People of certain intellectual and literary pretentions often promise themselves that one of these days they’re going to get around to reading Proust, as if it’s a requirement for getting into intellectual and literary pretentious person heaven. For them I bring good news!
You are absolved from ever having to read Proust if you’ve read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
The reverse is not true. Even if you’ve read Proust, all seven volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu, in French, you are still required to have read Les Miserables. It’s all right if it’s only once and in translation, but you must have read it.
It is one of the greatest stories ever told.
This is why I think it would be very hard to make a bad adaptation. As long as you follow Hugo’s story, hit the major plot points, cast strong actors, and let the characters speak for themselves and as themselves (as opposed to as spokespersons for the themes), the power and the pathos and the beauty of the tale of the reformed convict but still wanted man Jean Valjean and his decades on the run from the implacable Inspector Javert will come through and carry the audience away.
But when it came to adapting the musical Les Miserables for the screen, director Tom Hooper has found a way to make a bad adaptation or a bad adaptation of an adaptation.
He didn’t make one. But he risked it.
By the way, this is not my review of Hooper’s Les Miserables. Just some thoughts I’m mulling over as I work out how I’m going to approach my review or whether I’m going to write a review at all. I might just go with “Wow!” and <sob> and leave it at that. We’ll see.
At any rate, what Hooper has done is adapt the musical but stage and film significant portions of it as if he’s doing a straight-forward adaptation of the novel for television---all those overwhelming close-ups will play much better on a flat screen than on the big screen; at least, they won’t be quite as frightening in their intimacy.
Hooper has cast fine actors but non-singers in his three most important roles: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway as Jean Valjean, Javert, and Fantine. (To be fair, Jackman can sing but he doesn’t sing that well through most of the movie. I suspect Hooper asked him to tone it down in his scenes with the non-singers or, probably more accurately, hold himself back for his big solos.) Then he has his leads sell their songs through their faces and bodies more than through their voices, turning the usual practice upside down. Most musicals use songs to express character. Hooper has the songs arising out of the expression of character. We’re meant to like the song because of who’s singing it and why and what they’re saying, instead of like them for what they’re singing. The risk Hooper’s running is offending what I’d assume is his prime audience, fans who love the musical for the music. Hooper asks us to love the story and the characters first.
Works for me.
But I’ve never seen Les Miserables on stage. I went to the movie for the story. And all an adaptation has to get really right to satisfy me is Valjean’s escape over the rooftops of Paris with Cosette on his back and Javert’s end.
Hooper does fine with the chase. Javert’s end is (and if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know this is a pun) way over the top.
But Hooper’s done something I wasn’t expecting and I don’t remember its being the case in other versions. He’s brought Fantine front and center as the female lead.
In my two favorite versions---a 1978 TV movie starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins and the 1998 movie with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush---and even in the novel, Fantine’s role is to bring about Cosette and present her to Valjean as his opportunity to do his greatest good deed by which he finally redeems himself in his own eyes. Basically, Fantine is Cosette’s past. In this version, Cosette is the shadow Fantine casts into the present. Her role is to remind Valjean of his failure to save Fantine. Taking care of Cosette is his obligation. He owes it to Fantine, but however well he does by the daughter he can’t make it up to the mother.
What I’m getting at is that Fantine’s suffering isn’t exposition. It’s the heart of the movie.
Anne Hathaway doesn’t have a strong enough voice to sell I Dreamed a Dream as a song by itself. But she has infused her Fantine with what it takes to sell it as an expression of her character’s anguish.
An anguish that’s fed with self-loathing.
Fantine has been failed by the man who seduced her and then ran out on her and their child. She has good reason to suspect she’s being failed by the people she’s paying to take care of Cosette. She’s failed by the women she works with who ought to be her friends and protectors but who, because of a system of every man and woman for his or herself that has turned the people against each other, see her as competition to be eliminated. She is failed by the man who is, abstractly, her benefactor, Valjean, who, in his new identity as the benevolent and beneficent Mayor Madeleine, is so caught up in the business of being a good employer and philanthropist he has lost sight of the individuals in his employ and in his care. And she is failed by fate---or is it God?---when a chance arrival distracts Valjean at the moment Fantine is most in need of his help. But finally and most heartbreakingly she fails herself.
Fantine knows who is to blame for her troubles and to what degree, they’re at fault, but she can’t help faulting herself most at all.
Hathaway’s performance is more than a matter of letting her hair get chopped off and submitting to be photographed at unflattering angles. She fills Fantine’s eyes and then her face and ultimately twists and racks her whole body with the growing pain and terror of a soul turning against itself.
PS. I’m not saying you shouldn’t bother to read Proust. I plan to get around to it someday myself. But if you’re looking around for great 19th Century French novels to read as your ticket into intellectual and literary pretentious person heaven, after Les Miserables, you should try Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, and Cousin Bette by Balzac, The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl, Nana by Zola, and Bel Ami by Maupassant. Madame Bovary is a given.