LOS ANGELES, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- Last winter's solidly entertaining "The Count of Monte Cristo" came as a pleasant surprise; on Tuesday it will be back on DVD ($29.99) and VHS (rental only).
With only a $35 million budget, "The Count" made a decent $54 million. (Although there are numerous other expenses and revenue sources, it so happens that, when you add them all up, if the North American box office gross exceeds the cost of the negative, the movie is likely to be profitable overall -- or at least that's the Hollywood rule of thumb.)
"The Count" earned a modest $11 million its first weekend last January, but went on to ultimately gross almost five times that amount. In comparison, the typical wide release makes a little less than three times its initial box office, showing that "The Count" earned good word of mouth.
Written by Alexandre Dumas (the Father) in 1844, "Monte Cristo" is one of the most popular novels of all time. It's been called an airport novel from before there were airports.
The movie's plot is certainly not lacking in incident. An innocent young French sailor, Edmond Dantès (played by Jim Caviezel, who starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in "Angel Eyes"), is condemned to the dungeon of the Château D'If by the machinations of his enemies, who are led by Count Mondego's son (portrayed by Guy Pearce), who wants to marry Dantès' fiancé.
The movie comes to life when up through Dantès' cell floor tunnels a fellow prisoner (Richard Harris). As they dig their way out at the rate of three inches per week, this urbane priest educates the illiterate youth in the ways of the world. Finally free years later, Dantès salvages a sunken treasure, reinvents himself as the elegant but saturnine Count of Monte Cristo, and rains vengeance down upon the those who did him wrong.
The novel has been hugely influential. Obi-Wan Kenobi is an update of the naïve hero's mentor in scholarship and swordplay. And Batman, the tormented Dark Knight, owes a lot to the implacable Count of Monte Cristo.
Mark Twain even parodied it in "Huckleberry Finn." Having overdosed on Dumas, Tom Sawyer insists that the only proper way to liberate the runaway slave Jim from the flimsy shed where he's held captive is by spending months digging him out with tiny case-knives.
After "Memento," the sunken-cheeked Guy Pearce is a hot property, but here he camps it up a little too much as the drunken twit of a villain.
In contrast, although Harris (who was the Emperor in "Gladiator") long ago drank away his shot at being the next Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier, the old Irishman is wonderfully hammy as the priest.
Perhaps actors from the British Isles are so much better at the grand theatrical style than Americans because in their old class-based society, so many try to play the role of some one born into a higher class (or, more recently, a lower class).
For all its delights, however, the novel is an unfilmable 1,400 pages long. The part that most people remember -- the escape from prison -- comprises only a small fraction.
Director Kevin Reynolds, who is making a comeback after his career was washed away by the "Waterworld" disaster, noted, "If we'd been completely faithful to the novel, we would have had a 30-hour movie."
The unlikely author of the taut screenplay is a TV game show producer named Jay Wolpert. Although this is his first script to be filmed, he does a textbook job of finding the spine of the story. Purists will lament that he tosses in a few melodramatic plot twists of his own, but, somehow, I don't think Dumas would have minded.
For example, to avoid the novel's lengthy explanation of how the evil Mondego rises from fisherman to nobleman, Wolpert simply makes him the son of a count. Then, to add his own psychological twist, Wolpert turns Pearce's Mondego and Caviezel's Dantès into boyhood best friends. This indeed makes Mondego's betrayal and Dantès' revenge more emotionally powerful.
Unfortunately, Wolpert's addition also obliterates the class tension that was the background to most 19th-century European novels: little aristocrats and little nobodies didn't grow up as best buddies.
Americans, though, don't care much about class. What interests us is race. So, the film transforms the Italians smugglers who rescue the escaped Dantès into Puerto Rican pirates. This change allows Luis Guzmán, the strikingly short and amusing character actor from "Traffic," to have a lot of fun playing the Count's ex-pirate butler.
This Caribbean connection is appropriate, because it reminds us that Dumas's paternal grandmother was a Haitian slave. In America, Dumas would have been classified as black, but in France, it didn't matter as much.
Rated PG-13 for adventure violence/swordplay and some sensuality.