The Highs and Lows of Andrew Davies’s Les Misérables

One of the things for which I’m most grateful to the BBC Writers’ Room.com is their release of the shooting scripts for all six episodes of Andrew Davies’s 2018 miniseries adaptation of Les Misérables. Each script contains a host of lines and scenes that didn’t make the final cut, some of them regrettably, others fortunately. (It’s a great pity the closure for the character of Mme. Thenardier (who would be played by Olivia Colman) couldn’t have been kept.) They also indicate which details came from the mind of director Tom Shankland. Even more so than watching the miniseries, reading these scripts reveals Davies’s strengths and weaknesses as an adapter of classic literature. In fact, the scripts are such a treasure trove in this respect that this post is pretty much just going to be about them and not about any of the miniseries’ other aspects.[1]If you want my judgement on it as a whole, I’ll just say the casting for the older generations of characters, who dominate the first half, is wonderful and the casting for the younger … Continue reading

Les Misérables review – merci, Andrew Davies, c'est magnifique | Television  & radio | The Guardian

Davies is clearly up for the herculean task of making Victor Hugo’s epic 19th century novel accessible to modern television audiences. He does a great job of restructuring, rearranging and compressing the timeline. (If you don’t want to your adaptation of Les Misérables to consist largely of back-to-back montages, a little timeline compression is a necessity.) His decisions as to which of the book’s scenes to include and which of its many, many characters on which to focus are shrewd. (I do wish the highly suspenseful and very funny scene of how Jean Valjean manages to infiltrate the convent in the book could have been included, but I can see how it wouldn’t have fit in with the miniseries’ pacing.) He’s also clearly a fan of the source material, including dozens of little details from it in these scripts, many of which sadly had to be cut. To list all of them would take a whole blog post of its own, perhaps even a whole series of posts. He cites the text often and even quotes from it on occasion, most notably in the last episode, to convey the dramatic effect he desires.

But Davies also comes across as uncomfortable with, even embarrassed by Hugo’s writing style at times, most notably in scenes where characters are speaking facetiously. A good example comes in a scene adapted in Episode 1 where a group of sugar daddies are taking their mistresses out for a treat. (If your knowledge of Les Misérables comes from the musical and you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, one of the sugar daddies is the father of Cosette and one of the mistresses is Fantine.) Here’s the relevant banter in Hugo.

“What would you do, Favorite, if I should leave you?”

“Me!” cried Favorite. “Oh! do not say that, even in sport! If you should leave me, I would run after you, I would scratch you, I would pull your hair, I would throw water on you, I would have you arrested.”

Blacheville smiled with the effeminate foppery of a man whose self-love is tickled.

And here it is in the script.

BLACHEVELLE (Matthew Steer)
So do you love me, Favorite?

FAVORITE (Charlotte Dylan)
Of course I do, Blachevelle
darling. I adore you!

BLACHEVELLE
So what would you do if I stopped
loving you?

FAVORITE
Oh, no, don’t say that even as a
joke! I’d go crazy, I’d come after you
and scratch your eyes out, I’d have
you arrested!

BLACHEVELLE
Truly? You’d have me arrested?

FAVORITE
Well, I’d make a terrible fuss. (Emphasis added.)

Later, when the ladies are joking about what the surprise might be that their lovers are going to give them, one of them after suggesting gold necklaces, as in the book, follows it up with, “I don’t think!” Characters constantly feeling the need to explain that they’re joking gets irritating after a while and betrays a lack of trust in the jokes, the actors and the viewers. More justifiable is Fantine (Lily Collins, one of the cast’s biggest assets) saying that her lover, Felix Tholomyes (Johnny Flynn), doesn’t mean his speech urging women to be “unconfined” in their love affairs and for men to steal each other’s partners. That serves to underline how blind she is to his callowness. But, again, a good actress could have easily indicated this without the line. Fortunately, most of the joke explaining would ultimately be cut for time from the miniseries.

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Along similar lines, there’s a scene in Episode 5’s script, which was understandably but sadly cut, in which the elderly Jean Valjean (Dominic West) overpowers a younger robber/assassin, compassionately warns him of the horrors awaiting him in prison if he persists in a life of crime, and freely hands over his purse to him. It’s an awesome scene and the fact that he tried to include it is a point in Davies’s favor in my opinion. But he feels the need to have Valjean say, after describing a life of hard labor in the chain gang, “Believe me. I’ve been there.” No need to clarify that. It was already obvious.

There’s another way in which Davies seems uncomfortable with the source material. I like that in when dining with the bishop of Digne (Derek Jacobi), Valjean is as defensive and cynical as he is grateful, arguing that it’s easy for his host to be kind when he hasn’t suffered as his guest has. This dialogue isn’t from the book, but it gives us insight into Valjean’s mindset that we can’t get from the visual medium of television and helps render his initially ungrateful behavior understandable. But I wish the bishop would put up more of a counterargument. It’s true that the book stresses that he didn’t preach at Valjean…but he kind of did.

“Yes,” answered the bishop, “you have left a place of suffering. But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner than over the white robes of a hundred good men. If you are leaving that sorrowful place with hate and anger against men, you are worthy of compassion; if you leave it with goodwill, gentleness and peace, you are better than any of us.”

In the miniseries, the closest he comes to being so eloquent in that scene is, “you don’t think it’s possible that kindness and love can change a man?” It’s like the script itself doesn’t really believe in the bishop’s philosophy. To be fair, it’s a pretty challenging philosophy. I doubt Victor Hugo himself really believed in it. But if you’re going to do an adaptation of Les Misérables, you should at least be able to pretend you believe in it.

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In general, the miniseries does an excellent job of finding ways to visually communicate the internal drama that drives so much of the story. I wish Valjean could have been portrayed as angry less often and that more of his gentle side could have been shown. But I understand that viewers, casual ones anyway, wouldn’t have picked up on the potential for evil, as well good, in a more technically faithful portrayal of the character. In the book, Jean Valjean becomes something of a saint but at certain points he could easily turn into a villain. It’d be nice if the saint were more in evidence, but Valjean’s outbursts of temper in this version do make the potential for villainy clear which they have to be to achieve the right dramatic effect.

I also have to praise how Valjean’s nemesis, Javert (David Oyelowo, the cast’s other biggest asset), is adapted-with some caveats. Considering his reputation as an intimidating figure, it can be a surprise to read the book and see how many mistakes Javert makes in his pursuit of Valjean, and he’s hardly concerned with him at all in the story’s second half. Unfortunately, Davies’s attempts to make him more of a threat without changing the plot too much[2]I don’t mean that last part to sound like a complaint; I love that this adaptation stays close to the book’s plot., by having him be more specifically obsessed with Valjean, backfire and threaten to make him come across as pathetic and ridiculous. In Episode 5, when a violent insurrection is about to break out, Javert blames it on Valjean even though the only thing he did that could be described as political was referring to Napoleon as the emperor. It gets to the point that if they ran out of coffee at the police station, you’d expect Javert to say, “clearly our coffee was stolen by Jean Valjean!” Finding him actually becomes Javert’s whole motivation for trying to infiltrate the revolution. The script for Episode 1 had a line where Javert pegs Valjean as someone who has set himself against “all authority, all justice, all order, all virtue.” It’s very unfortunate that this was cut since it provided some justification for why Javert would assume Jean Valjean would be “at the very heart” of the rebellion.

I feel like this also muddies Javert’s character somewhat. He’s not supposed to be personally obsessed with Jean Valjean at least not to this extent. It’s never personal with Javert. His actions are driven by a fanatical devotion to the law. Thankfully, there’s enough of that in the dialogue that the take on Javert as being personally obsessed with Valjean isn’t too much of a problem. In fact, he’s probably one of most well written/adapted characters in the miniseries. His breakdown in the last episode is particularly well dramatized.

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I’ve written in the past that Andrew Davies has, to my mind, a juvenile preoccupation with sex and that this was much less of a problem when he was adapting Victor Hugo, who was much frank about sexuality than, say, Jane Austen, but it could still be a bit of one. A scene in Episode 1 of Fantine and Tholomyes in bed together post-coitus makes a certain amount of storytelling sense. After all, their affair is a major plot point, though I’ve no doubt viewers could have picked up on the fact that they were sleeping together from the dialogue and, you know, the fact that they had a kid.[3]As much as I admire the miniseries’ structure, I’m not sure that it pays off for so much of the first episode to focus on the “romance” between Tholomyes and Fantine. … Continue reading And a shot in Episode 2 of (a clothed) Fantine being roughly sodomized against a wall effectively makes her stint as a prostitute look brutal. While it’s not in the book, I don’t even object to Eponine (Erin Kellyman) trying to seduce Marius (Josh O’ Connor) through the peephole separating their apartments by doing a suggestive dance at night in Episode 4.[4]Though I question how she could do this without waking up the rest of her family who all sleep in the same room. That actually strikes me as a very Eponine thing to do.

What I do object to is the fact that Marius seems attracted to this in spite of himself. In the book, he explicitly finds Eponine ugly but feels compassion for her. Later in the episode, Marius, pining for the vanished Cosette, allows his friends to take him to a brothel in the desperate hope that he’ll see her there. This comes from a few sentences of the book but there’s no reason to devote so much time to it here except to get more sex in the story. All it tells us about the characters is that Marius is obsessed with Cosette and to a lesser extent Eponine and that he’s much more chaste than most of his friends, two things the series has already established through dialogue. Almost immediately afterwards, we get an erotic dream sequence of Marius’s about Cosette being in his bedroom and then turning into Eponine…yeah, there’s a lot of smutty padding in Episode 4. And the truly odd thing is that Marius shows no interest in Eponine at all in Episode 5. As a fan of the book, I’m grateful for this on some level as Marius only has eyes for Cosette there. But, on another level, I can’t help but wonder what the point was of all that buildup in Episode 4?

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Episode 2 also implies that Jean Valjean is attracted to Fantine, though this is portrayed more in romantic terms than sexual ones. It’s like the miniseries thinks that the only reason people can be interested in others is because they want to have sex with them.[5]In interviews, Davies has also described Javert’s obsession with Valjean as erotic. I don’t really feel that it registers that way in practice, except for maybe the scene in Episode 1 … Continue reading Oddly, they don’t depict Valjean’s obsessive love for Cosette as erotic, except for a brief bit where he accidentally gets a glimpse of her changing to his discomfiture, even though there actually would have been a slight-very slight-justification from the book for doing so.[6]According to Victor Hugo, “Jean Valjean did not, certainly, love Cosette otherwise than as a daughter; but…into this paternity the very bereavement of his life had introduced every love; … Continue reading

The script for Episode 1 also has a gross scene of Marius’s lecherous grandfather, Gillenormand (David Bradley), pressuring his maidservant, Nicolette (Emma Fielding), into sex and references to this pop up throughout their later scenes. There was no way the miniseries could pass this off as a harmless quirk in the wake of the MeToo movement and thankfully almost all traces of it were cut. To be fair, when I initially watched the first episode, I was disappointed that Gillenormand came across as simply crabby and lacked the randy personality that helped make him memorable in the book. I guess keeping the sexual relationship between him and Nicolette would technically have fixed that, but I can’t say I mourn its loss.[7]The book does a have a minor servant character, Magnon, who claims Gillenormand as the father of her two children. He cheerfully denies this but pays child support. Later, her children die and to … Continue reading

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The romance between Marius and Cosette is depicted less sensually, which on the one hand, I appreciate since they’re even more chaste in the book (Davies does have them engage in “passionate snogging”) and even their wedding night is described in a poetic, euphemistic way. But this means that Davies’s preoccupation with sex in this miniseries is largely with exploitive or otherwise unhealthy forms of sexuality. The scripts have a leering, smutty tone to them which, for all its grittiness and some gutter-minded supporting characters, was absent from the book. This is much less palpable when you just watch the series where it’s diluted by the voices of artists besides Davies, not to mention the time constraints of each episode.

Speaking of Cosette, she’s a notoriously difficult character to adapt-the older Cosette, that is. After her traumatic childhood, she ends up with the cushiest life of any of the main characters, taking no part in any action scenes, and is largely concerned with things like fashion and oblivious to the drama going on around her. This actually makes her scenes refreshing to read in the larger context of the book (for me anyway), but it also means she risks coming across as unsympathetic. Adaptations generally make her more mature and have her question her quiet life on the lam with Jean Valjean. Even the musical’s much maligned Cosette laments that he stills sees her as “a child who is lost in a wood.” The miniseries definitely takes this route. I personally wish more adaptations would try to stay true to the book’s character. Sure, she can be ditzy and even selfish at times, but it’s not like Marius and Valjean don’t have faults of their own. I can see however how she might require more adaptation than other characters to work in a different medium. And at least the miniseries’ more rebellious Cosette still has an arc rooted in the book, where she went from being uninterested in romance to being proud of her ability to attract men to being passionately in love with one man, unlike the Cosette of the 1998 movie who was just the default 90s heroine inserted into Les Misérables.

Much the same could be said of her relationship with Jean Valjean, which is much more tempestuous here than in the book. I wish the dynamic between them weren’t so unpleasant, but, again, I understand that the miniseries can’t give us direct access to Valjean’s thoughts and has to find some way to make the unhealthily possessive nature of his devotion to Cosette palpable. And, unlike in the 1998 movie where Valjean was described as Cosette’s “jailer” and he actually struck her in a fit of anger, I don’t feel like the miniseries is trying to make him the villain and her the victim. Because we’ve seen what happened to her mother in some detail, his accusation that Marius just wants to take advantage of Cosette seems reasonable enough, even though it’s not from the book and is another example of trying to cram sex in wherever possible. And considering Valjean’s past, he can’t be blamed for being angered by her complaint that living with him is like a prison. It’s a genuinely childish thing to say. Both of them are imperfect but sympathetic human beings as they are in the book. I wish some of the more heartwarming moments between them from the source material had been included, like Cosette coaxing Valjean into having a fire in his hermitage (she gets to be nice and warm in the big house) and having something good to eat, but Andrew Davies’s attempt at adapting their complex relationship is commendable, though flawed, and even admirable, considering the challenges involved.

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Actually, that’s a good summary of my opinion on this adaptation as a whole.

Bibliography

Hugo, Victor. (1992) Les Misérables (Charles E. Wilbourn, Trans.) Random House Inc.

Les Misérables – Writersroom (bbc.co.uk)

References

References
1 If you want my judgement on it as a whole, I’ll just say the casting for the older generations of characters, who dominate the first half, is wonderful and the casting for the younger characters, who dominate the second half, is disappointingly not.
2 I don’t mean that last part to sound like a complaint; I love that this adaptation stays close to the book’s plot.
3 As much as I admire the miniseries’ structure, I’m not sure that it pays off for so much of the first episode to focus on the “romance” between Tholomyes and Fantine. It’s so obvious to everyone else that he’s just using her that she risks coming across as simply stupid in her naivety. This is very true of the novel as well, but Victor Hugo was shrewd enough to only describe their last day together as a couple in detail. The miniseries tracks their relationship from start to finish.
4 Though I question how she could do this without waking up the rest of her family who all sleep in the same room.
5 In interviews, Davies has also described Javert’s obsession with Valjean as erotic. I don’t really feel that it registers that way in practice, except for maybe the scene in Episode 1 where Valjean has to change out of his prison uniform in front of Javert, so I didn’t think it worth mentioning in the main body of this post, but it still counts as an example. Javert in the book would be more accurately described as asexual than homosexual. Like I said, it’s never personal with his character.
6 According to Victor Hugo, “Jean Valjean did not, certainly, love Cosette otherwise than as a daughter; but…into this paternity the very bereavement of his life had introduced every love; he loved Cosette as his daughter, and he loved her as his mother, and he loved her as his sister; and as he had never had sweetheart or wife, as nature is a creditor who accepts no protest, that sentiment also, the most indestructible of all, was mingled with the others…”
7 The book does a have a minor servant character, Magnon, who claims Gillenormand as the father of her two children. He cheerfully denies this but pays child support. Later, her children die and to keep getting money she replaces them with two unwanted children of the Thenardiers. They end up homeless and get taken under the wing of Gavroche, none of them realizing he’s their brother…let’s just say it’s a ridiculously complicated book.
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