An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables Part 3: A Master Adaptation

For the last part of this series on the 2012 Les Misérables, I want to finally talk about it as an adaptation, and the way it uses elements of both Boublil and Schonberg’s musical and Victor Hugo’s novel. This is an aspect of the movie for which Tom Hooper and screenwriter, William Nicholson, don’t get nearly enough credit, I think. When something has become a beloved institution like Les Mis, the thought of making changes to it makes fans nervous. (For the record, I was a fan of the stage musical long before the movie came out. I did read an abridged version of the book before that, but only by a short period of time.) But I’ll maintain that the movie actually improves on the musical dramatically, though I risk alienating musical theater fans by saying so. Of course, they probably wouldn’t care anything for the opinion of someone who likes the 2003 Music Man better than 1962 one, [1]It’s true that Matthew Broderick is terrible as the lead in that movie, but the supporting cast, I feel, is better, the pacing is snappier and the wordless dance sequences are more fun to watch but if they keep reading, I think they’ll respect my view even if they can’t agree at the end of the day. [2]See what I did there?

Let me stress I’m not suggesting productions of the musical should try to emulate this movie, which is filmed and acted in a very intimate way, inappropriate for the stage. [3]For example, the Thenardiers come across as very deadpan and businesslike in their blatant wickedness here whereas most productions portray them in a much hammier way. As a fan of the source … Continue reading What I’m talking about are changes that having nothing to do with performance style, and these a theater company isn’t going to have the right to borrow unless they work out some kind of bargain with Universal maybe. And while I think nearly every adaptation decision made by Hooper and Nicholson is great, some of them were made solely because of the different medium. In theater, when the scene changes, we expect it to stay changed for quite sometime. With a movie, we can expect the scene to change as often as possible. Sometimes when plays are adapted to the cinema, the attempts to hide their theatrical by having characters constantly going to different rooms or outside in the middle of conversations is distracting. But not with Les Misérables. It never feels like we’re trapped in a single location but neither does it feel like we’re needlessly moving around. If I didn’t know the movie was based on a play, I wouldn’t have guessed it. It’s paced exactly how I’d expect a movie to be paced.

Part of that pacing includes trimming down some of the songs. Sad as any cuts must be for fans of the musical’s awesome score, I think that the cuts are wise. All of the major songs for the main characters are intact. (The verse from Javert’s Suicide, I mentioned in the last part, is an unfortunate but forgivable exception.) The songs with the heaviest cuts are Master of the House, Red and Black, Drink With Me and Beggars at the Feast. All of which are great songs but are all sung by and about supporting characters, who are less interesting than the leads. As much as I love Eponine’s A Little Fall of Rain, she’s not one of the protagonists and it makes sense for her death to be less of a big moment. [4]It’s also feels more realistic that she wouldn’t be able to sing the longer and more vocally demanding full version while she was dying. Of course, many people would say that realism and … Continue reading The only song to be entirely cut is Dog Eat Dog, which is easily the musical’s most disposable song [5]It’s great in its own way, but when was the last time you thought, hmmm, I think I feel like listening to Dog Eat Dog? and presents a pacing hurdle in the cinematic medium as it comes right in the middle of an exciting action scene. I wouldn’t want to stage versions to make these same cuts but they really do make sense. And then there are the changes that aren’t just improvements for the change in medium but improvements period.

In the stage show, Javert starts to suspect Jean Valjean’s identity as a parole breaker when he sees him lift a fallen cart that’s crushing an old man. But he immediately dismisses the idea since he believes that particular parole breaker has apparently been rearrested and is soon to be sentenced to life imprisonment. The movie, harkening back to the novel, has Javert keep quiet about his suspicions until he can get more evidence. Then, enraged by Valjean’s going over his head, in his capacity as mayor, to free Fantine, he accuses him to his superiors in the police department. Only then is he informed of the capture of “Jean Valjean.” His response to this is to tell the whole story to Valjean and ask to be dismissed from service as punishment for making a false accusation against an authority figure. Rather than taking him up on it and getting revenge on his enemy, Valjean lets him to keep his job-which Javert finds aggravating. This has the effect of making him both more likable, in that he applies the same harsh standards to himself that he does to others, and more unlikable, given the glee with which he arrests Jean Valjean after the latter has confessed his true identity to save his innocent lookalike. A much more interesting character on the whole. [6]Not that Javert comes across as uninteresting in the stage musical. Far from it.

The aforementioned man whom Valjean saves from the toppled cart is another welcome reintroduction of something from the novel. Onstage, he simply appears randomly to give Valjean a chance to demonstrate his physical strength and heroism and is gone from the story. In the movie and the book, he reappears as a gardener at a convent in Paris, who provides shelter for Jean Valjean and Cosette. This is a great example of both Chekhov’s gun and dramatic irony, as the act of kindness that blew Valjean’s cover also ends up saving him from the law.

The mention of Cosette brings us to one of the most notable additions to the musical, a new song for Valjean, Suddenly. New songs are almost always added to musicals when they are made into Hollywood movies as it gives them a chance to get nominated for and, with luck, win Best Original Song. [7]The 2014 movie adaptation of Into the Woods was going to have such a song but director Rob Marshall ultimately cut it. For that, he deserves credit. I can’t prove Suddenly wasn’t commissioned for this purpose. It probably was. But who cares in this case? Let them have their nomination! I might have given them the award were I on the committee. This song does something that I don’t think an added song to a musical adaptation has ever done before: dramatically improve the material, and not in a minor way. In the original novel, the relationship between Valjean and Cosette is one of the most important in the story. But it’s handled in a very perfunctory way in the stage musical. We get the basic idea but it’s only towards the end, when Valjean sadly decides to leave Cosette’s life for her own good, that it becomes as emotional as other parts. The inclusion of Suddenly upon his “adoption” of her in this movie invests us in the relationship right away, making it clear just what a major event this was in Valjean’s life as well as Cosette’s. We see and hear how he cares for her for her own sake. She’s not just a debt he feels he owes to Fantine. [8]Not that this isn’t the idea in the original stage musical, which includes a bit where Valjean laments that Cosette’s cloistered life with him must be so dull for her. But it … Continue reading This also has the effect of making the audience more invested with Cosette. In every version of the story, she’s a character who serves to motivate others (Fantine, Valjean and Marius) rather than move the story along herself. I don’t believe this automatically makes her a bad or unlikeable character. But since the musical, unlike the book, focuses solely on the most dramatic scenes, an actress playing her has to fight an uphill battle to engage the audience’s attention. It’s a battle that can be and has been won by charismatic performers and thoughtful directors, among whose number I count Amanda Seyfried and Tom Hooper. In a vital way, Suddenly makes the battle easier by establishing her importance to the protagonist. Thus she can “borrow” audience investment from him.

Marius is another role that has to fight a battle, though a less difficult one than Cosette, to gain the audience’s interest onstage. The movie remedies this by again reinstating some elements from the novel, mainly the character of Marius’s wealthy grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand (Patrick Godfrey), who has cut him off because of their political differences. While Gillenormand is little more than a cameo, far from the complex character Victor Hugo created, and we still don’t get Marius’s fascinating backstory, the self-discipline and dedication demonstrated by his voluntary poverty give him interest well beyond just “that guy who’s in love with Cosette.” And his eventual reconciliation with his grandfather gives us a clearer idea of what his future with Cosette will be like, giving them a more satisfying end than the play does.

Another quirk of the musical is that it very much relies on the audience pitying the characters. This is unquestionably an aspect of the book too, but the book also explores the dark sides of characters like Fantine, Marius, Cosette and Jean Valjean, which the musical tends to dance around. (No pun intended.) [9]For that matter, there are moments in the book when we feel sorry for the Thenardiers, which we don’t get in the musical unless we really stop to think about their poverty. To the … Continue reading Eponine is probably the ultimate example of this. In the book, she’s an out-and-out villain albeit a potentially sympathetic and arguably admirable one in the end. She only helps Marius track down Cosette in the hope of getting something from him and when Vajean moves away with her, she hides her whereabouts from him and arranges for him to die at the barricade. But when it actually comes to that point, she gives her life for his. She says this is because she wants to be the one to die first. If the reader wants to do so, they can interpret this as her trying to save street cred and that she really changed her mind and doesn’t want Marius to die. She gives him Cosette’s new address before she dies, but this is because she desires his good opinion and is done supposing that there’s no longer any chance of the lovers being reunited. The musical, by contrast, has Eponine be arguably one of the most self sacrificing characters in the story, one who loves Marius but acts as a go-between between him and Cosette, accepting that “he was never (hers) to keep.” [10]Interestingly, the stage musical does not have Eponine take a gun aimed at Marius and turn it towards herself. Instead she dies making her way to the barricade to see him again though she has the … Continue reading The movie shrewdly combines these two contradictory characterizations. Eponine initially seems willing to let Marius and Cosette be together. But when she has a chance to conceal the latter’s whereabouts from the former, she gives into the temptation. [11]This does lead to a rare adaptation problem for this movie. Marius’s dilemma in One Day More, of whether to follow Cosette or stay in Paris and fight beside his friends, is rendered somewhat … Continue reading Ultimately, she makes the right decision and tells Marius the truth. This creates a parallel between her and Jean Valjean, who also wants to separate the lovers but eventually helps them be united. I hesitate to say that this take on Eponine is the best. I think the versions of her in the book and the play are great in their own ways. But I appreciate how this one makes her more in line with the other main characters, who struggle with doing the right thing, rather than her bringing either entirely selfish and obsessive or a perfect saint.

What I will claim is that the movie’s handling of Jean Valjean’s climactic moral struggle is an unqualified improvement over the stage musical. While the idea there seems to be the same as that of the book, that Valjean can’t stand the idea of anyone taking Cosette away from him, it isn’t stated explicitly at all. (See the above paragraph for how the musical struggles to show the characters’ dark sides.) This makes it a bit baffling for people unfamiliar with the story why Cosette keeps her relationship with Marius a secret from him. It’s up to actors and directors to find a way to show Valjean’s possessiveness through action since the lyrics aren’t helpful. The movie helps out first by the addition of Suddenly, which establishes how important Cosette is to him. Then it has Jean Valjean interrupt A Heart Full of Love and send Cosette back inside the house before looking suspiciously out the gate, then sighing sadly. All of which communicates what’s going on inside him. [12]At the same time, the relationship between Valjean and Cosette never becomes as unpleasant as it does in some other adaptations of the book, like the 1998 film or the 2018 miniseries. Later, when Valjean receives Marius’s farewell letter to Cosette, he gets a soliloquy original to the movie in which he expresses his fear that Marius “will take away the treasure of his autumn days.” We’re not sure whether he goes to barricade to protect his replacement in Cosette’s life or to make sure he dies-until the cathartic moment when he sings Bring Him Home. This seems to have been the intended audience reaction in the musical, given the tense, ambiguous music that heralds his arrival at the barricade. But unless you’re already familiar with the book, it’s hard to tell exactly what they’re implying.

I hesitate to say all this makes the 2012 Les Misérables the best version of the story. That might imply that it has rendered either Victor Hugo’s novel or Boublil and Schonberg’s stage play redundant. I still continue to enjoy both after seeing the movie. But it’s probably the the movie is what I recommend to the most people as an introduction the story. [13]Especially since not everyone is going to get a chance to see a theatrical production of the musical. It really does combine the virtues of the book (the reinstated plot points and character depth described above) and the musical (the powerhouse score and the lack of lengthy digressions.) That’s exactly what I believe an adaptation should do. Nicholson and Hooper have my undying gratitude and respect for this accomplishment.

Vive la France!

References

References
1 It’s true that Matthew Broderick is terrible as the lead in that movie, but the supporting cast, I feel, is better, the pacing is snappier and the wordless dance sequences are more fun to watch
2 See what I did there?
3 For example, the Thenardiers come across as very deadpan and businesslike in their blatant wickedness here whereas most productions portray them in a much hammier way. As a fan of the source material, I love this because it’s closer to how their comedy is in the book. But I suspect this subtle acting would come as really, really boring onstage. Hammishness is clearly the way to go there.
4 It’s also feels more realistic that she wouldn’t be able to sing the longer and more vocally demanding full version while she was dying. Of course, many people would say that realism and musicals are incompatible and that this proves a movie version of Les Mis was a bad idea. Yet those people are able to enjoy movies about wizards and monsters, which could also be described as dark and gritty.
5 It’s great in its own way, but when was the last time you thought, hmmm, I think I feel like listening to Dog Eat Dog?
6 Not that Javert comes across as uninteresting in the stage musical. Far from it.
7 The 2014 movie adaptation of Into the Woods was going to have such a song but director Rob Marshall ultimately cut it. For that, he deserves credit.
8 Not that this isn’t the idea in the original stage musical, which includes a bit where Valjean laments that Cosette’s cloistered life with him must be so dull for her. But it doesn’t include much besides that to contradict the debt-to-be-paid possibility.
9 For that matter, there are moments in the book when we feel sorry for the Thenardiers, which we don’t get in the musical unless we really stop to think about their poverty. To the musical’s credit though, it does effectively portray Javert as both contemptible and sympathetic, even admirable in a way.
10 Interestingly, the stage musical does not have Eponine take a gun aimed at Marius and turn it towards herself. Instead she dies making her way to the barricade to see him again though she has the chance to escape. I guess the musical felt it had it made her so heroic that the original scenario for her death was just overkill.
11 This does lead to a rare adaptation problem for this movie. Marius’s dilemma in One Day More, of whether to follow Cosette or stay in Paris and fight beside his friends, is rendered somewhat incomprehensible since he now has no idea what has happened to Cosette. Maybe his lyrics for that song should have been rewritten.
12 At the same time, the relationship between Valjean and Cosette never becomes as unpleasant as it does in some other adaptations of the book, like the 1998 film or the 2018 miniseries.
13 Especially since not everyone is going to get a chance to see a theatrical production of the musical.
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