Television Thursdays- Revenge

Background

Novel: Revenge is a modern day adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo by French author Alexandre Dumas.

Premise: Emily Thorne, whose real name is Amanda Clarke, moves back to The Hamptons to avenge the death of her father David by destroying the people who caused the family’s downfall. Emily’s father was arrested and convicted for terrorism before dying in prison.

Adaptation StatusRevenge debuted on ABC on the 21 September 2011. The show airs on Wednesdays at 10 pm and stars Emily VanCamp (Everwood, Brothers & Sisters) as Emily/Amanda and Madeleine Stowe as Victoria Grayson, the woman who ruined everything.

What’s the Story?

* SPOILER WARNING: Major plot points are revealed in this section.*

THE BOOK:

Handsome young sailor Edmond Dantes has just returned from sea. The Captain on his boat died en-route so Dantes took up the position, earning himself a promotion for his next voyage. Dantes’ fortune is substantial thanks to a raise as a result of the promotion. He is also about to marry his beautiful fiancee Mercedes who has been waiting for him to return from sea. It seems as if Dantes has a bright future ahead of him.

However, none of those dreams come to fruition. Three jealous men write an anonymous letter falsely accusing him of being part of a Bonaparte plot to overthrow the royalists who are currently in power. The letter falls in the hands of a public prosecutor who has no choice but to arrest Dantes for treason. Dantes is tossed into jail and promptly forgotten about. In prison, Dantes befriends a fellow prisoner called Abbe Faria who tells him about a treasure on the isle of Monte Cristo.  Abbe dies sometime later and Dantes switches his friend’s body with his own. The guards throw the body bag out to sea and Dantes is free at last, 14 years after he was wrongfully imprisoned.

Dantes is saved by some passing smugglers and his life changes forever. He retrieves the fortune on Monte Carlo and reinvents himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. His life is consumed by the notion of exacting revenge on the three men who destroyed his life. He waits ten years to gather allies and make plans.

At last, Dantes gets himself introduced into Parisian society. The three men do not recognize him and are desperate to befriend the wealthy stranger. Mercedes, now the wife of one of his accusers, is the only person who recognizes him but she does not reveal his true identity. One by one, Dantes destroys his enemies through their weaknesses and makes them suffer for what they have done.

THE PILOT:

Nine year old Amanda Clarke and her father David live in the Hamptons with their adorable Labrador puppy. David works for a company owned by the Graysons, the wealthiest family in town. Meanwhile, David is having an affair with the wife Victoria Grayson. When things go sour, Victoria orchestrates claims of terrorism so David is arrested. His secretary Lydia Davis’ testimony has him sent away to prison. Amanda is sent off to foster care and later juvenile detention. Her father dies in prison before he can fight for his innocence.

18 years later, Amanda Clarke has finally been released from the foster care system as the sole heiress to her father’s immense fortune. Amanda steals the identity of fellow juvie hall inmate Emily Thorne and returns to the Hamptons house where she and her father spent their last summer together. Newly reborn Emily’s sole purpose in life is to take down the people who destroyed her family.

First on her list is her father’s secretary Lydia Davis. Lydia holds the title of Victoria Grayson’s best friend. She is a socialite going through a recent divorce and owns the house that Amanda is renting for the summer. Emily discovers that Lydia is having an affair with Victoria’s husband Conrad. She follows them to a hotel where she disguises herself as a maid bringing room service. Emily poisons Conrad’s meal, causing him to have a heart attack and sending him to the hospital. Subsequently, the affair is exposed to Victoria and Lydia is now a pariah in the Hamptons community.

Later Emily gets herself an invite to Victoria Grayson’s exclusive charity event hosted on the Graysons’ yacht. At the event is the Grayson’s handsome young son Daniel. Emily purposely spills her drink on him to score an introduction. Daniel and Emily hit off, talking for hours. Despite being a Grayson, Daniel seems different.

When Emily returns to her house, a man from the party is waiting for her. He recognizes her as Amanda, which upsets her enough to place him a choke-hold. He introduces himself as Nolan Ross and insists that he was an ally of her father’s. He wants to assist her with her revenge plans but for the time being she wants to go at it alone.

At the end of the episode, Emily stands all alone on the docks. Victoria watches from the window as she phones her private investigator to find out everything about Emily Thorne.

Why Adapt It?

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of Dumas’ most popular works and is a literary classic. There have been countless adaptations of this novel around the world. Some traditional renditions and others modern retellings such as Revenge. As far as I’m aware, Revenge may be the first adaptation told from a female perspective. This brings to mind the expression “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. Although that expression typically refers to romantic infidelity, it very much applies to the fraternal betrayal the Clarkes feel when the entire Hamptons community abandons them.

The series was created by Mike Kelley (Swingtown) who also serves as Executive Producer. The pilot was filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina though the rest of the series will be filmed in Los Angeles.

Does This Adaptation Work?

The other day I sat down to watch the pilot trying to keep an open mind. I first read this book when I was 15 and loved the universal tale of greed and revenge. Dantes’ form of vigilante justice is at once horrifying and satisfying. As readers we can’t condone his actions, yet we can sympathize with his pain and his anger. I knew this series would be a rather loose adaptation of the classic Dumas novel but I was enticed by the idea of a strong female protagonist exacting her revenge on an entitled community.

The dark mood of the pilot was set up very nicely with the opening Confucius quote, “Before you go on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”. The foreshadowing indicates that this series will be a Shakespearean tragedy where nothing will end well. There will be no happy ending for Emily/Amanda no matter how desperately we wish for one. By destroying her enemy, Emily/Amanda destroys herself. She literally destroys any traces of her old self by shaking off her old identity for the new name but is too preoccupied by the past to move on with her life. Emily alludes to forgiveness several times throughout the pilot and how this cannot be possible for her. 

This preoccupation with the past is further reinforced with the concept of infinity. Infinity is alluded to multiple times throughout the pilot. When Amanda was a child, her father taught her the mathematical symbol for infinity by drawing in the sand. She spots the same symbol carved into the wood railing of the house upon her return to the Hamptons years later. When Daniel first meets her, he comments on the infinity tattoo she has on her wrist by saying “forever is a long time”. No matter what happens, Amanda and her father will always have a strong bond that cannot be broken. This preoccupation with infinity can also indicate how long Amanda will continue the fight for her father’s honor. There is also strong swan imagery which alludes to the notion of transformation from ugly duckling into the beautiful swan. We see the ice swan sculpture at Emily’s engagement party several months into the future at the very beginning of the pilot. Emily stands by the sculpture running her finger along it as she observes her own party. This seems to be a subtle nod to the transformation she has undergone from innocent vulnerable child to embittered and empowered young woman. The swan also shows up as the logo of the Inn where Lydia and Conrad are consummating their affair. We spot the swan logo on Conrad’s bathrobe when Victoria is confronting him at the hospital. The transformation seems to occur on Victoria’s part as she realizes that you cannot trust anyone, not even your husband or supposed best friend.

One of the biggest decisions the creators made when adapting the source material was breaking the role of Dantes into two characters (Emily/Amanda and David). David is the wronged man who spends his life in jail, yet it is Emily/Amanda who represents Dantes’ unrelenting drive for revenge. This works quite well as the two characters are reflections of different stages of Dantes’ life (before and after the inciting incident). Emily VanCamp has been acting in television for awhile but this is her first time starring as the main character in a TV series. A lot of pressure for a young girl but luckily VanCamp pulls it off. James Tupper plays the role of David Clarke in Emily’s flashbacks. The audience doesn’t really get a sense of him beyond the prism of Emily’s idealized memories so it is hard to judge him as a character. Perhaps later on in the series we will be able to judge the effectiveness of David Clarke beyond a tool for revenge. Madeleine Stowe is particularly chilling as ice queen Victoria Grayson. The character is despicable yet Stowe somehow manages to breathe vulnerability into the character as she deals with her husband and best friend’s betrayal. Former model Amber Valletta is the two-faced friend Lydia Davis who is both utterly manipulative and utterly pathetic.

Revenge works as a series because it doesn’t stick too closely to the original source material. It takes the strongest themes and character types from the original story and transforms them into something new. This series is slightly soapish but it certainly serves as a weekly guilty pleasure. My only concern is how the writers intend to maintain the series for longer than one season. Once Emily/Amanda destroys everyone in her path, what is left for her? Moving the story beyond the original revenge plot may be the only way to survive but would detract from the series’ core theme unless they can give Emily a new reason to seek revenge or make her the new target.

Final Score

0 What were they thinking?!

0 Needs improvement

0 A respectable adaptation

0 Better than the original

Lesson of The Day: Don’t be afraid to take risks when adapting classic material. The gender twist in this adaptation is one of the most powerful elements of the story. It is far too rare to see female anti-heroines in the media, women are typically portrayed as likeable or wicked villains. But in Revenge, Emily/Amanda manages to strike that delicate balance between sympathy for her sorry situation and horror at how she exacts her revenge. What other adaptations could be given a fresh life with gender reversal?

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