Reading: The Count of Monte Cristo

Reading: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is one of my favorite stories of all time. I was first introduced to this 1844 novel via the 2002 movie with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce. It’s an incredible story of love, revenge, justice, and ultimately, mercy.

I had never read the full novel, though I think I read an abridged version in college at some point, as parts of the book this time around rang as familiar while others were completely new. I was unaware, however, that Dumas got the idea from another story, by Jacques Peuchet, published in 1838, and that Abbe Faria, the prisoner who helps him escape, actually existed in 1819. Once again, nothing is new under the sun, eh?

The book varies from the film in a couple key areas. Several of them lie in the Château d’If, which is a real place that can still be visited today. In the book, Edmond Dantes, our hero, is imprisoned there, and thrown in the deepest dungeon cells, as fate would have it, next to Abbe Faria, a man everyone thinks is crazy for claiming to know where a treasure is buried. In the book, the two meet after Faria burrows a tunnel into Dantes’s cell, but upon arrival discovers it’s no better escaping from that cell than his. They then accept their fate, become friends, and Dantes educates himself with Faria, as they wait for the opportune moment to escape. However, in the movie, much is added to Dantes’s sentence, including a thrashing that occurs every year on the anniversary of his stay, so at least he knows how long he’s been imprisoned. Also, Faria and Dantes continue their tunneling, in attempts to escape beyond the walls, though in the end the escape occurs just as it does in the book, after Faria’s death. In the movie, when he escapes, he also grabs the keys off the man who’s been thrashing him and pulls him down into the water with him, killing him there. 

After he escapes, he is picked up by a band of smugglers, one of whom is Jacopo, who he beats in a fight in the film, but then spares his life, which makes Jacopo swear to be his man forever. He even helps Dantes dig up the treasure of Monte Cristo. In the book, Jacopo is merely another sailor who befriends Dantes, and Dantes does not share the location of his wealth with him.

Another difference comes in all the convoluted ways in which Dantes, as the Count of Monte Cristo, takes his revenge on each person who wronged him. He never lifts his own hand, and never openly causes problems for any of them. Instead, he quietly manipulates them, using each of their own sins against them. There are also a few rather modern parts to this book written in the earlier part of the 19th century, including a crippled old man in a wheelchair (to the point of being like Stephen Hawking, unable to speak except through his eyes), an experiment with litmus paper, and strychnine poisoning.

Another key manner in which the book and film differ is in the list of characters. There are far more people involved in Dantes’s plot of revenge in the book. So very many moving pieces that he must keep in motion in order for his plan to carry itself out fully. For example, in the book, he has a slave, Haydée, for a lover, instead of keeping himself for Mercedes and ending rejoined with her like in the movie. Haydée also plays a part in his revenge, as the death of her father and her resulting in being sold into slavery was done by the hand of Fernand de Morcerf, the man who marries Mercedes, Dantes’s fiancee. Albert de Morcerf, the son of Mercedes, has far more friends in the book, and at times they all play a part. There are far more people indebted to Dantes and his many aliases, and it is a much longer timeline for his plotted revenge after his escape from the Château d’If. There are also more star-crossed lovers in the book, and in the end, they all manage to marry the one they love, which seems to be an almost accidental, but fortunate, byproduct of Dantes’s revenge plot.

The three men ultimately responsible for Dantes’s fate remain the same in both the novel and the movie: Fernand Mondego (cousin and lover of Mercedes), Danglars (junior officer under Dantes when he’s first mate), and Gérard de Villefort (chief deputy prosecutor). However, in the book, there are additionally a couple others whose fate Dantes decides, as well as a few he rewards for their loyalty. In the movie, Dantes also plots to wound Mercedes for not waiting for him, as in the film she marries Fernand quite soon after Dantes’s disappearance, unlike in the book, when it takes several years before she finally submits to Fernand after the death of Dantes’s father. (This also means there’s another big twist at the end of the film that is impossible for the novel’s plot, though I think it adds something to the ending. I won’t give it away, however, for those who’ve never seen the movie.) Particular to Fernand, in the movie he is also played up as a friend of Dantes at the beginning, while in the book he is merely the cousin of Mercedes, who loves her and wants to marry her, but she is in love and engaged to Dantes. Fernand is given greater weight in the movie as though he’s the main one Dantes must wound, but in the book he’s only the second to fall.

If you think that’s confusing, it’s just the beginning of the additional characters and each of their roles in Dantes’s revenge. Thankfully, on Wikipedia I found a marvelous chart that maps all the relationships between the characters in the novel, and I recommend you check it out if you plan to read the story (it’d make an excellent bookmark 😉). 

This is just a small example of the differences. What quickly becomes apparent in reading the book is that the film did an admirable job of compressing an extensive list of characters from the book into only those key people necessary to the story. As you can probably tell, reading the book made me want to watch the movie again, as it does such an incredible job of turning the sprawling narrative of the book into a concise tale of revenge and justice. That being said, of course, I highly recommend you read the book, for the convoluted backstories of every character and the intertwining of their lives is a marvelous example of story-work by the author. You just don’t find so many books these days with such a cast or narrative, and perhaps this is part of why I adore 19th century literature. 

My absolute favorite aspect of the whole novel, however, is the message that love and mercy triumph over justice and judgment. It is a timeless moral, a particularly marvelous plot, and a fascinating group of characters. Check out the novel or audiobook of The Count of Monte Cristo or watch the movie soon. You won’t be disappointed.

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