I have a theory that the first really meaty book a teenager voluntarily sinks zir teeth into will dominate zir philosophy for a long time, often for the rest of zir life. Sometimes this is the first real nonfiction book that zie reads that isn’t for school; sometimes, unfortunately, it’s Atlas Shrugged or some similar bit of tripe. For me, it was Les Misérables. It’s had an inestimable influence on me, but it’s sadly difficult to share in its literary form–not too many people will borrow a 1200-page book, regardless of how you rave about it–so I’ve been awaiting this version with great anticipation. Spoilers follow, but come on, it’s 150 years old.
This review is going to be long, so I’ll say it up front: It was awesome.
Les Mis has always been a challenging book, and a constant stream of adaptations have sought to bring it within reach of the general populace, starting with the Lumière brothers in 1897. Practically all that I’m familiar with* miss the mark, often by a huge margin and often in the same ways. It’s tempting to abridge it because there are so many obvious places to start (nobody needs to know that much about the Battle of Waterloo), but as you shorten it, you quickly begin to remove important bits and soon end up with something that’s thematically unrecognizable.
The first problem is the backstories. Les Mis is constantly jumping back in time from the main story to explain the history of each new character, major or minor. Attempts to force the story into a linear shape have to jettison all of them except Jean Valjean’s. Cosette escapes because her backstory is part of the narrative, but Marius always suffers. The book traces three generations of Pontmercies. Most movies just introduce him as that guy who falls in love with Cosette.
The other problem is related: Cutting out characters and details unrelated to the main cast ends up squelching the very concepts that embody French Romantic literature. We lose the big backdrop of history in front of which these characters act, the macro overshadowing the micro. And, while the themes of redemption and of justice versus mercy always remain prominent, the revolutionary themes and the plight of the poor get marginalized.
As the Friends of the ABC (aside from Marius) get removed or reduced, we can even lose the emotional tone and end up with adaptations that aren’t really sad. If you get rid of Éponine, Enjolras, and Gavroche, the barricade scene essentially has a happy ending because everyone we care about survives. Some versions even end before Valjean’s death. I guess they all live happily ever after?
The musical was a godsend to those of us unhappy with the other adaptations. The soaring score captures those emotional moments, especially the Bishop’s monologue, and as the story deftly hopscotches from one important plot point to the next, it manages to capture the essence of many of the characters, plots, and themes, all in a fluent, riveting format that’s well-beloved in its own right.
Still, the musical is its own beast. It tends to (successfully) sacrifice plot integrity for narrative convenience; its fandom remains largely distinct from the book’s fandom. This is in no way a failing.
Musicals face their own type of adaptation decay when they make the transition to film. Songs get abridged and rearranged to accommodate weak singers, sung-through transitions become dialogue, and extra spoken bits get crammed in, almost always for the worse (think Phantom of the Opera). At first, I thought that the film version of Les Mis was suffering from a bit of this, but then I realized that all the changes and additions were reintroducing material from the book. From Fantine’s teeth getting pulled to Gavroche living in the Elephant of the Bastille, it’s crammed with details that didn’t make it into the stage version. Marius’ threat to blow up the barricade comes from the book verbatim. This isn’t a pure adaptation of the musical, but a combined adaptation of both the musical or the book.
It’s as if they made this movie just for me.
The Nature of Changes
I’m a purist at heart and changes usually annoy me, but while the musical played fast-and-loose with the book’s plot, especially timing and transitions, it showed admirable discernment, retaining the heart of the story while glossing over bits that don’t really matter, like how Valjean avoids life in prison after confessing his identity or what, exactly, his factory makes**. The result is so cohesive that the film’s reintroductions sometimes feel awkward, disjointed, or just plain unnecessary. Jean Valjean regains some of the fear and hatred he had of Marius in the book…but he still sings “Bring Him Home.” Marius picks up Valjean’s handkerchief, a nod to a moment in the book where he mistakes it for Cosette’s, but since Valjean doesn’t then conclude that someone is pursuing his daughter, why bother? And does it really matter whether Éponine or Gavroche delivers Marius’ letter?
That said, the details were constantly delighting me. Aided by cinematic shorthand, the film makes a real effort to establish the story’s context in French history, something the musical touched on minimally. It meticulously captures the look-and-feel of the book, especially during the barricade scene. I’d love to watch it again just to see how much more I can catch.
That’s Les Misérables as an adaptation. Next I’ll discuss it as a film in its own right. Read part II here.
*I’ve read Solomon Cleaver’s short book, seen the 1978 and 1998 adaptations, listened to the 2007 Focus on the Family audio drama, and seen or heard several versions of the stage musical. No, I haven’t read it in French, but I’ve read the original Charles E. Wilbour translation. Feel free to point me to any other versions that you think I should try!
**They do introduce one of my pet peeves–the one-day romance–but that’s practically inevitable when transitioning from print to a visual medium.