As I dive into the adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo one thing is clear: this is complex writing business. I give Victor Hugo major props for organizing his writing in the days of loose leaf and small-bound diaries. Writing with tools like Scrivener, cloud-based storage, and being able to write on multiple platforms makes me feel spoiled.
The complexity comes on many fronts. And don’t get me wrong, that’s what makes this book such a brilliant read, capturing the attention of readers throughout several centuries and across cultures, backgrounds, and interests. But as I approach the adaptation to modern times, I’m struck by how many layers I need to meaningfully and convincingly create. And tie together. And research to get enough detail to support all the places, events, historical references, as well as the characters themselves.
I’m reading through the novel ahead of my writing, and am struck by how many lenses one can look at The Count of Monte Cristo through. Most of us think of the Count as a story of revenge, but it’s so much more.
- The Count is a political thriller: Especially at the beginning, but also sprinkled through the middle sections, Hugo frames the events surrounding Edmond Dantes through the lens of Napoleon’s rise and fall in France, the adoption of a new political system in France, and the tensions between aristocracy and high-profile peerage in banking, business, military service, and media. His characters are linked to multiple significant historical events across Europe, from Spain to Turkey. While our own times are certainly filled with political intrigue (seriously, 2016 election people?) the challenge of threading the story in a complimentary manner is no small feat to undertake.
- The Count is a narrative of the times: Readers of Hugo will note the man’s ability to describe the settings and activities his characters play in. Another layer atop the political intrigue is a layer of historical touch points, firmly tying his narrative to that time. You can tell he is doing everything possible to ensure we know what it’s like to be in Marseilles, Paris, Rome, in that period. While the basic motivations of his characters could easily be transferred to another century (jealousy, deceit, greed, revenge), the flavor is certainly set in the early 19th century.
- The Count is a Clive Custler novel: I tried to come up with an analogy for this feeling, and Clive Custler is the best I can do. It’s certainly also related to the 19th century perspective. We’d expect descriptions that set the time and place. Houses, horse-drawn carriages, primed pistols. But Hugo takes this to another level. Scenes are rarely left without extremely detailed descriptions adding color to his characters, their interests, and their settings. Viscount Mordcerf doesn’t just go to the opera. He goes to see specific opera singers by name. One doesn’t go and buy a carriage. One goes and buys a phaeton from the preeminent bespoke carriage builder of Paris. Hugo doesn’t assume we’ll understand what the privileged will do at that time; he tells us. Hugo name-drops like it’s an afterthought. I get the same feeling when I read Custler, a detailed glimpse into another time and place. You can tell Custler’s done his research and he wants you to know it. Scene by scene Hugo does the same for turn-of-the-19th century France.
All that said, my research is taking a deep dive into areas I didn’t expect. It’s not enough to find the right locations to place certain portions of the book. Where to set Carnival if not Rome? Where to set the political upheaval if not post-Napoleon Paris? Nope. Now I’m thinking through cars, sporting events, suits, jewelry, DJs, watches, shoes, boats, horse racing, global media, hedge funds, the Kennedy Center, drones, Hamilton (the musical) and much more. Thankfully it’s a fascinating experience and I’m getting the most out of that subscription to Forbes.