When I was little I thought Les Misérables was about the French Revolution. How nice, I thought, that these characters kicked into gear something that had such a profound impact on history. Liberté, égalité, fraternité! I didn’t put together the anachronisms in dress and time period. I was probably twelve for god’s sake. It wasn’t until I grew a little that I realized this story is about a minor uprising that didn’t have very much impact at all. Half those characters, one’s I’d grown to love over the course of the three hours I was watching their story, died for no reason! A good portion of this novel is, in fact, about a rebellion that is mostly famous for being featured in this novel. It lasted for two days and was considered the final battle in the relatively unsuccessful July Revolution which primarily ended in 1830, two years before the uprising depicted in Les Misérables, and inspired Eugene Delacroix to paint his famous ‘La Liberté guidant le peuple’.
No, that wasn’t about the French Revolution either. But the message of Les Misérables is one that easily translates to modern times, not because we are oppressed by persistent and tyrannical kings but because we live in a system that is, quite like nineteenth century France, quite broken. I feel like the man put it best here:
“While through the working of laws and customs there continues to exits a condition of social condemnation which artificially creates a human hell within civilization, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; while the three great problems of this century, the degradation of man in the proletariat, the subjection of women through hunger, the atrophy of the child by darkness, continue unresolved; while in some regions social asphyxia remains possible; in other words, and in still wider terms, while ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value.”
There will always be those fighting for the injustices they see around them, even if those injustices don’t apply to their lives personally. Hugo called them students, so do we. That sort of idealistic time in people’s lives when they first discover that they can vocalize what they consider injustices and start fighting for change. The moment in people’s lives where they get very political. I did it. I will admit that my college experience was positioned uniquely for dissatisfaction. I graduated from high school in 2000 and had just begun college when those chads hung on to those ballots so tightly, when Gore and Bush duked it out for weeks over who had actually won that election. I sighed in resignation when Bush was declared the winner, I stared in horror as buildings I’d stood in came tumbling down, I expressed anger when those around me went batshit crazy with blame, I protested when we entered a war with a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks and who, in fact, didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, I marched when politicians tried to distract the country from mounting war debt with attacks against women’s rights, and eventually, as most people do, I became complacent. I still voice my opinions, I still vote and argue and care passionately, but I will not erect a barricade. Not anymore. I grew up. Which is what the majority of the characters in Les Misérables never get to do. They are idealistic, they are fighting for their injustices, and they die for them. Hugo is clearly sympathetic towards the revolutionaries, and so must we be. But then again, this is real tyranny and not the imagined one that Fox news is selling these days.
Like all good people. My first experience with Les Misérables was through music. Unsurprising. For a child in the eighties and early nineties it was hard to not to absorb some of it. Apparently ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was everywhere, I don’t remember it, perhaps I was too young, perhaps I couldn’t relate to the lament of a young woman despairing over her rotten luck and out of wedlock child. What I could understand was another anthem, the second act one; ‘On My Own’. And I guess I sort of still do. While others, my sister, camp friends, were lapping up the plight of poor little Cosette and manipulating their voices to sound like a ten year old waif singing ‘Castle on a Cloud’ I was enamored of Eponine. I’m obviously not alone in this, there’s whole generations of lovelorn girls loving this musical in large part because of a deep personal connection to Eponine. And it makes sense really. She’s young, disadvantaged, in love with someone who will never love her back, and has a very touching death scene. She also has a penchant for walking around at night, in the rain, crying about it.
Of course this didn’t take into account the fact that I had never seen this musical. I knew the music, I could sing every note, but I really didn’t have much of a conception of the plot of this story. It wasn’t until I was about fourteen that I saw it on Broadway. It was one of the many Spring Breaks I spent in New York City with my dad, and we got half price tickets from the booth in Times Square. He’d seen the show, when it toured in Cleveland, but I hadn’t and neither had my sister and since it was the most well known show that was selling half pricers we bought them and settled in the Imperial Theatre and I fell in love. Not with a character, not even with the music and plot, but with everything. The whole thing was just so big, so long, so exciting. Not only is it a great story, though it most certainly is, but it was so ambitious. Even at that age I could see that. This book is near a thousand pages long; it incorporates a time period of about thirty years, countless characters, and takes place in various cities.
I read the book in college. I planned out a whole summer for it. I slapped the tome down on the table in front of me and went to work. I read it in a little over a week. Yes, it’s long, yes there are hundred page chapters dedicated solely to every maneuver that took place on the battlefield of Waterloo and another hundred pages on the sewer system of ninetieth century Paris. But it’s also glorious, and beautiful, and very very meaningful. It is my one hundred percent absolute favorite book. There are a ton of movies of this and I have seen every one there is to see (my favorite is the 2000 French miniseries with Gerard Depardieu despite a grossly miscast Marius). Still, I love the musical because how can you take this, set it to music, and have it make sense?
Many of the characters are given lifts. Eponine is the most obvious. Described in the novel as a gamine, though I’m not sure how sexually appealing she would be, drunk and missing more teeth than she has, she’s truly pitiful. Her home life is obviously a bad one, but she does her part; delivering fictitious letters to the wealthy begging for help. She seems to go through life with very little care for much until Marius Pontmercy moves into her building. A baron, Marius has cast off his grandfather’s riches in favor of his deceased father whom he was never allowed to know. He chooses to live in the squalor of a student instead of in the trappings he grew up in and will return to at the end of the book. Like many through history and stories, he’s playing at a sort of bohemia. Tasked by his father to find the man who saved his life at Waterloo by pulling him from the mud (Thénardier) and help him, Marius is often paralyzed to Thénardier’s treachery. In any event, Eponine falls in love and is thus redeemed, as anyone who loves in a Hugo novel must be, by that love. Choosing, in the end, to die for it. A far simpler death than the glory of those around her.
The Thénardiers are the primary villains of the piece. When we are first introduced to them they own an inn in Montfermiel and cheat their customers. It is here where they take in the young Cosette at the request of her mother, Fantine, who understands that she can not make enough money for them both to survive if she has the child with her. The scene is short but relatively pleasant. Fantine stops for a bite at the inn and notices the Thénardiers’ young daughters playing, thinks it a nice enough place for a child to grow up, and asks the couple to take in her daughter while she sends them money. How long this pleasant atmosphere lasted is anyone’s guess but probably not for very long because it soon dissolves into abuse and falsification. The Thénardiers work Cosette to the bone and then claim to her destitute mother that she’s ill and needs medicines to up their price. When we meet them again in Paris they are going under the alias Jondrette and are literally part of a criminal gang, called Patron-Minette. They thieve, lie, cheat, escape from prison, threaten, and abandon their children (quite literally in the case of their son, Gavroche [yes, the same], and two other boys I’m not sure we even get the names of, and less so in their daughters Eponine and Azelma who they don’t treat well but at least give a roof and a crust). They, particularly Monsieur, are genuinely threatening. In the musical they are regulated to primarily comic relief, which works well because they are the sort of characters who are so awful it becomes ridiculous, they’re jolly and you can’t help wanting to laugh at their antics and say “Oh you guys!”
And now, now, finally, there is a movie of the musical and everyone seems to have come down with Les Mis fever, whether they loved it or hated it. Because those who loved it are very vocal about it and those who hate it just love to make fun of those who loved it. Existing in some sort of realm that is different somehow from both the stage and the page this new Les Misérables fits into its own category in this canon. I loved it. Though, I was always going to love it. As a fan of the book, the musical, and films in general I can look at it with a third eye, an objective and reasonable one.
It is nearly impossible to bring the magic of a stage musical to a movie screen. Especially in this day and age when people are far more interested in the gritty reality behind comic book characters. The movie was meant to appeal to those who already know and love the musical, but hinges on the fact that they can not be the same thing. Les Misérables on stage is a bombastic experience with characters belting their inner thoughts into a crowd of a hundred people and touching each and every one of them. On screen this would not be nearly as effective. I’ve heard a lot of people have a problem with the way Tom Hooper directed this film. They didn’t like the many close ups and quiet emotion. They had a problem with actor’s voices that weren’t up to their Broadway equivalents. I disagree. I mean, yes, sure Russell Crowe is not exactly going to win awards for his singing voice, and I have heard Javerts whose voices could illicit knee jerk responses. But that was not the Javert they were going for in the film. Crowe’s Javert was not a belter; he didn’t have to be because the camera was right there. The audience will not miss it even if it’s not thrown out to us.
I felt like the movie did a very good job of balancing the source material with the original source material (i.e. Hugo’s book) and giving it a new meaning as well. Several numbers were moved, for example. ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ on the stage comes directly after Fantine has been fired from her job, in the movie it takes place after she’s been beaten down so much more that it makes more sense. There is no sense of balance that must take place on stage. This isn’t the show stopping number when the character stands in the middle of the stage and sings us an aria; this is a broken woman lamenting what could have been. It works for this medium and no one can deny that Anne Hathaway’s performance of it was very effective. ‘On My Own’ got similar treatment. Arguably one of the most well known songs in the show it is moved from the beginning of the second act when Eponine has delivered a letter for Cosette (this happens differently in the movie, similar to the action in the novel) and is walking back to the barricade to just after Marius and Cosette have met and Cosette discovers her father is going to move her. Eponine intercepts a letter meant for Marius and sings the iconic song. Again, this song works here. First off, we do not have the break between Acts I and II, because there are no Acts so we do not need to balance anything with the show’s two stand alone arias. But more importantly the song lets the audience understand Eponine’s situation right off the bat in a far more emotional way than the many mentions of her feelings for Marius before she has a big old song about it. Of course, the theatre geek in me is jarred by things like this, and when verses are cut or new lyrics drawn in for old ones (sometimes substituting lyrics from when the musical first debuted in the eighties), but the movie lover recognizes these changes as necessary. This isn’t a filming of the stage musical; after all, it’s a movie version.
Guys, whether you think it a good thing or a bad thing, Les Misérables is going to exist forever. I have heard complaints about the music in the musical being repetitive. Okay, sure, it is, but it’s beautiful. I have heard people complain that it’s not timely anymore. First off, who cares? This is a period piece (though not a costume drama). Second off, I couldn’t disagree more. This story has been around since 1862 and it’s still as popular as ever. What that says you can judge for yourself. As for me? I’ll be over here with my book and my ipod, buying the new movie on DVD when it comes out so it can sit happily on my shelf next to all the other versions.