Now Playing: Super Furry Animals--"Don't Be A Fool, Billy"
"...There are not many childrens' books... that involve a... serial poisoner, two cases of infanticide, a stabbing and three suicides; an extended scene of torture and execution; drug-induced sexual fantasies, illegitimacy, transvestism and lesbianism; a display of the author's classical learning, and his knowledge of modern European history, the customs and diet of the Italians, the effects of hashish... the length would, in any case, disqualify it from inclusion in any modern series of books for children."
Of course, it's been my favorite novel since I was a child. Robin Buss, in the introduction to his translation of Alexandre Dumas pere's The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-45), manfully tries to correct the impression many "serious' critics have of this outrageously entertaining and exciting piece of literature. I've read it in the tiny pocket Moby Books "Illustrated Classics" edition in the mid-1980s, the Bantam Classics abridged version in the late 1980s, and found Buss' Penguin Classics translation for five bucks at the Ann Arbor Book Fair last year. This last, to my knowledge the first truly unabridged English-translation ever, restores several scenes that fill out the story, adding depth and color I never thought it needed.
The bare bones of the plot, if you're unlucky enough not to have read it: Edmond Dantes, a young sailor from Marseille, returns home from a sea voyage in 1815, during the first Bourbon restoration, to marry his Catalan fiancee Mercedes. Framed for treason by two jealous "friends" and a public prosecutor with a guilty secret, he's thrown into the horrible Chateau d'If prison to rot for the rest of his life. Escaping with the help of an old Italian priest, he signs on board a smuggling ship, finds buried treasure, and uses it over the next decade as "the Count of Monte Cristo," exacting an elaborate and delicious revenge on the people who put him in jail. This summary does tremendous injustice to even the synopsis of a wonderfully rich and adventurous plot, one that had an incalculable effect on my growing imagination.
It's been filmed several times, as you might expect, and after watching the prestigious 1998 miniseries made by the Bravo network, in association with French television, I've come to the conclusion that it will never be properly portrayed on celluloid. I suspected that going in, and that's a good thing. I've never seen the 1934 version with Robert Donat (who I love; pretty surprising), or the 1961 version with Louis Jourdan (an ideal actor for the Count, if not Edmond). I have seen the sunny 1975 TV movie with Richard Chamberlain and the surprisingly entertaining 2002 movie from former Kevin Costner henchman Kevin Reynolds, with Jim Caviezel as the Count. Of this last, I remember my friend Karen freaking out as to its awfulness, mainly due to departures from the book. I think these are fine, as long as they produce a good movie (if you're going to make a movie version utterly faithful to the book, why make it at all?). I think all three versions of Graham Greene's The Quiet American--the novel, the 1958 Joseph Mankiewicz movie with Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy, and the 2002 Philip Noyce movie with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser--work very well, and they're all rather different. Caviezel was good in The Thin Red Line, Ride With The Devil and, yes, The Passion of the Christ, but no freaking way was I buying him as the Count of Monte Cristo (he was all right as Dantes). I did find his miscasting more entertaining than anything else, and Guy Pearce and Luis Guzman were genuinely great fun as the villainous Fernand and loyal sidekick Jacopo.
The miniseries looked expensive and sumptuous, in French with English subtitles, and it ran longer than two hours (eight or so, it turned out), which meant that it might get at some of the more specatcular plot twists (check your skepticism at the door, by the way) that other versions missed. I'm now familiar with some of the cast I might not have known when it was first broadcast (Jean Rochefort as Fernand, for example), but there was one player who actually made me want to stay away when it was first shown: Gerard Depardieu as the Count of Monte Cristo. The Count of Monte Cristo is a dark, saturnine figure whose public image calls to mind a vampire in at least one character's fevered imagination. Gerard Depardieu... isn't. He's a fantastic actor, the reputed De Niro of France (I actually wondered what the young, 60s or 70s De Niro might have made of this role), and I've loved his work in such historical flicks as The Return of Martin Guerre, Danton, and (best of all) Cyrano de Bergerac. He also looks like a boulder with shaggy blond hair, enough to play Obelix in the Asterix movie that was made not too long ago. As I watched, though, through the first episode, I came to realize that maybe I should see it as opera. Take La Boheme: you'd never actually mistake Luciano Pavarotti for Rodolfo (among other things, the latter probably hasn't seen a crust for a couple of days). Depardieu made me look past the physical, just as a good opera singer would have.
The rest of the cast does a pretty good job. As with Reynolds' film, the roles of Jacopo and Bertuccio are wisely blended, this time into Bertuccio; Sergio Rubini is the wiseass sidekick every good hero needs. The most interesting character in the novel, the public prosecutor Villefort, is wonderfully rendered by Pierre Arditi, who brings to life the character's haunted hypocrisy. Rochefort's Fernand chews as much scenery as time will allow; I could watch the scene unmasking his villainy in front of the entire National Assembly again and again. Flash Gordon's own Princess Aura, Ornella Muti, does well in a difficult role as the older Mercedes. The female characters in the book are mostly rather hysterical or vapid (one of the few strong women in the book doesn't even show up onscreen), but the actresses manage to make up for it. Depardieu's stunning daughter Julie, as Valentine de Villefort, brings a substance and even ballsiness to the character that was totally lacking in the novel.
Most of the plot's there; my favorite scene gets compressed a lot, but I can deal. The writers did a great job of switching up the plot points so that they're still there, but in more easily filmable forms. The surrounding events generally imply the late 1830s (Halley's comet, Queen Victoria's accession in Britain, Meyerbeer's premiere of Les Huguenots, the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe, and so on). The atmosphere is appropriately moody and brooding--plenty of mist, darkness, and at least one incredibly creepy scene that would do your average horror movie proud, all set to an effective score by Bruno Coulais. I was glad I got to check this out, and I'd advise others to do the same, but make sure you get your hands on the real deal first. Thankfully, the miniseries still doesn't come close to the original for all its opulence, nor should it. If I wanted the original novel... I'd read it.