In 1844, Alexandre Dumas started serializing The Count of Monte Cristo. It was kind of his War and Peace—a novel with so many characters, you need a chart to keep track of it. Really! Wikipedia provides one: Count of Monte Cristo Relations. And even the highest resolution version is hard to read. But let me say what should not be a controversial statement: he’s a whole lot more fun to read than most of the English writers of that time who I admire.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a revenge story. And everyone loves a good revenge story—especially filmmakers. So the book has been turned into a film countless times. In fact, David Goyer (a really typical and talentless film director) is working on one as we speak. In his case, I doubt that the problems of adapting the book to the screen will really matter. The book has roughly 50 major characters, but I suspect a modern Hollywood interpretation of the film will only be guaranteed to have: Dantes is wrongly imprisoned, escapes, becomes Count of Monte Cristo, and kicks some major ass. Will he wear a shirt with MC emblazoned on it? Time will tell.
But in 1975, a big-budget (for the time) version of the book was made for television starring Richard Chamberlain. And yes, it changes a number of things in the book, but overall, it is about as close as you could get in under two hours. And perhaps most important, it doesn’t lose the thematic basis of the book, which is that vengeance changes a man. The Count of Monte Cristo is not Edmond Dantes. There is a lovely scene at the beginning of the film where Dantes will not turn over a thief to the authorities, “I wouldn’t imprison any man who is used to the freedom of the sea, sir.” Wonderful foreshadowing, of course. But the scene contrasts nicely to a later scene where the Count watches approvingly as the same man his killed. (The details are completely different in the book.)
The film has quite a cast. In addition to Chamberlain, who almost defined this kind of made-for-TV drama, there was Trevor Howard, Donald Pleasence, and Tony Curtis. Howard is really great as Dantes’ prison companion, Abbe Faria. But what most stands out, and I really am not trying to be mean here, is what a limited actor Tony Curtis is. In the final scene between Curtis and Chamberlain it is especially obvious. All I could think was, go back to what you do best: Some Like it Hot and The Great Race. His performance as Mondego was an embarrassment. One final point on acting: this film is from that wonderful period when no one cared about accents. I actually kind of like it. Few things are as annoying as watching Leonardo DiCaprio trying to do an accent.
When I was a kid, I watched this version on television—probably on its premiere. My mother was not only a lover of old books, but I think she had a crush on Richard Chamberlain. And why not? The man has it all, except, in the case of my mother’s crush, any interest in women. But does that matter, anyway? The great thing about such crushes is that they will go unrequited by definition. Anyway, I loved it as a kid. But I didn’t get the more important aspects of the story. It was just great to watch the man so badly abused get his revenge. The funny thing is that having watched it last night, it was still all that and I still delighted in it. But it was also more. It was inspiring because justice was done, but also sad because no amount of justice could bring back the idealism of the young Dantes.
I highly recommend watching it. And it is available for free on YouTube. I will say what I usually say: it is much better than what you probably will watch:
Wikipedia had the following to say about Richard Chamberlain’s personal life:
I think it shows an amazing amout of progress that the entry does not start with, “Chamberlain is gay.” Or, “Chamberlain was outted in 1989.” The thing is, even in the 1970s, we all assumed that Chamberlain was gay. I remember my mother remarking that it was a shame that all the great looking men were gay.
By the way, I just looked up the net worth of Chamberlain: $20 million. That’s not bad and about what I think we can all agree that a man of his enormous success should be worth. So I looked up Leonardo DiCaprio’s net worth: $200 million. DiCaprio is in no way more successful in his time than Chamberlain was in his time. Our winner-take-all markets have become even more winner-take-all. It makes me think of the line, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” The actors just get smaller but their paychecks just get bigger.