They say revenge is a dish best served cold. It may take months or even years for the revenge to occur, but when it is enacted, there will be surprises aplenty. Revenge, vengeance, and retribution are common themes in works of art. From short stories, novels, movies, television shows, and the age-old plays that have enchanted audiences for centuries, the thirst for getting even never gets old. One of the most infamous stories of revenge is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the French novel first published in 1844. The story involves a man who was wrongfully imprisoned. After making his escape, he comes into a massive fortune. He thus creates a new identity to reenter society under this new guise to fool his enemies and exact the retribution he so desires. A classic tale that has been adapted countless times and remains one of Dumas’ famous works right next to The Three Musketeers.
The Count of Monte Cristo has been adapted for the big screen numerous times, with the debut film dating back to a silent 1908 feature film that starred Hobart Bosworth as Edmond Dantes, the wrongfully imprisoned man hellbent on revenge. Since then, the story has seen multiple iterations that include television shows. The very first debut in 1956, and while most versions of the story are a very loose adaptation of the original story, the heart of it all remains. Last month, on January 25th, the most recent film adaptation marked its 20th anniversary. The Count of Monte Cristo starred Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris, and Dagmara Dominczyk.
So, with the endless supply of adaptations available to choose from, what makes this 2002 film worth considering? What are the key differences between the movie and the novel? And, why does revisiting the swashbuckler genre feel so exciting?
As said before, most versions that have been made are loose adaptations of the original novel, and this 2002 feature-length film is no different. The movie opens with Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) and his friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) landing on the shores of Elba, the very island that Napoleon Bonaparte is exiled on. Both men have landed on the shore to seek medical attention after the Captain of their ship has caught brain fever. After making their presence known to the British soldiers who are patrolling the shores, a brief fight ensues, but the exiled leader himself spares both men’s lives.
In exchange for assisting their Captain, Napoleon requests a favor from Dantes. He delivers a letter to an old friend once they return to Marseille, France. Edmond agrees, and after their Captain dies on Elba, the men are free to leave. Once back in Marseille, Edmond is relieved to see his girlfriend Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) and is named Captain of his ship, the Pharaon, after his bravery in seeking medical attention for his sick Captain. Much to the dismay of his first mate, Danglars (Albie Woodington) becomes enraged at this new promotion.
With such great news sitting at the feet of Dantes, he is swept up at the moment and wishes to marry Mercedes even if he doesn’t have the money to afford a ring. Mercedes and Edmond have known each other since they were kids, and even though they are in love with each other, Fernand is jealous of their romance, and with his constant need to consume alcohol, his so-called friendship with Edmond is on the brink of collapse. It’s revealed that Fernand witnessed the letter exchange between Edmond and Napolean, and after consulting with Danglars, a plot is hatched to get rid of Edmond and seek fortunes for themselves.
Edmond is later arrested for treason after the letter’s contents are reported to the authorities. Edmond himself never opened the letter, nor is he able to read the letter as he’s illiterate. After a meeting with the Chief Magistrate Villefort (James Frain), it appears that Edmond is going to be released and set free, but everything changes when Edmond names who the letter was supposed to be delivered to; a Mr. Clarion, who is a Bonapartist and happens to be Villefort’s father. Edmond is then arrested and is about to be taken to the infamous prison named Chateau d’If but narrowly escapes and retreats to Fernand’s residence for assistance. There he learns the truth and is arrested and carted off to prison.
For the next thirteen years, Edmond is locked away in prison and is forgotten by the rest of the world. He knows of his innocence, and after six years of being alone, a strange man enters his prison cell that will forever change his life. A prisoner named Abbe Faria (Richard Harris) attempts to escape the Chateau by digging under the concrete slabs and just happens to enter Edmond’s cell. This man gives new hope to Edmond as they hatch a plan to escape their chains and set themselves free. Both men have a lot in common, with one being that they were wrongfully imprisoned. Faria teaches Edmond everything in education, economics, reading and writing, and even combat skills. A friendship becomes beneficial to the young Edmond as he ages in prison.
During one of their study sessions, Edmond tells Faria the circumstances of why he was imprisoned, and after their conversation, he learns the full context of why he was betrayed. This fills his mind with revenge, and in seeking retribution for life stolen from him, Edmond is eager to escape and start his life anew. What follows is a daring escape, and an opportunity arises for Edmond when Faria gives him a map of where to find the fabled treasure that is hidden on the island of Montecristo. After successfully escaping the Chateau d’If, Edmond is free at last and encounters a group of smugglers who offer him a deal. He is to fight one of their smugglers, and if he wins, he will join the ranks with the smugglers, and if he loses, he will be dead.
Choosing to skip the remainder of the plot details, I’ll just rush through the following few parts. Edmond and his new friend Jacopa (Luis Guzman) find the treasure, and it’s here that Edmond changes his identity and forms The Count of Monte Cristo, a wealthy man who is well-educated and has a way of mingling with the elites where he travels. A total of 16 years has passed since Edmond was arrested, and from this point on, Edmond hatches his plan to exact revenge on those who wronged him long ago. He learns that his long-lost love Mercedes married Fernand and has a son named Albert (Henry Cavill).
The remainder of the film details Edmond’s plans to rob those of everything, the very same that was done to him. You can guess what happens next, but it’s more impressive to see it for yourself than for me to write about it.
Kevin Reynolds directed the Count of Monte Cristo, and his vision perfectly brings us back to the early to the mid-19th century. The set designs are wonderful to gaze upon, and even the dialogue feels appropriate to the times. What’s fascinating about the film is seeing the stark transition of young Edmond to the calm, calculating Count of Monte Cristo. He has such a complicated plan that the movie seems not to allow the audience to get deeply involved in his devious plan. The majority of the film focuses on the disastrous life that Edmond is forced to live with, while the second half feels empty and leaves us wanting more.
It’s a minor complaint that deeply separates from the novel on which this movie is based. Watching a time-period film is one of my favorite genres because we are given a chance to be transported to another time. In speaking of that, what are the major differences between the novel and the movie?
Differences between the novel and movie
Let’s list some of the major differences present in the film. This isn’t to say that the film is any less than the novel as the movie works on its terms, but, in all honesty, the movie could’ve benefitted from an extended runtime by expanding the planning and execution of Edmond’s revenge.
- Mercedes and Edmond never get back together as they do in the movie.
- Edmond doesn’t get tortured while imprisoned at the Château d’If.
- Fernand commits suicide once the truth is revealed.
- Edmond and Fernand are just mere acquaintances instead of best friends, as the movie suggests.
- The plot to exact revenge is a large plot of the book, whereas it feels like a tacked-on subplot that doesn’t get enough screen time to make a profound impact.
- Albert Mondego is the actual son of Fernand, and not the son of Edmond, as told in the movie.
All in all, The Count of Monte Cristo is a joyous adventure movie that pays homage to the 1844 novel. Screenwriter Jay Wolpert admitted to vastly condensing the novel and making it more of a love story to satisfy audiences who venture to see the movie. The movie does offer sweeping landscapes, a love story that we all can enjoy, and action that makes us revel with anticipation when Edmond seeks his revenge. Anytime the movies can bring us back to the swashbuckler times, we are in for a good time. Just look at the massive success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Even still, The Count of Monte Cristo is a wonderful adventure movie that should’ve been longer and more expansive, but the result is nothing less than pure entertainment. While Jim Caviezel achieved international popularity in The Passion of the Christ, this is one role that he perfectly sinks into. It being 20 years later, The Count of Monte Cristo is a story that will continue to be told for future generations. We love the story of Edmond Dantes and will always stand behind him when we see him again.