wolpert make Mondego a disgruntled heir, who is jealous of impoverished Dantes’ persistent cheer. Dumas’ Mondego is poor, and climbs his way to Count status, demonstrating not only the mobility of Parisian society but also Mondego’s conniving, ambitious nature. Pearce makes do in a Joaquin Phoenix sort of way–the powerful but sniveling evildoer–and becomes a conveniently one-dimensional villain. Reynolds misses a big opportunity here, just to throw in a simplistic wealth-is-spiritual-poverty type theme.
Reynolds does make other extremely liberal alterations, including dramatic confrontations and love stories, which must be concessions to impatient film audiences. And certainly we must grant all adaptations some leniency to interpret the novel as they wish. These kind of additions should improve the film instead of diminishing and distracting from the film’s impact.
Reynolds’ other adaptive choices are not so condemnable, but they still raise the question of whether he wished to loyally adapt Dumas or to create a spectacle akin to another of his films, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Panned as it was, “Robin Hood” did have a charming sense of adventure. Similarly, “Monte Cristo” lives up to our fantasies of the past without going much further into the depth of Dumas’ work. The party scenes are splendorous, the costumes tangibly posh, and the swordfights suitably clanging (and shot from a dramatic aerial view).
But if Reynolds wanted to capture Dumas’ work, he has failed. While “The Count of Monte Cristo” may be a decent adventure picture, Reynolds and Wolpert’s adaptive choices make it a poor likeness of the novel. Their additions are unimportant, and consequently they have to speed through the bulk of Dumas’ work. We sense none of Dantes’ simmering revenge and immense patienc –his ten-year vengeance seems to pass in weeks. The quickness of the revenge cheapens it, and Cavaziel can only barely demonstrate Dantes’ internal conflict between committing good deeds and enacting vengeance.
The mystery of the film, again, is whether Reynolds wanted a true adaptation. He seems to offer many concessions to Dumas, such as maintaining the revenge focus and making love a secondary theme. However, his additions, and his misplaced emphasis on the first one hundred pages of the novel–which take Dantes in and out of prison–make the bulk of that revenge seem too simple and diminish the complexity of the characters and their conspiracies.