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Vengeance Is Whose?
If the creators of the latest film version of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo adapted Moby Dick, not only would the movie end with a triumphant Ahab fatally harpooning the great beast, but at the subsequent barbecue the crusty captain would also apologize to his Pequod crew—who've lived to tell the tale—for being so obsessive and crabby.
Adapting a massive novel into a faithful feature film is an unenviable job, but two notable successes in the last year have shown it's entirely possible. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was almost a scene-for-scene version of the book, while Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings seduced even rabid Tolkien fans with its stunningly persuasive re-creation of Middle Earth.
With The Count of Monte Cristo, of course, there's an added complexity: not just Dumas' novel itself to take into account but also a number of earlier film versions. In general, the more a classic has been adapted in various incarnations, the freer a movie or stage director feels to depart from the original. So adaptations of Shakespeare often take wild liberties—setting Romeo and Juliet in a garish city resembling Miami (Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version) or envisioning Hamlet's Denmark as a corporation in present-day New York (the 2000 film with Ethan Hawke).
When such bold reimaginings work, as these examples do, we don't carp about inaccuracies, because the adaptation has stayed true to the spirit of the original. At times, such an overhaul produces a film arguably better than its source. Forrest Gump is one example. The book by Winston Groom is meandering and ridiculous, featuring an ape as Forrest's best friend. The movie (winner of 1994's Best Picture Oscar) overcame these flaws.
But many movies that stray from their origins are not as well conceived, and it is difficult to understand the motivation behind the drastic changes. If the departures from the original seem capricious, out of touch with the heart of the work, even small discrepancies quickly ...