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. As a fan of the source material, I … 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 it them 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 “borrows” 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. 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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An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables Part 2: The Part That’s Not Actually Appreciative

It may seem strange that I’m going to devote a whole blogpost to what I consider the shortcomings of Les Misérables (2012), especially when I claimed to be tired of the negativity I sensed towards it on the internet. But I feel that, after all my gushing in the latter half of my last post, I’d come across as a mindless fanboy if I didn’t grant that the movie has imperfections. To coddle it and act like no one can say anything bad about it would be to condescend to it, acting like it can’t stand up to any serious critical scrutiny. I believe it can. So here are what I consider the movie’s flaws. (Most of them are more like missed opportunities actually.)

The Cinematography Some of the Time

I admit it. Some of Tom Hooper’s stylizations don’t really make sense to me. I don’t get the point of the recurring off-center camera angles. Maybe the thought behind it is to make the constant closeups of the characters’ faces less potentially tiresome by having those faces be a little to the right or to the left. [1]If Hooper has ever explained them on a commentary for one of his other works, I’d be interested in hearing what he had to say. I find it’s just confusing visually. You keep wondering what you’re supposed to be looking at over the characters’ shoulders. And it’s really annoying when it pops up during what is otherwise one of the musical’s most powerful moments, Fantine’s song, I Dreamed a Dream. [2]Anne Hathaway knocks that scene out of the park! Her performance in this movie is awesome in general. I didn’t want to write about it too much in my original post because she and Hugh Jackman … Continue reading These camera angles certainly don’t ruin the movie for me but I don’t really have a defense for them either.

Helena Bonham Carter to an Extent

I hate to say this because I really enjoy Carter’s performance as Madame Thenardier. She’s a whole lot of fun to watch and brings great facial expressions and comedic timing to her every scene. But her early scenes with young Cosette lose a little because she’s not the physical type for the role. In the literary Les Misérables, Victor Hugo describes the “Thenardiess” as being incredibly muscular and intimidating. I don’t mind that Carter doesn’t match this description for most of the movie. And we can all understand that a normal sized adult is intimidating to a little child. But the bits where Cosette is bullied by Madame Thenardier would be more powerful if we could empathize with her, not just understand her fear in a theoretical way. The visual contrast between the puny Monsieur Thenardier and his brawny wife would also add to their comedy. [3]While we’re on the subject of the Thenardiers, I suppose I should also mention I’m not a fan of the bawdy comedy of the Master of the House scene. But that comes from the stage version … Continue reading

Stars (No, This Isn’t About Russell Crowe)

In his big solo, Stars, Javert describes the stars in the night sky as an example of the order he sees in the universe. This vital character moment is one of the few times in the musical that Javert explains his personal philosophy in a way that makes it sound remotely appealing. Later, during Javert’s Suicide, he describes the stars as being “black and cold.” The visual contrast between a starry night sky when Javert is confident in his beliefs and a cloudy night sky when his faith is shattered could have been great. It…really isn’t. This is a rare missed opportunity for visual symbolism/storytelling for this movie and the only instance when I feel it would have benefited from a less exclusive focus on the soloists’ faces.

Samantha Barks (Kind Of)

I feel really bad about criticizing Samantha Barks’ portrayal of Eponine. For one thing, she’s one of the few stage actors who gets to reprise their Les Misérables role in this movie [4]There are plenty of other veterans of the stage play in the cast-Colm Wilkinson, Fraces Ruffelle, Hadley Fraser-but none of them recreating their onstage role. and I don’t want to alienate Broadway fans anymore than I have to do so, especially since she manages the impressive vocal act of sounding better to traditional ears than many of her Hollywood costars do while never sounding like she belongs in a completely different movie. For another thing, her performance is really moving and I don’t have the heart to say I dislike it per se. But Barks’ take on the character feels a little off to me. Eponine is supposed to be a cynical, hardened young woman who comes from a dysfunctional family and has been living on the wrong side of the law for quite some time when we meet her as an adult. An actress playing her definitely needs to be emotional and vulnerable during her soliloquies about her unrequited love, but she should come across as somewhat callous and invulnerable during her initial exchanges with Marius and her fellow gang members. This actually makes it even more moving when we see her softer side. But Barks comes across as vulnerable and, for lack of better term, traditionally feminine right from the start. She also did less method acting for her role than Jackman and Hathaway did for theirs. I certainly can’t blame her for that, but neither can I deny that she looks less convincingly wretched than they do. The character still basically works in the movie, but there’s a nagging sense that it could work better.

Some of the Cuts

For the most part, I believe this movie makes great decisions at to what to cut and what to keep from the stage musical. (I hope to go into this at greater length in Part 3.) But as a fan of the score, some of the deletions do leave me a little wistful. I know I just questioned Samantha Barks’ acting choices, but she really is a great actress/singer and I feel like she deserved to do her character’s full death song, A Little Fall of Rain, on the big screen. [5]I’ll defend this cut to an extent in the aforementioned Part 3. Another loss that makes me wistful is that of Valjean and Javert’s duet at the end of Confrontation, in which the former promises to always be there for Cosette and the latter promises to always be there to arrest him. The movie has ample material to still make those ideas clear to the audience though. From a storytelling perspective, on the other hand, I find it a bit odd that Marius’s wondering aloud who rescued him was cut as it sets up a major climactic plot point. As with many deletions, I assume it was for time. There’s only one cut that really, really bothers me though. One of the verses from Javert’s Suicide. [6]Yes, I know this means I want more of Crowe singing in the movie. It’s a verse that marks an important transition in his attitude. The song doesn’t flow well without it. Javert ends up going from defiant to despondent without a pause. I’d love to see an extended cut of the film. Much of it would make the movie too long, but that one retention would be welcome. [7]And other extensions would still be interesting for fans to see and hear, even if they weren’t ultimately improvements.

The Wedding

During the Wedding Chorale, the movie largely focuses on the Thenardiers sneaking into Marius and Cosette’s wedding reception. This is entertaining and gives fans a chance to see something they can’t onstage. But I’m personally disappointed that it takes our attention away from the bride and groom. Marius and Cosette’s romance is one of the few storylines in Les Misérables to have a completely happy ending and this song is one of the few songs in the musical that expresses undiluted joy. It’d have been so nice to be able to enjoy it without distraction.

The Ending Could Be Clearer

The movie’s uplifting finale depicts the spirits of the dead characters on a massive barricade during the 1848 Paris revolution. This is rather an odd event for a Les Misérables adaptation to celebrate since Victor Hugo and Napoleon III were not fans of each other. [8]To put it mildly! But being generally willing to put history out my mind when I watch movies (and even when I’m not watching them), I can see the appeal of contrasting a successful revolution, one with a much bigger and more heavily defended barricade, with the one we saw fail. It’s in keeping with Hugo’s ultimately optimistic message [9]In Les Misérables, I mean. He can be more cynical in other books. that no matter how grim history looks at the moment, the world is gradually improving rather than worsening. But unlike other time skips in the movie, we’re given no captions explaining the political situation or what year it is. (Presumably, this is to avoid distracting from the lyrics.) Adding to the confusion, the deceased characters aren’t dressed any differently from how they were in life. Nor are they noticeably cleaner. [10]There is a good argument to be made that Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) would always be happier in his urchin garb anyway. The movie relies solely on the actors’ facial expressions to communicate the joy and peace their characters have apparently found beyond the grave. I think the actors deliver on that, especially Jackman and Hathaway. But watching the scene for the first time, I was initially confused and wondered if this was a weird flashback. Once you figure what the scene is supposed to be, I think it works wonderfully, but it takes a couple viewings to appreciate.

So can the 2012 Les Misérables be a masterpiece, as I called it in the title of my last post, if it has all these issues? If a masterpiece is defined as work of art with no flaws, then maybe not. But if a masterpiece is defined as a work of art whose strengths render any flaws immaterial, then yes! And, anyway, this story is about showing grace, guys.

References

References
1 If Hooper has ever explained them on a commentary for one of his other works, I’d be interested in hearing what he had to say.
2 Anne Hathaway knocks that scene out of the park! Her performance in this movie is awesome in general. I didn’t want to write about it too much in my original post because she and Hugh Jackman give the film’s most praised performances. I thought it’d be lazy to fall back on them too much and I wanted to praise Isabelle Allen, whom I feel doesn’t get as much credit as she deserves for this movie.
3 While we’re on the subject of the Thenardiers, I suppose I should also mention I’m not a fan of the bawdy comedy of the Master of the House scene. But that comes from the stage version and I’m writing about the flaws of this particular adaptation, not things from the source material, which other fans will expect and not see as problems.
4 There are plenty of other veterans of the stage play in the cast-Colm Wilkinson, Fraces Ruffelle, Hadley Fraser-but none of them recreating their onstage role.
5 I’ll defend this cut to an extent in the aforementioned Part 3.
6 Yes, I know this means I want more of Crowe singing in the movie.
7 And other extensions would still be interesting for fans to see and hear, even if they weren’t ultimately improvements.
8 To put it mildly!
9 In Les Misérables, I mean. He can be more cynical in other books.
10 There is a good argument to be made that Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) would always be happier in his urchin garb anyway.
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An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables Part 1: A Masterpiece of Visual Storytelling

It doesn’t say much for my confidence that I feel compelled to start off my first non-introductory blog post with a disclaimer. But during the past year and a bit into the current one, there have been far too many attempts by my frustrated fellow citizens to violently overthrow the government and take over cities. And here I am writing a series of posts praising Les Misérables, the 2012 movie adaptation of the beloved stage musical, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, which portrays such an insurrection in a very positive, idealized way. Let me state that I don’t condone any of these attempts, either rightwing or leftwing, and if that were all that Les Mis were about, I wouldn’t be writing about it. As it is, the doomed revolution is one plot thread among many and however cynical I am about Victor Hugo’s ridiculously idealized view of it [1]It’s not much of a defense, but I will say that the original novel is a little more nuanced in its depiction of the insurrection than the musical is. Victor Hugo was at least willing to … Continue reading, I know it’s possible to enjoy his story without agreeing with all of his philosophy, since I have many, many times.

The reason I’m writing this series despite its need for a disclaimer is that it’s a you-love-it-or-you-hate-it movie [2]On the internet anyway. People I know personally seem to like it fine and I love it, but I feel like hating it has lately become the accepted norm. [3]That’s probably because director, Tom Hooper, recently directed a movie musical that was a notorious critical and financial bomb, one that was a punchline almost before its release, and people … Continue reading You don’t have to look far on YouTube to find video essayists badmouthing it. (Lindsey Ellis. Patrick H. Willems. Sideways.) The movie’s been raked over the coals by disappointed theater fans, musical-averse movie fans and lovers of both genres who dislike the combination. I’m not going to do a point-by-point rebuttal of any of the YouTubers I’ve mentioned, hence the title An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables rather than A Defense of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, for a simple reason. I feel like a lot of their specific points are too subjective to really rebut. They’ll show a clip that supposedly demonstrates what’s wrong with the movie, explain exactly what’s wrong with it, and I, the viewer, can only say, “what was wrong with that clip? It was beautiful!” They’re never going to convince me of their point of view and I’m never going to convince them of mine. But they have a right to their opinions and I have a right to mine. [4]To really balance out the suffocating anti-Tom Hooper sentiment, which I confess is what I’d really like to do, I’d have to make a video essay of my own and post it on YouTube. As it is, … Continue reading

But I will address the two “classic” criticisms of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, which is not the same thing as addressing specific critics. One of them is that Hooper’s…very particular style of cinematography is distracting and annoying. (Harsher critics have called it lazy and claustrophobic.) The movie is jampacked with closeups of character’s faces, off center as often as not. And since much of the movie consists of dramatic musical solos, these shots tend to go on for a long time. If you share the opinion of Calvin’s Dad, this movie is not going to be for you. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson for November 09, 1995 – GoComics

I’ll admit that while I greatly enjoyed my first viewing, I tended to agree with the naysayers. There were so many cool sets and locations in the movie. Why not have the camera show them off more rather than have it be so often smushed against someone’s face for so long? But the more I re-watched the film, the more I agreed with what Hooper does in it. Les Misérables isn’t about cool sets and locations. It’s also full of exciting action scenes, which is why people keep adapting it for the screen despite its unwieldly length and structure, but those aren’t what it’s about either. It’s about the characters. Their psychology, development and inner conflict are what make it such a great story. [5]Victor Hugo may have thought his book was about France and the progress of humanity. But I’d say it became a classic in spite of its focus on those things, not because of it. Their psychology and inner conflict are what make Les Miserables so great. That’s part of the reason the musical is the most popular adaptation of the book. Its songs allow us direct access to the thoughts of the characters. By focusing the camera on the actors’ faces so much, Tom Hooper never lets us lose track of what’s important to the story. That’s why while I’ll concede that the movie’s cinematography can be claustrophobic, I’ll never let it be maintained that it’s lazy. Practically every shot moves the story forward or tells us something about the characters and their world.

OK, I have no idea what the point of this random shot of a stray cow during the barricade building scene is. I said practically every shot.

The subject of the characters and the many closeups of their faces, of course, brings up the other “classic criticism” of this movie. The casting/singing. Most of the main actors (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, etc.) are movie stars with marquee value names rather than renowned vocalists. Veterans of the stage show are in the cast but mostly confined to supporting roles and cameos. You can definitely hear the difference when they sing though. Even I’ll admit that. Many viewers find the below-Broadway-caliber vocals and talky performance style hard on the ears. This is one of those criticisms that I can neither rebut nor agree with because…well, I just can’t relate to it somehow. Maybe it’s because I’ve never believed, even before the film was cast, that it would outdo the filmed 10th anniversary concert, which was my introduction to the musical, in that area. No production has ever eclipsed that cast vocally, [6]Well, OK, I’ll admit I find Judy Kuhn’s Cosette annoying except in her last scene. She’s the only major weak spot. including the later concert versions. [7]It drives me crazy when people hold up the 25th anniversary concert as superior to the movie when the 10 anniversary one exists! And whenever I watch the movie, I’m not thinking about singing. I’m thinking about storytelling, which the often breathy, unpolished sounding singing serves. To me, it just fits the tone which the movie is going for. [8]I’d argue that it’s trying to show what a world in which everyone sang all the time instead of talked would really be like, with not everyone being an amazing singer. But the consistent … Continue reading

I can certainly see the value of casting actors who aren’t big names. It makes it easier to forget about the performer and just focus on the character. But sometimes movie stars are stars for a reason and when called upon to have constant dramatic closeups of their faces throughout this movie, these stars were more than up for the challenge. There’s so much passion put into their roles and they manage to convey so many powerful emotions…

Anguish

Rage

Terror

Relief

Stoic acceptance

Grim determination

Empathy

And on rare but heartwarming occasions, joy.

I have to give a particular shoutout to Isabelle Allen who plays young Cosette. Despite her youth at the time of filming, she more than holds her own against Anne Hathaway’s Oscar nominated turn as her character’s tragic mother. In her short time on screen, she manages to perfectly convey Victor Hugo’s characterization. [9]OK, so she’s far too cute and healthy looking but apart from that.

She “mourns with the air of an old woman”

but is still capable of childlike delight.

She’s humanly envious of children who are better off than she is.

She’s terrified of her abusers

but has the guts to defy them once in a while.

And she instinctively trusts her mysterious rescuer, Jean Valjean. (Hugh Jackman)

The most frequently criticized/mocked performance in the movie is that of Russell Crowe. I can’t say his Javert has ruined the role for me the way Allen has ruined young Cosette. It’s true that he has the most limited range, both vocally and as far as facial expressions go.

And he’s clearly less comfortable acting while singing than his costars are, seldom, if ever, varying his delivery. Yet he works for me somehow. His lack of expressiveness fits his character’s initial singlemindedness and refusal to reconsider his philosophy. It also has the effect of differentiating him from the other characters, making him subtly creepy. [10]And unlike the other main actors, much as I love them in their roles, he actually looks kind of looks like his character in the book.

Crowe and Jackman each have one big solo that was clearly written for a singer with a wider range than either has. And each gives you a good idea of the actor’s vocal performance. Crowe “undersings” Stars, relying on the music’s inherent beauty and not even trying to reach the extended high notes of someone like Philip Quast, who played Javert in the 10th anniversary concert. Jackman goes for broke with Bring Him Home and falls short [11]Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can sing that song but gives the song a ragged, desperate emotion that makes the failure forgivable. [12]Of course, he has the advantage that Bring Him Home comes late in the story when we’re already invested in his character.

But enough about singing and acting. I want to get back to that cinematography. Because while the constant extended closeups may be wearying, whenever the camera pulls back to give us a good look at those cool sets and locations, the movie makes the most of it.

The movie has a great sense of scale and height. I love the way Javert, the tragic antagonist, begins the movie on high and at the climax undergoes a fall. I love all the movie’s visual symbolism. (The opening of image of a tattered French flag. The crucifixes that pop in the background during scenes of Valjean. The butterfly that appears in the foreground during the big romantic scene.) And I love the art direction, which is somehow both muted and colorful, creating a world that is both gritty and poetic-much like Victor Hugo’s prose in fact! I’ve heard it said of certain movies that you could pause them at any point and find a beautiful image. I hesitate to use the word, beautiful, given Les Misérables’ unsavory subject matter, but I feel you could probably pause it at any moment and get a powerful, arresting image.

In fact, if I were to sum up the movie in one word, it would powerful. A powerful story, courtesy of Victor Hugo, powerful music by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer, powerful visuals thanks to Tom Hooper, Danny Cohen, the director of cinematography and Eve Stewart, the production designer, and powerful performances from a great ensemble cast. It’s not a movie for everyone, but movies don’t become my favorites because they’re for everyone. They do so because they’re for me. And I’m so enamored of this one that after this long blog post, I’m still not done writing about it.

References

References
1 It’s not much of a defense, but I will say that the original novel is a little more nuanced in its depiction of the insurrection than the musical is. Victor Hugo was at least willing to acknowledge the evils that such conflicts entail, mainly the loss of life and damage to property of innocent bystanders. And the 2012 movie portrays the commanding officer of the soldiers who kill the noble rebels as tearfully regretful rather than sadistic or callous, which isn’t very true to the spirit of Hugo but works well dramatically, I feel.
2 On the internet anyway. People I know personally seem to like it fine
3 That’s probably because director, Tom Hooper, recently directed a movie musical that was a notorious critical and financial bomb, one that was a punchline almost before its release, and people now feel smugly justified for disliking his first stab at the genre. I haven’t seen that movie but I’ll say in Hooper’s defense that, given the source material, it was always going to be ridiculously bad. But his ambition seems to have made it as fascinating in its wrongness as possible in an age when critics complain about the generic badness of Hollywood. He deserves credit for that much.
4 To really balance out the suffocating anti-Tom Hooper sentiment, which I confess is what I’d really like to do, I’d have to make a video essay of my own and post it on YouTube. As it is, my “opponents” have unfair advantages over me. They can use sounds and moving images to manipulate people, as well as words and still images which are all I have. And more people will get their videos recommended to them on YouTube than will ever stumble across my blog. But making video essays is not my forte. Writing is. Were I to try to “beat” those YouTubers on their own ground, my annoying voice would drive more people away than my points would win over.
5 Victor Hugo may have thought his book was about France and the progress of humanity. But I’d say it became a classic in spite of its focus on those things, not because of it.
6 Well, OK, I’ll admit I find Judy Kuhn’s Cosette annoying except in her last scene. She’s the only major weak spot.
7 It drives me crazy when people hold up the 25th anniversary concert as superior to the movie when the 10 anniversary one exists!
8 I’d argue that it’s trying to show what a world in which everyone sang all the time instead of talked would really be like, with not everyone being an amazing singer. But the consistent physical attractiveness of the cast makes this argument hard to make.
9 OK, so she’s far too cute and healthy looking but apart from that.
10 And unlike the other main actors, much as I love them in their roles, he actually looks kind of looks like his character in the book.
11 Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can sing that song
12 Of course, he has the advantage that Bring Him Home comes late in the story when we’re already invested in his character.
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Introduction

Greetings, hypothetical reader.

This blog is for me to write about adaptations, mainly adaptations of books I care about into movies and miniseries. I also hope to write about some cinematic remakes and adaptations of stage plays. Mostly book adaptations though. If you’re still paying attention at this point, you’re probably wondering who I am and why you should be interested in reading my thoughts.

Well, I’m an aspiring author in my twenties, living with my parents in a small town in the Northern part of the American Midwest. Sound compelling yet? I thought not. Well, I may not be an expert on the art of adaptation or anything, but I’ve been told by my professors (I have a BA in English) and acquaintances from online discussion groups that I have interesting thoughts. Stick around and you might agree.

Here are some things you should know about me and this blog of my mine. I like a lot of classics, so you’ll be seeing many posts about adaptations of them. This doesn’t mean there are no modern stories I enjoy. (For that matter, I’m not a fan of every classic. If it’s an epic poem, I probably hate it.) The thing about the classics is that there have been many different adaptations of them, so they lend themselves to posts comparing different takes on the same source. And I can expect more people to be familiar with the basic premise of a classic (or at least be able to look it up a summary on Wikipedia) and I don’t have to devote a great deal of time to explaining the story and characters. If the blog lasts long enough, I should get to some adaptations of non-classics eventually.

There are also going to be a lot of posts about adaptations of children’s books, though, again, I do intend to do other kinds of stories. I love me some fantasy but please don’t ask me to write about The Lord of the Rings movies or the Harry Potter movies. I’m just not enthusiastic about either to write a good post on them.

Am I a purist? The answer to that is a big no, but. I don’t demand that an adaptation of a book I like be word-for-word faithful. I’ve even been known to enjoy movies that I consider bad adaptations of my favorite books if they’re good in their own way. But I also feel that purists get an undeserved bad rap. In particular, I tire of people condescendingly explaining to book purists that literature and film are different mediums and changes have to be made when translating a work from one to the other. This is certainly true. (For one thing, books give readers access to the thoughts of characters which have to be communicated through dialogue and action in movies.) But it doesn’t follow that any change made to adaptation is either necessary or for the better. And some changes betray what made source material popular enough for an adaptation to be marketable in the first place.

So if you want a blog that judges adaptations solely on accuracy and never recommends one that makes major changes, this one isn’t for you. But if you want a blog about adaptations that treats any deviation from the source as neutral or welcome, it’s not for you either. Since books are my first love, I usually think even the best adaptation of a book I love is inferior to the source. But it’s not like I’m against literary adaptations. I think they’re a whole lot of fun. If I hated movies or television, I wouldn’t be doing this blog at all. And there have been cases where I consider a great movie based on a book I don’t particularly love to be an improvement on it. Maybe I’ll write about some of those on this blog too.

Hope you enjoy,

The Stationmaster

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