I just watched the 6-hour Gerard Depardieu version of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO over four nights, and I think I maybe found some useful lessons there. The special power of the story lies in the way that Edmond Dantes remakes himself as a machine for vengeance and then reappears to engage with his enemies, none of whom shares the audience's knowledge of who he really is.
It's an enormous story hook and it never fails – it was the structural model for one of the best science fiction novels I ever read, Alfred Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION. Put a mask on him, and he's Batman. Flip it around to the enemies' point of view and it's Friedrich Durrenmatt's THE VISIT.
It's all about vengeance as a whole-life strategy, and the effect of its complex pressures and conflicts on the avenger. You wouldn't want to be the Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes tells one of his confidantes – he's a cold-hearted bastard who knows no happiness. I'd much rather be Edmond Dantes again, but they took that away.
In the 2002 Kevin Reynolds movie (which I liked a lot, by the way), the final answer to it all is a Hollywood sword fight. Good guy fights better than bad guy. But in this more resonant version he has a more subtle and complex revenge. He shames one enemy and drives him to suicide, puts another one into a personal hell by making him face the truth behind his family values, and finally finds his way back to being Edmond Dantes again by showing mercy to the last (albeit after ruining him financially).
It's far from perfect. The first time we see Dantes, it's as a prisoner of eighteen years' standing. He kicks away the thin gruel he's given and insists that he doesn't want food, he wants to die. But Depardieu looks more like a man who's eaten all his cellmates. Nose-and-wig disguises and melodramatic subterfuges that may work on the page don't work on the screen. And Dantes' ultimate reconciliation with his old love doesn't ring true and is, apparently, a significant divergence from the book.
But it felt like six hours well spent. And quite a bargain, too - the version I bought had a copy of the novel boxed in with the discs.