‘Les Miserables’

On Christmas Day, Hollywood opened a blockbuster film based upon one of the finest works of literature in history.

When that happens, arts lovers with sense wave a small flag and cry ”Yippee.” They never surrender their critical faculties, of course, but in today’s world, even small victories for intellect over ”cool” must be celebrated.

The film, of course, is ”Les Miserables.” It’s playing in the public theaters as I write, and I hope it’s still there when you read this, because you’ll surely want to judge for yourself what you’re going to read about the film.

I thought the film version was great. The film is filled with messages about the contrast between law and grace, for example, and about the history of France. But it also teaches a strong message about the state of the contemporary American mind.

The world has grown much faster in the present day. In the past 50 years, we’ve developed devices which can cook in seconds what was once cooked in hours. Poor Superman must have to change his clothes somewhere else, because phone booths have virtually vanished, while we all pretty much have telephones in our pockets or purses, where even he would have a hard time taking off a business suit.

The point of this rambling is that the film runs nearly three hours in length, and many of us have trained our brains to focus very quickly, but for only a very short period of time. I’ve heard people suggesting that they should have made two or three much shorter films out of the story. To me, at least, that’s terribly sad. It’s true that life is very short, but I only hope it lasts so much longer than three hours – that the ability to progress from thought to thought for a short while without drifting into brain death is an important skill.

I’d like to tell you some things about the original book on which the film was based. Then, I’d like to share some observations about the Broadway evocation of the story and then the recent film.

THE NOVEL

French writer Victor Hugo published his epic novel ”Les Miserables” in 1862, while the Civil War was raging here in the United States. The critics were not impressed, but the public went wild for the book, despite its having well more than 1,200 pages. French language editions typically run to 1,900 pages.

The title has been translated many different ways, including ”The Suffering Poor,” ”The Victims” and ”The Miserable Ones.” Even in English-speaking areas, however, the book is usually called by its own, French-language title.

Hugo himself insisted that the book’s enormous length was necessary to demonstrate the characters’ passage from evil to good, from falsehood to truth, from injustice to justice, from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. Obviously, the film has to leave out large areas of the novel, but it does a reasonably good job of maintaining those arcs, which are described in the previous sentence.

Among the areas which can be examined in connection to the novel are French History, the effect of architecture and urban design on cultural history, politics, moral philosophy, monarchialism and anti-monarchialism, what constitutes justice, the appropriate purpose of religion, and the appropriate roles of familial love and friendship. Although all those thoughts and ideas are sprinkled throughout the novel, an astonishing number of people finish reading the book and think it is about the French Revolution, which began in 1789.

To me, the film does a better job of explaining the plot’s historical roots than the book itself. They both begin in 1815, the year when Napoleon was finally defeated definitively and sent into exile in the South Atlantic. The plot runs through 1832 and does deal with a violent uprising in Paris – once people learn to rebel, they tend to do it repeatedly – but it was a conflict which came to nothing in terms of advancement of the rights of mankind.

The central character is a man named Jean Valjean. He is based on an actual reformed prisoner who was known to Hugo, whose name was Eugene Francois Vidocq. Before the book begins, he has been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, which was needed to rescue his sister’s child from starving to death. He has been sentenced to hard labor and served 19 years. The book tells us, which the film does not, that the original sentence has been lengthened several times because Valjean believes his sentence to be unjust, so he has made numerous attempts to escape.

The prisoner is released on parole, although he has been branded on his head with a hot iron, so that everyone he encounters can see he is a convict. This makes it impossible for him to find a job. He finds himself sleeping on the front steps of a church, with only the recessed doorway for shelter. The kindly bishop of the city, Bishop Myriel, takes the convict in and treats him as a guest, instead of a pauper. During the night, Valjean steals a number of sacred vessels belonging to the church, which are made of silver, and flees. Myriel is based on an actual 19th century bishop, named de Miollis, who was famed for his genuine devotion to Christian goodness.

He is arrested, but the bishop insists that he be released, claiming that he had given the silver to the convict as a gift. He even adds a pair of silver candlesticks to the convict’s pack, claiming the man had left so hurriedly that he had forgotten part of his gift. When the police leave, the bishop tells the criminal that his soul has been purchased for God, and he now owes it to God to devote his body and his mind to doing good.

Valjean journeys to another city and uses the bishop’s silver to purchase a business. The business succeeds, and Valjean becomes so respected in the new town that he is elected mayor. Sadly, moving to the new town is a violation of his parole, and he becomes the fixation of a policeman named Javert, who dogs him relentlessly throughout the plot.

The action now switches to a young woman named Fantine. We learn that she was seduced, while still a young girl, by a handsome young man who has fled, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter named Cosette. As an unwed mother, she has difficulty finding a job, so finally, she pays an innkeeper and his wife to look after her daughter and journeys to another city, where her history isn’t known.

She gets a job in Valjean’s business, but the grossly immoral innkeepers continually send her false messages that her daughter is ill and her medical bills are rising. She goes to her boss for help, but Valjean has just then been recognized as the parole breaker which he is, and he turns her problem over to his foreman, who fires her and throws her out on the street.

Desperate for the money which she thinks can save her daughter’s life, she turns to prostitution and is beaten so badly she dies. When Valjean finds out about her situation and his role in it, he determines to rescue the daughter, who has been virtually enslaved by the innkeepers, and to personally raise the child so that she can be loved and sheltered.

When the girl grows to adulthood, she falls in love with a young nobleman, who has journeyed away from his palace and learned about the living conditions of the poor people. He learns that there are many bad people among the poor, but there are also many good people, and those are made to suffer by the laws and customs of their country. He joins the uprising.

The end of the book is one of heavenly justice and earthly injustice. Optimists often wish that the fates of some of the characters could be reversed, while cynics doubt that people who are so obviously flawed can so surely make their way directly into heaven.

The book is still much respected in France, especially, and indeed, around the western world. I have been told by contemporary Frenchmen that everyone in France is familiar with the book and its plot and characters. In our modern world of scorners of the beautiful and the intellectual, it has come into its share of snarling ridicule, but it often appears on lists of the greatest books ever written.

THE MUSICAL

In 1980, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel created a musical show based on Hugo’s novel. They first presented their show as a record album, which sold so enthusiastically that they created a staging of the plot, which they opened that same year in Paris, where critics were no more enthusiastic for it than they had been to the original novel. Fortunately, popular opinion was wildly positive, and they convinced Trevor Nunn and John Caird to adapt the show for an English-speaking audience.

The English version opened in London in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987. The show has been in production ever since, winning Tony awards for Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical and setting records in both England and America for the longest run of a musical show. The show’s recorded score has won Grammy awards, both as a complete score and in individual singers’ and various groups’ covering of one or more individual works from the score. British singer Susan Boyle set all kinds of sales records for her version of the individual song, ”I Dreamed a Dream.”

The creators of the show went on to create another very successful musical show, by adapting Puccini’s opera, ”Madama Butterfly,” into a modern tale by moving the setting to Vietnam during the 1970s, and giving the music a rock ‘n’ roll beat. Their second major effort is called ”Miss Saigon,” and although critics have constantly complained that the songs are essentially adaptations of the songs from ”Les Mis,” the second show has also been popular.

Later efforts by the creative team, such as ”Martin Guerre” and ”The Pirate Queen,” have proved unsuccessful, and the team has only had the two successful vehicles.

A revival of ”Les Mis” is scheduled to open on Broadway in 2014.

Other popular songs from the show, in addition to ”I Dreamed a Dream,” have been ”Castle on a Cloud,” ”On My Own,” ”Master of the House,” ”Red and Black” and ”Do You Hear the People Sing?” It is common for composers to write an additional song for successful shows which have been made into commercial films, because music which was composed for another medium – in this case for the theater – are not eligible for Oscars. The new song in this film is titled ”Suddenly,” and it is sung by Jean Valjean, when he finally fully realizes that he has been released on parole, and while he will have to hide from the police, he can begin a life in which he is in charge of his own destiny.

Sadly, people often sit through the musical show and emerge still not clearly knowing the plot.

The musical has turned from arch villains to zany comics, the Thenardiers, the cruel innkeepers who have beaten and kept Cosette prisoner while falsely reporting her medical condition to her mother, Fantine, in order to extort money from her for their own profit. The song ”Master of the House” is sung while the couple prance around, robbing their guests, the diners and drinkers in their tavern, and anyone else whose pockets they can pick, or who they can sell on any of their phoney schemes.

Probably the actor who has won the most acclaim for portraying Valjean on the stage has been Canadian actor/singer Colm Wilkinson. Wilkinson plays a short role in the recent film, playing the kindly bishop who gives Valjean the silver with which he finances his new life.

THE FILM

As I said earlier, the film opened across the U.S. on Christmas Day. Costing $61 million to make, the film earned nearly half of its budget back, during its first weekend, and it has earned many times that by now.

The film won a 71 percent positive rating from the Rotten Tomatoes website, which compares the reviews of various critics. Members of the public who agreed to fill out opinion polls gave it an 84 percent positive rating. The chief complaint about the film, according to those polls, was its length.

Playing the lead role of Jean Valjean was popular singer and actor Hugh Jackman. Jackman gives a powerful portrayal of the character. We believe he could do the things he does in the film, and he easily dominates our attention and our focus. His singing is pretty good, although the songs are set uncomfortably high in his vocal range, and he occasionally allows his native Australian pronunciations to slip in, giving something of a nasal quality.

Russell Crowe, who has never been known as a singer, has a similar problem as the relentless policeman, Javert. He sings credibly, but is asked to go higher in pitch than his voice is prepared to go. The original novel casts Javert as a man who believes in the law and who genuinely believes that by enforcing every comma and exclamation point of the law, he is bettering society. So many directors have gone the easy way out, making him either a stubborn fool or a hate-filled villain, and that weakness is not present in the film.

Anne Hathaway is a bit young for the role of Fantine, but she embodies the character beautifully and gives her descent and death a poignancy which was truly moving. Amanda Seyfried was lovely as Cosette, but her singing voice is thin and lacks color. Eddie Redmayne as her lover, Marius, successfully combines the spoiled rich boy with the committed revolutionary, an ability many actors have failed to accomplish.

Sascha Baron Cohen, best known for the Borat films, and Helena Bonham-Carter, who debuted in delicate roles in films such as ”Lady Jane” and ”The Wings of the Dove,” but has now become better known for gritty, perversion, such as Mrs. Lovett in ”Sweeny Todd,” bring their comic accomplishment to the ribald innkeepers. The two are so funny, the fear which their characters are supposed to evoke in the lead characters falls a bit short, but the enjoyment of their antics is probably worth it.

Director Tom Hooper focuses on the grim in this very grim story, but he has spelled it out beautifully. It would be difficult to watch the film and not understand the basic story, which is not true of the stage show. Much has been made of the fact that instead of going into a recording studio and getting a perfect singing of each and every song, then having the actors mouth the words while he incorporates his pre-recording into their mouths, he had them sing while they filmed the actions. Surprisingly, the entire film community hasn’t grasped that effective singing isn’t always perfect singing, and a person fleeing from arrest or contemplating suicide might actually have his voice break on a note or make minor errors. While I suspect he has done some post-production improvements on his singers, he has made a soundtrack worthy of the situations in which its singers live.

The photography is beautiful – sometimes distractingly so. In this world, in which there are still people talking of burning books and ”making cultural advancements” which distort the truth and deny our cultural history, the fact that someone has invested $61 million into bringing such a story to life deserves a standing ovation.