Published 1844, approximately 461,000 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.
On the eve of his marriage to the beautiful Mercedes, having that very day been made captain of his ship, the young sailor Edmond Dantès is arrested on a charge of treason, trumped up by jealous rivals. Incarcerated for many lonely years in the isolated and terrifying Chateau d'If near Marseilles, he meticulously plans his brilliant escape and extraordinary revenge.
Of all the "masked avengers" and "caped crusaders" in literature, The Count of Monte Cristo is at once the most daring and the most vulnerable. Alexandre Dumas (père), master storyteller, takes us on a journey of adventure, romance, intrigue, and ultimately, redemption.
"And now," said the unknown, "farewell kindness, humanity, and gratitude! Farewell to all the feelings that expand the heart! I have been heaven's substitute to recompense the good—now the god of vengeance yields to me his power to punish the wicked!" At these words he gave a signal, and, as if only awaiting this signal, the yacht instantly put out to sea.
The Count of Monte Cristo is the book that defines "revenge novel." It's a big, big book and Dumas does everything in grand style. All of his characters are larger-than-life and skin deep. His plot is vast, intricate, and at times, ridiculous; Dumas uses coincidences that would make Dickens blush. But who cares? That's how adventure novels rolled in the 1800s.
All novels of innocence wronged and revenged are compared to the original, and since it's such a classic, you probably know the essentials even if you've never read all half-million words. Edmund Dantes is a humble mate of the sailing vessel Pharaon, set to become its captain, and engaged to the beautiful Mercedes. Unknown to him, he has enemies: Fernand Mondego, who covets Mercedes, and Danglars, who covets the Pharaon. The two of them, along with the wretched innkeeper Caderousse, conspire to accuse Dantes anonymously of being a Bonapartiste, in the days before Napoleon's return from Elba. In an unfortunate twist, Dantes finds himself unwittingly on the wrong side of the king's attorney, Villefort, who sends him to the dreaded Chateau D'If to make him disappear.
Dantes spends the next fourteen years imprisoned in the Chateau D'If. There he meets the Abbe Faria, a fellow prisoner. The two men become friends, conspire to escape, and when the Abbe has a fatal stroke, he leaves Dantes to escape on his own, and to claim the fabulous Roman treasure whose location the Abbe revealed to him.
With an epic fortune, Dantes reappears in Rome and Paris as the mysterious, formidable Count of Monte Cristo, showering money in every direction as he plots his revenge against Mondego, Danglars, and Villefort, who have all become wealthy, powerful men themselves.
The Count of Monte Cristo was originally serialized, which shows in the protracted subplots and verbose speeches calculated to maintain drama and suspense across over a thousand pages. There is some historical context here that makes the early chapters interesting, with all the Bonapartiste intrigue, and Dumas delves eagerly into the sordid, corrupt affairs of French politicians and financiers, but there is not much here in the way of character depth, and the plotting, while baroque and satisfying in its conclusion, relies on outrageous feats and equally outrageous coincidences. The Count of Monte Cristo returns after fourteen years in prison as an almost superhuman vigilante, and manages to insinuate himself into the intimate circles of all his enemies without anyone ever recognizing him. Even his former fiancee, Mercedes, doesn't recognize him at first.
Unlike many of the film versions, in the novel the Count is left wondering whether his vengeance was worth it, and it does not end with him riding off into the sunset with Mercedes. He fancies himself an avenging angel, only to see his enemies destroyed more thoroughly than he could manage.
"I am the spectre of a wretch you buried in the dungeons of the Chateau d'If. God gave that spectre the form of the Count of Monte Cristo when he at length issued from his tomb, enriched him with gold and diamonds, and led him to you!"
"Ah, I recognize you—I recognize you!" exclaimed the king's attorney; "you are"—
"I am Edmond Dantes!"
"You are Edmond Dantes," cried Villefort, seizing the count by the wrist; "then come here!" And up the stairs he dragged Monte Cristo; who, ignorant of what had happened, followed him in astonishment, foreseeing some new catastrophe. "There, Edmond Dantes!" he said, pointing to the bodies of his wife and child, "see, are you well avenged?" Monte Cristo became pale at this horrible sight; he felt that he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say, "God is for and with me."
This is a grand book for people who like long, long series with large, varied casts of colorful figures, and the luxury to follow every minor subplot to the end. It's not a great book for people who like believable, relatable characters or sophisticated storytelling.
And can I mention here, I hated the secondary protagonist, Maximilian Morrel? We're supposed to root for him as the pure-hearted underdog in love with Villefort's daughter Valentine, except he guilts her into agreeing to elope with him by threatening to commit suicide, and then spends the last part of the book moaning and moping about how life is not worth living without her. I wished the Count would slap the whiny little punk.
It's better in French
Like all well-known and venerable classics, there have been many film adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo. Surprisingly few were available on Netflix, so I didn't get to see the 1934 Robert Donat version or the 1975 Richard Chamberlain version. The versions I did see inevitably cut or altered a lot of the subplots and character details, sometimes in a way that seemed appropriately edited for a shorter film version, sometimes in ways that were just stupid. (A common theme seems to be reuniting Edmond with Mercedes in the end. Did not happen in the book, and kind of undermines the entire arc of the novel!)
I started with the earliest:
Monte Cristo (1922)
Although not the first silent film version (according to Wikipedia), this 1922 version was supposedly lost along with all the others until a single copy was found in Czechoslovakia and restored with a musical score.
I've watched quite a few silent films in my hobby of viewing all the cinematic adaptations I can find of novels I read. This was one of my favorites. It's entertaining watching how different acting was before sound - everything relied on facial expressions (especially eye-emoting), body language, and costuming. The best silent film actors can be creepy, sinister, waifish, or heroic just with a glance. No doubt this relied a great deal on the cameraman and director's skill as well.
Silent film adaptations also generally didn't take as many liberties with the plot as later movies did. Given all the padding that exists in Dumas's novel, condensing it down to a movie less than 2 hours long isn't that hard if you stick to the plot essentials, which this film does.
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
This modern adaptation was a nice bit of filmmaking, but it's very Hollywood, adding dramatic flourishes that Dumas's novel didn't need, like extra swordfights and meeting Napoleon in person. It follows Dumas's plot loosely, but makes a lot of (mostly brainless) compromises to fit a 1200-page novel into the structure of a 2-hour movie. As a tale of revenge, it's entertaining enough, but it's got none of the intricacy or cleverness or feel of Dumas's tale. The villains are even more monodimensional than Dumas's archetypes, and Dantes' revenge is much more direct and action hero-ish. This movie is entertaining enough to watch, but it's not a literary adaptation.
Le Comte de Monte Cristo (1998)
This 4-episode, 7-hour French TV miniseries starring Gerard Depardieu was a mostly accurate adaptation, which is not to say it's entirely faithful. It's long but detailed, and keeps most of the subplots from Dumas's novel that the shorter adaptations had to cut. However, it adds some nonsense, like the widow Camille de la Richardais as a love interest for Monte Cristo, a character who does not exist at all in the novel, and an altered happy ending.
Without a doubt, Dumas's dialog sounds better in French. Gerard Depardieu, with his Brobdingnagian nose and craggy face, is not the Bruce Wayne-ish figure appropriate to play the Count of Monte Cristo, but he acts the vengeful demon well, even if the last third rather plods.
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (2004)
In this 2004 anime adaptation, the Count of Monte Cristo is a blue-skinned space vampire.
I was expecting to watch the first episode of this cartoon just to say I had, roll my eyes, and move on. It's set in a far future that makes about as much sense as most animes (we've got a space-faring high tech global civilization, yet France is still part of a monarchy of some sort that uses guillotines to execute people). But to my surprise, this 24-episode drama is a both an imaginative and a painstakingly faithful adaptation in the best sense of the word.
Gankutsuou ("King of the Cavern" - the creators obviously got the "Batman" connection too) does not attempt to follow Dumas's storyline beat for beat (the first episode begins with Albert de Morcerf and Baron Franz d'Épinay meeting the Count on Luna), but it takes every character and scene from Dumas's novel and reinterprets them in a colorful space opera that will please both Dumas fans and those who know nothing about The Count of Monte Cristo. If you've never read the book, I'd actually recommend watching this anime first. Then go read the novel, and grin as you recognize all the characters and scenes from the anime. The creators of Gankutsuou paid a loving and lavish tribute to Dumas.
I was very skeptical about an ABC series supposedly "based on the Count of Monte Cristo," but starring a blonde starlet and set in the modern day Hamptons. But since the first season is currently available by streaming Netflix, I watched the first few episodes.
In this version, the Count is replaced by "Emily Thorne," whose father was set up to take the fall for a terrorist bombing. He dies in prison while Emily spends her childhood in foster care and juvenile detention. Upon being released as an adult, she discovers her father was betrayed and she owns a fortune, and she sets about avenging her father.
The anime with the blue-skinned space vampire is a more faithful adaptation. Revenge is a reasonably entertaining show that owes more to Falcon Crest and Veronica Mars than it does to The Count of Monte Cristo, but if you squint hard enough, you can just barely make out a shade of Dumas.
Verdict: The Count of Monte Cristo is an epic tale, maybe not as swashbuckling as The Three Musketeers, but still awfully fun. Dumas's writing is not nuanced or elegant, but it's a great book for anyone who's ever dreamed of finding a buried Roman treasure, reinventing himself as Batman, and returning to wreak vengeance on his enemies. Maybe you want to skip the fourteen years in a dungeon, though.
The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
My complete list of book reviews.