Saturday, 27 December 2014

Review (Adaptation Comparison): Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (adapted from The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas)

The grey faced man, with hair running past his shoulders and fangs protruding at every laugh, invites two young aristocrats to witness the heart of the festival on Luna: a public execution. Holding a pardon to his chest and setting three cards face down, each bearing the initials of a condemned, he proposes a game to Viscount Albert de Morcerf: pick a card, any card, and he will save the life of one doomed man. ‘Yes, it almost feels as if one has actually become God,’ says the man, the Count of Monte Cristo. So begins Gankutsuou, an interesting, if increasingly imperfect, Eastern adaptation of one of Western literature’s greatest works.     

A quotation attributed to the Russian poet Yevgeniy Yevtushenko goes, ‘Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful it is not faithful. If it is faithful it is most certainly not beautiful.’ A saying which, though terribly sexist, applies to adaptations just as much as it does to translations. You wouldn’t think it to look at it, but Gankutsuou, a series set in 51st century Paris, a city blending 19th century social structures, 20th clothing and transportation, and sci-fi technology, is, at times, one of The Count of Monte Cristo’s most faithful and beautiful adaptations. More faithful than film adaptions if only because a 9 hour TV series can include more characters and subplots than a 2 hour movie could; more beautiful because the already heightened reality of the visuals eases the viewer into a melodrama where emotions run up to eleven, resulting in verbal outbursts evocative of what one would find in the Dumas original. On a single hand I could count the adaptations that include all four conspirators, the entire second generation, Andrea Cavalcanti, Noirtier and Haydee. For these reasons among others I can call it a good adaptation, but certainly not a great one.
When an adaptation ceases being faithful one hopes such digressions benefit the work, communicating the essential thesis of the original in a necessarily different way. A critic saying, ‘How I would have done it,’ rightly evokes cringes. You may accuse me of doing this, to which I would respond: I’m not saying I’d do it like this, I’m saying Dumas did it like this, to better effect. The breaks this series makes from the source material are forgivable, and at times commendable (Playing the series from Albert’s point of view, for example, makes the count as mysterious to the readers as he is to the characters). But there are times, especially towards the ending, where the digressions lower the series both thematically and dramatically.     

Even the delightfully decadent and macabre opening I described bears a crack, hidden, but more noticeable every time seen. In both the novel and the series the count desires to conquer chance, to become ‘Providence,’ to possess a will that won’t bend, and impose it upon the world. The series’ beginning, though lovely on its own, betrays this. The count, as part of his diatribe, deliberately makes the prisoner to be pardoned a matter of chance. He’d no way of knowing Albert would pick Peppino’s card, still less that Peppino would proceed to abduct Albert for Luigi Vampa. In the novel the count plans this drama. He deliberately pardons Peppino, on the behest of Vampa. In the series the count clearly has never met Vampa before. I do not point this out to nit-pick the series for straying from specifics; I point this out to show that by straying the scene loses its thematic anchoring. By leaving the event up to chance the count can no longer claim to be Providence. Perhaps the creators’ point was that no one can become Providence, but nevertheless the count, believing himself to be Providence, would not undermine his own position. Maybe I missed something, a frame where the cards all bear the same initials, a gesture indicating the count guided Albert’s hand, or even just the implication that the count had it all planned.

Or maybe the count has so achieved his desire of having a will that won’t bend that even random chance conforms to his path. But this option would weaken the series as a whole. Dumas had it as a running joke that the count stood a little higher than humanity. Characters jokingly, and not so jokingly, theorising he could be a vampire. Gankutsuou leaves no doubt that he is a supernatural entity, surviving knife blows and bullets. Fine in measures, but if he can even guide chance without lifting a finger, then the creators have gone a bit far in that direction. Showing the count from a metaphorical distance, playing him enigmatic in a pulp anti-hero fashion, is actually pretty faithful to the novel. But most adaptations make sure to paint him as a man, an obsessive man, but a man nonetheless. Giving him powers over chance elevates him to godhood, rather than a man with aspirations/delusions of divinity.

Presumably because the ending of the novel contained no climatic action scenes, the creators of the show sought to ‘correct’ this. Changing an ending is not inherently bad. As with Akira, sometimes changing the ending produces a thematic wrap-up more fitting of the new medium than the original’s. I can understand where the ending comes from, the creators take a more unambiguously dim view of revenge than Dumas. Revenge, to them, is an obsession with destruction, as such, any ending must necessarily be destructive. But when (and here I WILL in a minor way spoil the end) this communicates through giant mechas battling, it seems commercial concerns motivated this ending more than artistic ones. Apart from mechas, though, the ending depends on facile allegory that could have come right from a Disney film. For lacking thematic resonance, I can’t commend this ending.

None of these alterations, however, seems to me as egregious as the treatment of Eugenie. Oh Eugenie, what have they done to you? Fine, play her straight, the absence of Louise d’Armilly and the fact her lesbianism was just a heavy subtext (and that they’ve shifted the homosexual subtext to Franz) makes this a forgivable, if not a legitimate, artistic choice. But along with her female lover, they’ve taken away her nerve. If you’ve read the novel you’ll find it difficult, noticing some of her pivotal scenes, not to yell at the screen on realising the creators took away her actions and dialogue, and therefore her agency. A scene in the novel where she not only stands her ground, but also beats her opponent back, here has her breaking into tears. No longer have we the proto-feminist, ready and able to take her life into her own hands, but yet another waif needing a man to save her, the bait-and-switch emancipated woman.

For those who believe social concerns shouldn’t be brought into criticism: firstly, no; secondly, if a work from the 19th century has more progressive gender views than your 21st century one, you’ve done something wrong.

All this may give the impression I hate the series, which is false, I quite like it. Seeing the praise this series receives, however, pushed me to point out the unpraiseworthy, or outright condemnable, aspects of it. As I said in the beginning, this is one of the most faithful adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo. Its taut plotting and just the right amount of over-the-top melodrama cement it as a great series in its own right. It certainly can’t be called a perfect adaptation, nor even a great one, but an interesting one visually and dramatically? Definitely.


  1. I really wonder what would happen if you faithfully translate a beautiful text… Translation is in a sense re-creation. Translation historically helps to expand vocabularies and philosophical ideas or aesthetic atmospheres into the language it transfers, to be faithful to its original aesthetic beauty is (perhaps) the aim. Adaptation is a little bit different.
    There is after all, three level of reading, intentional, symptomatic and adaptive readings. The translator should try to achieve the intentional one. Rather than always sign up how much it loses, it is better to concentrate on what it actually gains. When adaption happens, symptomatic and especially adaptive readings work at its peak (not necessarily, as you can still just do an intentional reading and be faithful).
    Such driven force exaggerates the dehumanization side of count or revenge. Whether it is good or bad, it depends on artistic choices. Personally, I think no matter how you dislike a person, or do not understand one, you should always keep in mind that they are humans… but to go such effort to create all round characters is tiresome, time-consuming, requires a lot of creative energy. Dehumanization or in a certain degree objectification reminds us that characters are just human or humanlike entities, which could also be turned into symbols. A father symbolises patriarchal values, virgin symbolises purity, boy is about future, and girl is about innocence (even though such gender-oriented symbols really demonstrate a certain aspect of human cultures…).
    You can take the basic of characters and make it something new, the change of setting is adaptive, and when watch this show, we can do symptomatic reading as well, like feminist criticism, racial representation, LGBTIQ… the either conscious or unconscious side of human minds (influenced by culture, society…), and it is still an valid reading.
    Whether adaptation should be faithful or not, whether Shakespeare should change King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, or should Romeo and Juliet be adapted into West Side Story? The trouble is that genius has the ‘right’ to rob less talented, or it must be from one genius to another, but that is to see they would success, yet, even though with less talent, you can still be able to explore different aspect through your own adaptive reading, (like gender-switch, racial-switch, time-period-change, or let them be inspiration for you next novel). Furthermore, in different media, things can work differently, especially with visualisation… but all in all, I have not watched the series, and should stop now.

    1. 'The translator should try to achieve the intentional one.'

      Ah, but surely we must contend with Borges analogous view of translation. There is beauty to literal translations, and perhaps adaptations. Imposing what was natural and commonplace about one language onto another (and perhaps of one medium onto another) can create beauty not present in the original. 'The One Thousand Nights and a Night' is a common construction in the story-sequence's original language. But to us of English tongue, the syntax is exotic.

      Perhaps the same can be said of adaptations. Rather than isolating the intention of a work, and weaving a foreign medium's devices around that intention - why not do the piece as literally as possible - have lead play gold and gold lead?