Thursday, January 29, 2009

There is a Providence, there is a God - ideas, or the lack thereof, in The Count of Monte Cristo and Slumdog Millionaire

On Monday, I mentioned that I did not think there was much reason to re-read The Count of Monte Cristo. I meant something specific. I might want to re-read the novel because my brain has softened to the point where I have forgotten the story. The re-reading won't be much different than the initial one.

The novelist Lorenzo Carcaterra, in his introduction to the Modern Library edition, appeals to nostalgia. This novel was important to him as a child living in a bad neighborhood; it spurred his imagination, led him into the bigger world. That's interesting enough as a story about one reader's response, but how it's useful to readers whose young imaginations were instead fired by Treasure Island or Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland, I don't understand. Still, another reason to re-read is simply to revisit the pleasures experienced in the past.

I suspect, though, that The Count of Monte Cristo does not offer much else to the re-reader. There won't be many moments of illumination - oh, now I see. No, it turns out I saw everything the first time. Dumas gives up his secrets right away.

This is just a guess, since I have merely read the book. It's my view of the lack of depth of the novel, its art and its ideas, the latter especially. Like many best-sellers before and since, Monte Cristo is plated with a thin layer of seemingly serious ideas about justice, evil, and providence that serve to motivate the characters and give the story a little more heft. See, for example, Chapter 84, "The Hand of God":

"'No,' said Caderousse, 'no; I will not repent. There is no God, there is no Providence - all comes by chance.'

'There is a Providence, there is a God,' said Monte Cristo, 'of which you are a striking proof, as you lie in utter despair, denying him; while I stand before you, rich, happy, safe, and entreating that God in whom you endeavor not to believe, while in your heart you still believe in him.'"

Not much in the way of subtlety here. Did I mention that Caderousse has just been stabbed and is expiring?

Is the Count justified in his revenge? Can evil acts be redeemed? Should the sins of the father fall on his children? If one wanted to discuss these ideas, the novel would work as a conversation starter, but I'll bet the discussion won't spend much time with the book itself. There isn't any depth, or resolution, or surprise in the content of the ideas. Dumas doesn't really mean any of it, or doesn't care.

I saw Slumdog Millionaire recently and was amused to find that another Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers, plays an important part. I was less amused to find that the movie was overlaid with a set of "ideas" about destiny that were just as shallow as those in The Count. They were decoration, slipcovers for the story's clichés. No one involved actually believes any of it.

I sound so negative. There may be other, more interesting, thematic ideas, in the movie or in The Count of Monte Cristo (the economic development theme, maybe?) and other reasons to see the movie. Still, most of the characters (the love interest, the gangsters, the cops) are clichés, as is most of the plot, and are reviewers mentioning that you have to sit through almost an entire episode of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? I could not believe I had paid money to watch something I didn't want to see when it was free.

As a counter-argument, I will link to an ingenious symbolic explication of The Count of Monte Cristo involving Dante's Purgatorio. I find it completely unconvincing, working only by ignoring most of the book, but it gave me something new to think about.


  1. When your mother told me about your issue of watching "Who wants . . ." as part of Slumdog, I thought you were joking. I'm still amused by the idea, because, among other things, I have sat through many sports movies that contained sizable chunks of sporting events that I would not watch on television, and it never once occured to me to complain that I had to suffer through them as part of the movie.
    I won't argue with your thematic point-- the fate stuff definitely felt added to Slumdog, but the movie, in my mind, was about the storytelling, not the story, and I found the storytelling fresh and compelling, even if the story itself wasn't.

  2. Make that "I have sit" if it is correct. Ack. How can I not conjugate verbs in English?

  3. I complain about sports movies too! But at least there I usually know that it's coming.

    Of course, the real issue about the game show in "Slumdog" is that ther are other parts of the movie that are more interesting, and some parts that are way, way more interesting.

    For example, the "kids on the train" montage. I love the train montage.