Tuesday, January 27, 2009

revenge!, Revenge!, REVENGE!

Although it is true that A Watched Plot Never Spoils™, much of the fun of The Count of Monte Cristo lies right on the surface of the story, so I'll watch my step. Fortunately, the two most interesting ideas in the book are structural, not incidental.

The story, from a high altitude: The dashing young sailor Edmond Dantès is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. On his wedding day, the poor sap. He spends many years in prison, in the section that is, I suppose, the most famous. The moment when Dantès leaves the prison, for example, is, I have to say, pretty great.* Edmond vows revenge!, Revenge!, REVENGE!**

The last 900 pages or so comprise the unwinding of a single, insanely elaborate revenge plan simultaneously directed at four separate targets. This is one of the best ideas in the book. The standard thriller revenge plot goes after its villains one at a time, least important to most. The Count could have had his enemies stabbed or poisoned, but instead he creates a Rube Goldberg machine of a scheme whose mainspring is the vanity and greed of his enemies. What, you don't want to see how that works?

The ingenuity of The Three Musketeers, by contrast, is the creation of an endlessly flexible vehicle for episodic stories, something plenty of people have done since, if not before. The inspiration may vary from episode to episode, but it doesn't matter much, because the structure is loose. Not like the final two-thirds of The Count of Monte Cristo, a single massive, crazy whatsit.

One might wonder why the first third was even necessary. V for Vendetta, to pick a contemporary knockoff, gets straight to the revenge. Dumas could have done that, but then we would have missed his most outrageous innovation, the pivot that occurs once Edmond is out of prison. He adopts a new identity to help enact his revenge - many identities, actually. What's nuts is that all of the other characters have also adopted new identities. One story basically disappears and is replaced by another, with only occasional, vague nods to the first story.

The novel is like a train that jumps the tracks but then miraculously lands on another set of tracks pointed in a different direction. Or like a movie that sudddenly changes both characters and actors a third of the way in, but occasionally makes shadowy references to the first set of characters. This is aside from the complementary device where four characters actually (symbolically actually) return from the dead.

For example, say that in the first part, Edmond is played by Errol Flynn, and then after prison Edmond becomes the Count and Errol Flynn becomes Groucho Marx. His enemies turn out to be Chico and Harpo, his fiancée becomes Margaret Dumont. Etc. etc. A few plot details would have to be changed. This would have been a great movie. Now I feel bad that I mentioned it - I want to see the Marx Brothers' The Count of Monte Cristo.

* I realized, as I read this scene, that I knew it from my childhood, from a 1975 TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain and Tony Curtis. Nothing else in the book triggered any memories; just this one scene. I had misunderstood it, I now discover, but I never forgot it.

** Here's how effective the story can be. Ma femme finished the book before I did. For days after, whenever the cat misbehaved, she would point at it and hiss "Vendetta! Vendetta!" Terrifying.