One of the most anticipated movies of 2012 has been, “Les Miserables,” the most recent attempt at bringing Victor Hugo’s epic novel to the big screen. While other film adaptations have tried pulling straight from the novel, about 1,200 pages long and full to the brim with side notes about French history, politics and society, this movie, directed by Tom Hooper of “The Damned United” and “The King’s Speech” fame, is doing things a little differently. It is, in fact, an adaptation of an adaptation: Its main aim is to translate to film the extremely successful and beloved musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil.
The show was one of the longest running shows in England and Broadway, and it is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. Its story, grounded very much in Hugo’s novel, is complex, fascinating and, yes, rather depressing at times. Its music is known the world over, and it gained steam recently in pop culture with Susan Boyle’s performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” that floored Simon Cowell.
The 2012 film is the first times the musical has reached the silver screen, and it is the latest to get the Hollywood green light after the likes of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeney Todd.” It has an all-star cast: Hugh Jackman is convict-turned-hero Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway is the poor Fantine, who would — and does — do anything to help her daughter, Russell Crowe is the rigid, unwavering police inspector Javert, and Amanda Seyfried is the sweet and innocent Cosette, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the scavenging and heartless Thenardiers. As I haven’t seen the musical on stage, I can’t say exactly how the film compares with its performance source. But what of the novel that sparked the revolution? How does it compare with Hugo’s original epic of love, loss and everything France?
The key events of the film mirror those of the book, though obviously for time constraints, some must be cut or condensed. This is handled well, however, by the musical’s song style, which often has several characters singing over one another to take on multiple plot threads at once. The main characters are largely the same, though Marius in the movie seems much more determined about his place in the resistance than he does in the book, making him a much more interesting character.
A big change from the book to the musical is in the Thenardiers and their daughter, Eponine. While in the show, Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier are over-the-top comic relief, constantly swiping whatever they can from whoever is nearest, Hugo portrays them as not only soulless, but clever, dastardly and extremely dangerous. I never thought for an instant that Valjean’s or Marius’ life was in danger when threatened by Sacha Baron Cohen, but in the book, Thenardier’s criminal mastermind is just as malevolent a force as Javert. Also, the musical portrays Eponine and Marius as good friends, though in the book, the two do not even know each other apart from sight and occasional encounters. While the book’s version felt more realistic when considering her upbringing, the show and film’s make Eponine’s unrequited love for Marius more universal.
Both versions of “Les Mis” have overriding problems that will prevent many from even getting it a try. The book is massive and can be cumbersome: Hugo takes his precious time delving through the history of the French Revolution, 19th-century politics and even buildings and settings in which key events take place or key characters take up lodging. While Hugo’s thoughts on all these elements are intelligent and certainly worth noting, readers will often find themselves wondering what was the point of an entire section dedicated to the fall of Napoleon. The musical and film alleviate this by condensing the story to its core, focusing in on the plot surrounding Jean Valjean and, eventually, the failed insurrection of June 1832, all in a relatively concise 150 minutes (for the movie). However, this welcome change is counteracted by the near constant singing. Those who find telling a story through music and rhyme annoying or distracting may find this no better than a berating of Paris’ sewer system.
The movie’s slimmer story also takes out another vital element from the book: time with the characters. By spending so much time in the novel, readers really get to know Valjean, Cosette and Marius, and the way their respective relationships evolve feels much more natural. In the book, when 8-year-old Cosette meets Valjean, Hugo tells the encounter mostly through her eyes. There is an air of mystery regarding this man sweeping into her horrible life, showing her unbridled compassion and taking her away to start life anew. The reader knows this man’s story and his reasons for doing this, but it is never explicitly stated until the two are far away from the tense situation in the Thenardiers’ inn. In the film, Valjean simply comes to the inn after meeting Cosette and immediately asks if he can pay to take her away. The book also shows the relationship between Marius and Cosette bloom from simple looks across the way to nightly rendezvouses, while in the film, they see each other, meet briefly one night and immediately fall in deeply devoted love.
With this deficiency, the movie needed to make full use of its medium to make up for it. Surprisingly, there aren’t many instances in which cinematography enhances the story. With monumental adaptations, the film version needs to provide elements that only a movie could do. For instance, the “Lord of the Rings” movies used stunningly diverse and beautiful settings, state-of-the-art special effects and a powerful score to take J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved classics to new heights. This movie didn’t fully utilize its potential in making it stand apart. The “I Dreamed A Dream” scene is mostly just one closeup shot of Fantine as she sings. It captures every instant of an emotional performance by Hathaway, but this could have been accomplished and intensified in so many other ways, especially considering it is the show’s most recognizable number.
There are moments in which the cinematography is excellent, such as Javert’s dilemma after the big battle and the big “One Day More” scene. Maybe the best and most impacting moment comes at the very end, and it is captured so beautifully, it almost makes up for every missed opportunity previously. But for something as big as “Les Mis,” there could have been some bigger and bolder choices made.
While reading the book, I never thought I would prefer it to a condensed, concentrated version of the story, but after seeing how it was done, I think I have to side with the version that takes its time cultivating a deeper, genuine caring for a host of characters. Perhaps if I were to see it on stage, my opinion would be different, but when comparing with this film adaptation, I would prefer the book. The movie is very good; the novel is extraordinary.