Peter Pan: The Musicals

My original plan was to only write about the theatrical movie versions of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan since, frankly, I like most of them better. But there have been so many filmed versions of Carolyn Leigh and Mark Charlap’s musical that it felt wrong not to discuss them. This musical has probably influenced what many people think of when they hear the title, Peter Pan, even if they haven’t seen it. A series on Peter Pan adaptations that didn’t mention any of these would be incomplete. [1]This post is going to focus on filmed versions of Leigh and Charlap’s musical specifically, so it’s not going to cover the 1976 made-for-TV musical starring Mia Farrow as Peter and Danny … Continue reading

Peter Pan 1960

Peter Pan (1960) - Posters — The Movie Database (TMDb)

There were actually three NBC telecasts of Mary Martin as Peter Pan, one in 1955, one in 1956 and finally this one. Most of them contain the original Broadway cast [2]This one being a slight exception as many of the younger actors had outgrown their roles, but the main parts are still the same and are staged by Jerome Roberts, who adapted the script and was the original director and choreographer. Thus this version gives us a pretty good idea of what that first production of the musical was like. And that idea is that the first production was pretty lousy.

We begin with some voiceover narration, read by Lynn Fontanne, which is actually taken from J. M. Barrie’s dedication to his original play. Ordinarily, I’d love this but the quote, about whether or not we become different people as we age, doesn’t seem to relate to anything. As it involves maturing and growing up, it naturally relates to Peter Pan, but there’s nothing in this version at least to indicate the narrator’s conclusion that we really are the same people no matter how time changes us. If anything, it’s the opposite. This is not the only thing about the script that feels inexplicable, even if there aren’t many.

The sets for this version are very drab and boring. Of course, they’re not going to look realistic in a filmed play like this. But that’s not a reason for Neverland to look like the set of an elementary school play. Or for the costumes, especially the animal costumes, to look like something from an episode of Barney. Actually, I think that description may be unfair to Barney.

Maybe this rather cheap looking visual aesthetic is supposed to represent how Neverland is in Barrie’s words, “a map of a child’s mind.” This could be the reason why Tiger Lily (Sondra Lee) and her Indian braves [3]Normally, I’d say Native American or American Indian, but since the Indians of Neverland are such stereotypes that that just seems like spitting into the wind. I hope to write more about this … Continue readingare obviously Caucasian. They’re what English children of Barrie’s day imagined Indians to be, not any actual tribe, so perhaps it’s fitting that they look exactly like white kids playing dress up. Boy howdy, do they need some kind of excuse now! Even the original audience must have thought this looked a bit stupid.

Seriously. They couldn’t have given her a black wig or something?

There are touches in the set design throughout that suggest this Neverland-as-a-literal playground idea. (The Indians ride around on scooters. Walking the plank of the pirate ship becomes going down a water slide.) I can’t say there was no thought put into it. But I can say the effect is the opposite of magical.

Mary Martin has an impressive Broadway resume. But I can’t stand her Peter Pan! Maybe it’s the result of her trying to make her voice sound masculine, which is understandable because she sure doesn’t look it, but she sounds silly. In fact, her voice coupled with the perpetual dopey grin she sports in this production remind me of nothing so much as Lucy Ricardo drunk on VitaMeataVegaMin.

Come on. Who else sees it?

Maureen Bailey’s Wendy isn’t much better, shrill and one-note. Some of the unpolished acting of the youngest cast members does have a kind of charm to it. But the only really great performance comes from Cyril Ritchard as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook. And even he isn’t going to make my list of all-time best portrayals of those characters. [4]I speak here theoretically. I’m not planning any blog post about my favorite Hooks or George Darlings.

I’ll come out and say it now. I’m not a fan of this musical. I love the parts that are from the Barrie’s stage play and novel. But Leigh’s songs, I find, are instantly forgettable. The best of them are catchy enough but nothing to be humming days after hearing them. And they slow the pacing down more than anything. Why anyone thought the long dialogue scene of Peter Pan and Wendy meeting needed three songs for Peter (I’ve Gotta Crow, Neverland and I’m Flying, the last of which is the best) is anyone’s guess. And one song comes across as just inexplicable in context. On the Darlings’ last night in the Home Under Ground, Peter sings a lullaby, Distant Melody, to his pretend children, in which he seems to be missing his long lost mother. This makes no sense for the character, especially as it’s proceeded by a scene of him stating he has no wish to grow up and have a real family and followed by him refusing Wendy’s offer to leave Neverland with her and be adopted by her parents. Maybe a more nuanced performance could make these sudden changes of mood work. Martin doesn’t. This song takes the place of Wendy’s bedtime story from the original play and Peter’s angry revelation that his mother forgot about him after he ran away. [5]In the novel, Barrie writes, “I do not know whether this was true or not but Peter thought it was.”Apparently, the sheer beauty of the song is supposed to convince the Darlings that they should return to their parents immediately. Frankly, I don’t find the music that powerful, making this important plot point seem random.

Speaking of random, there’s Liza, the Darlings’ maid. In Barrie’s script, he had her briefly appear at the end of Act II when Peter is guarding the little house built by the Lost Boys for Wendy by night. Barrie admitted that this makes no sense and he just did it because she has so little else to do in the play. I believe most productions omit this bizarre cameo. This musical not only includes this moment, it comes up with a reason for her being in Neverland and even tries to give her a character arc. Yet somehow this feels even more random than the nonsensical appearance Barrie gave her.

We first see Liza (Jacqueline Mayro) refusing to play pretend with John (Joey Trent) and Wendy on the grounds that she has “more important things to do.” Just before he flies away, Michael (Kent Fletcher) tosses her some fairy dust. She uses it to journey to Neverland and arrives at the same point Barrie had her appear. She dances a boring ballet interlude and then sees the sleeping Peter but she doesn’t wake him or ask him where the Darlings are or anything. We don’t see her again until the climax where she helps fight the pirates(?) [6]Having the other denizens of Neverland assist Peter during the final battle is one of the few adaptation ideas in this musical I like actually. What was she doing during the untold amount of time the characters were on the island. How come she never interacted with them before? After that scene, she shows herself to be a Peter fangirl and sings a pointless reprise of I’ve Gotta Crow. How exactly did she go from an uptight grownup to this? We don’t see any of the beats. I don’t have a problem with the idea of Liza going to Neverland with the Darlings, but as it is, the character has simultaneously too much to do and not enough.

I will give praise to this musical for including Barrie’s epilogue where Peter meets Wendy’s daughter, Jane. Almost none of the other Peter Pans I’ll be writing about include this. [7]I could quibble that it shows Wendy’s regret upon being reunited with Peter as an adult, but not Wendy happily telling a bedtime story to her daughter moments before, making for a less nuanced … Continue readingThat’s about where my praise ends. Unless you’re a big fan of the material or some of the actors involved, there’s no reason to see the 1960 Peter Pan. It’s clunky, corny and while it only lasts an hour and forty minutes, it feels much longer.

Peter Pan 2000

Peter Pan (2000) - IMDb

Director Glenn Casale revived the musical for Broadway in 1990 and thanks to the A&E network, the production was restaged and captured on film in 2000. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for that because this one blows Jerome Robbins’ production completely out of the water. The choice of text from Barrie to use as voiceover narration makes more sense. The costumes are better. The flying effects are more impressive. The sets are much more detailed and beg to be explored.

No one in the cast pales besides their 1960 counterpart and most are improvements on them. Cathy Rigby brings great physical exuberance and flair to the starring role, putting Mary Martin’s attempts at masculine swagger to utter shame. She also delivers on the moments of deadpan humor and rare moments of vulnerability.

Paul Schoeffler, with his air of perpetually aggrieved dignity, is great fun as both Mr. Darling and Capt. Hook. And Michael Nostrand is probably the most hilarious version of Smee ever, which is no faint praise. He’s so great that he evens get an extra scene, original to this adaptation.

The only performance I have a slight issue with is Elisa Sagardia’s Wendy, who doesn’t show as much range as the role allows. Her Wendy is either charmed or saddened by Peter. We never see her get angry with him. Still, if not the greatest Wendy, she’s a solid improvement on Maureen Bailey.

Casale’s adaptation brings back several elements from Barrie that were either cut specifically from the 1960 Pan or were never in the original Broadway production at all, and basically all of them improvements. The expanded role of Liza (Dana Solimando, who doubles as Tiger Lily) is cut. Wendy and Peter have their misunderstanding about kisses. [8]In the scene where Wendy takes her leave of the Home Under Ground, this gets a rather emotional callback. We get the amusing explanation for Lost Boy Slightly’s name and Peter’s “chivalrous” reaction to being told Wendy’s brother despises girls. Instead of tying her to a tree, the pirates try to strand Tiger Lily on Marooner’s Rock in the Mermaids’ Lagoon. The song where Peter tricks Hook by pretending to be a Mysterious Lady is cut. I can understand why some fans of the original musical might regret that one since it was rather hilarious. But I can’t say I’ve ever noticed its absence with a pang while watching the scene. There was also a hilarious bit of dialogue original to Jerome Robbins’ adaptation, which was infuriatingly cut from the 1960 telecast, that gets reinstated here. (It comes when Wendy is telling bedtime stories to the Lost Boys. You’ll know it when you hear it.)

There is one way in which this production strays farther from Barrie than the original did rather than hearkening back to him. Hook’s lament in the middle of Captain Hook’s Waltz that no little children love him is cut. As a fan of the source material, I might have liked to have seen it kept. But, honestly, it fit so poorly with the triumphant tone of the song that I can’t blame Casale for cutting it.

Ah, yes, the songs. While I still don’t love them, they don’t bore me here as they do in the 1960 version, thanks to the better orchestrations and more entertaining choreography. And Distant Melody at last makes sense. Here, Wendy starts out as the one singing it. [9]For one of the main characters, Wendy is given ridiculously little singing to do in this musical. Peter joins in as she goes on. The memory of home seems like something awakened in him just now, not something that constantly haunts him. And his wistfulness comes across as part of a private reverie, not something he’s deliberately sharing with others, which would make no sense if he wished to keep Wendy and the Lost Boys with him. In one of this production’s most notable reinstatements, he follows this up by confiding in Wendy about his mother.

This moment of seriousness is handled just as well as the show’s many, many lighthearted moments. Just about every scene contains some entertaining bit of stage business. It speaks to how engaging the production is that when Peter begs the audience to save TinkerBell by clapping to express belief in fairies, they oblige in seconds. Of course, that could be because the footage was edited to have the applause start sooner. Or because they were prompted by the director beforehand. Or because they knew what they were expected to do when going to see a Peter Pan production long before they entered the theatre. But seriously! This is such a wonderful and exhilarating show that I wouldn’t be surprised if the audience reaction was perfectly spontaneous.

Peter Pan 2014

Peter Pan Live Poster With Christopher Walken and Allison Williams

NBC aired Peter Pan Live in 2014 as part of their recent line of live television musicals, largely aimed at family audiences. They clearly spared no expense trying to make it a big event. Though the wires are distractingly visible in some of the flying shots, this Pan‘s elaborate sets and colorful costumes are much more eye-catching than anything in the 1960 version. The miniature London seen in the opening outdoes that one all by itself. I’m not sure why the Lost Boys wear brightly colored school uniforms instead of animal skins, but they get points for originality. Director Rob Ashford has a strong theatrical background and his choreography has some fun bits, like Peter’s dance with his shadows during I’ve Gotta Crow or the use of paper folding in I Won’t Grow Up.

Peter Pan Live' Recap: Best and Worst Moments – The Hollywood Reporter
Peter Pan live streaming: How to watch Peter Pan musical children's show  for FREE | Theatre | Entertainment | Express.co.uk

Alison Williams is bland in the title role though. She doesn’t annoy me as Mary Martin’s Peter does, but she’s never a quarter of as much fun Cathy Rigby’s was either, though I might prefer her singing voice. Christopher Walken comes across as dull and listless as Capt. Hook. He was probably going for a more serious take on the character than Ritchard and Schoeffler. I approve of that idea in theory [10]More on this in a later post but the new script by Irene Mecchi, who contributed to a number of Disney projects, most notably The Lion King [11]More relevantly to this musical’s target audience, she did the script for the Wonderful World of Disney’s 1999 Annie., doesn’t really give him anything to work with on that score. Neither Walken nor Williams is outright bad in their role, but neither is particularly impressive either. In fact, the same could be said of the whole cast. All of the actors underplay their parts compared to those in the two previous productions. Again, this is good in theory as television is a much more intimate medium than the stage. But in practice, a little campy flair might have been just what this broadcast needed to liven it up.

Mecchi’s adaptation takes more liberties than Casale’s did and they’re seldom to good effect. Occasionally, there’s a great line. (“Let’s show Wendy how sorry we are for almost killing her.”) But when it isn’t quoting from Jerome or Barrie, the dialogue tends to sound overwritten and lacking in snap. I also noticed a good deal of padding. Before sewing Peter’s shadow back on, Wendy tiptoes out of her room to make sure the maid is preoccupied and Peter gives us exposition about Capt. Hook, rather than waiting until we get to Neverland for it. The purpose of this extension seems to have been to show off that this production, unlike others, could take us into the rooms of the Darling House besides the nursery. Understandable, I suppose, except that it already did this when Mrs. Darling (Kelli O’Hara, probably the cast’s biggest asset, for whatever that’s worth) confided to her husband (Christian Borle, who doubles as Smee) why she wanted Nana to stay in the nursery, and that made sense. Instead of capturing them as soon as they exit the Home Under Ground, the pirates inexplicably let the Darlings and the Lost Boys walk through the woods a little before picking them off one by one. At two hours and eleven minutes, not counting the commercials from the original airing, this is longest Peter Pan discussed in this post and it feels like it. Only once, when Hook takes a last farewell of his crew before abandoning ship, does the slower pacing really add anything interesting.

An aim of this reworked script seems to have been to make the musical more serious. As I’m foremost a fan of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, which could get pretty dark, I applaud this goal. But the execution shows a misunderstanding of the characters and even betrays a fundamental distrust in the material. Rather than just wanting to kill Peter Pan and capture Wendy, Hook now has his men planting dynamite all over the island so he can blow up Neverland. (Seriously! That’s the plot.)[12]The climactic moment in the musical and original play when a desperate Hook tries and fails to blow up his ship with all the children on it probably inspired this. Tiger Lily (Alanna Saunders) gets wind of this and tries to convince Peter that they need to join forces to stop this threat. He dismisses this until his rescue of her at Marooner’s Rock, which she reciprocates. “We have much work to do,” he says solemnly. Later, before his final battle against the pirates, he says, “It’s not just a game this time.” No. For Peter, the boy who never grows up, it should be a game, albeit a bigger game than usual, like the championship. Having Peter undergo character development and become more responsible goes completely against his whole character. Even before this, he seems too intense, such as when he chides Wendy (Taylor Louderman) for not taking the island’s dangers seriously enough, and speaking of “a great battle that took place here” in which “many lives (were) lost.” Ashford and Mecchi don’t seem to believe viewers will engage with the story unless there’s something sort of ongoing suspense.

Peter Pan LIVE!: Photos from the Live Broadcast of Peter Pan Live! Photo:  2089196 - NBC.com

As part of this serious tone, two of this version’s four new songs, Only Pretend and When I Went Home, are of a melancholy nature. Of the original songs, only Distant Melody and maybe Tender Shepherd were trying to dramatic. I appreciate that the first grants my wish to have Wendy sing more and the second reinstates Peter’s backstory that was cut from the musical’s original Broadway production. But they’re both boring and don’t mesh with the rest of the soundtrack. The old songs have always been boring in my opinion, but at least they were boring in a consistently lighthearted way. Ironically, my favorite new song from this Peter Pan is Hook’s Vengeance, which is actually the one that’s just trying to be fun. There is one attempt at making the musical more dramatic which does work well: having Distant Melody become a duet between Wendy and her mother, back in London, missing her children. And there’s a good twist regarding the identity of the narrator (Minnie Driver), though I can’t give the script too much credit for that as other Peter Pan adaptations have done the same thing.

I want to praise this production. A live television musical like this is a very difficult, nerve wracking thing to pull off, especially as this one has real dog as Nana (Bowdie) instead of the traditional costumed actor. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong, and nothing major does. It’s clear that everyone involved put a lot of thought and effort into this. But the fact that I feel like I have to stress this arguably tells you everything you need to know.

Conclusion

Do I even need to say which of these I recommend? Not only is the Cathy Rigby version the best filming of this specific musical, it’s one of the best Peter Pans I’ve seen.

Bibliography

Barrie, J. M. (1995) Peter Pan and Other Plays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrie, J. M. (1994) Peter and Wendy: The Original Storybook Version of Peter Pan. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc.

peter-pan—libretto.pdf (everythingmusicals.com)

References

References
1 This post is going to focus on filmed versions of Leigh and Charlap’s musical specifically, so it’s not going to cover the 1976 made-for-TV musical starring Mia Farrow as Peter and Danny Kaye as Capt. Hook, though I may give it a post of its own.
2 This one being a slight exception as many of the younger actors had outgrown their roles, but the main parts are still the same
3 Normally, I’d say Native American or American Indian, but since the Indians of Neverland are such stereotypes that that just seems like spitting into the wind. I hope to write more about this topic in an upcoming Peter Pan post.
4 I speak here theoretically. I’m not planning any blog post about my favorite Hooks or George Darlings.
5 In the novel, Barrie writes, “I do not know whether this was true or not but Peter thought it was.”
6 Having the other denizens of Neverland assist Peter during the final battle is one of the few adaptation ideas in this musical I like actually.
7 I could quibble that it shows Wendy’s regret upon being reunited with Peter as an adult, but not Wendy happily telling a bedtime story to her daughter moments before, making for a less nuanced depiction of growing up. But to be fair, the adult Wendy’s actress, Peggy Maurer, does seem rather cheerful when she first greets Peter Pan. Maybe that was an attempt at depth, though it comes across more as a weird acting choice.
8 In the scene where Wendy takes her leave of the Home Under Ground, this gets a rather emotional callback.
9 For one of the main characters, Wendy is given ridiculously little singing to do in this musical.
10 More on this in a later post
11 More relevantly to this musical’s target audience, she did the script for the Wonderful World of Disney’s 1999 Annie.
12 The climactic moment in the musical and original play when a desperate Hook tries and fails to blow up his ship with all the children on it probably inspired this.
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Which Friday Is the Freakiest? Candidates 3 and 4

One Final Attempt to Understand What Goes On in Your Head: Freaky Friday (2003)

Freaky Friday (2003) - IMDb

Only eight years after the 1995 Freaky Friday, Disney released another remake, into cinemas this time, from director Mark Waters and screenwriters Leslie Dixon and Heather Hach. For most people, of my generation at least, this is The Freaky Friday. I’m not convinced it deserves that honor, but I can’t say I don’t see where the reputation came from.

If the 1995 version was a little too specific in its portrayal of the contrasting problems of youth and age and generational conflict, this one feels a little too generalized. The prickly relationship between Anna Coleman (Lindsay Lohan) and her widowed therapist mother, Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis) feels more like a stereotypical punk-teen-conservative-mother dynamic than the one between Annabel Andrews and Ellen. (How many rebellious adolescents would describe their mother, even in private, as “the most beautiful person in the world?”) And what’s more, the characters feel stereotypical in a very marketable way. Compared to Jodie Foster’s endearingly awkward, tomboyish Annabel, Lohan’s Anna looks very much like what kids and teens circa the early 2000s would consider cool and attractive-or, more accurately, what adults circa the early 2000s would think kids and teens would find cool and attractive. To be fair though, the character is sixteen rather than thirteen, so it makes sense for her to be more poised. (Her mother has likewise been aged up.) Her love interest, Jake (Chad Michael Murray) is also more like what one would expect a teenage girl to find attractive than appealingly dorky, adenoidal Boris was. And little brother Harry (Ryan Malgarini) is more like the stereotypical annoying younger sibling than “Ape Face.”

Freaky Friday - Publicity still of Lindsay Lohan & Chad Michael Murray

Of course, comedic stereotypes, including negatively portrayed adult authority figures, have always been a part of Freaky Friday. Honestly, I’d be disappointed to watch a movie with that title and not find some stock characterizations. But it becomes alarming when you to try to think of a character who isn’t a stereotype of some sort. The only candidates I could come up with are Tess’s fiancé, Ryan (Andrew Harmon) and Jake, who arguably is a subversion of the motorcycling bad boy stereotype. Some of the movie’s stereotypes work well enough, like the evil, twofaced popular high school girl (Julie Gonzalo) or the pathetically needy therapy patient. (Willie Garson) [1]Though I believe the movie would have been greatly improved dramatically if Anna had grown to sympathize with the latter and come to respect her mother’s work as a result. Others are irritating and borderline offensive, like the deaf senior citizen, who is always out of the loop, (Harold Gould), and the shrill, chattering Asian who works in a Chinese restaurant. (Rosalind Chao) [2]Though I admit the subtitled argument between the two Asian characters halfway through the movie is a guilty pleasure of mine.

The mention of that restaurant brings me to how this movie combines the body swapping methods of the original book (a mother figure with inexplicable supernatural powers) and the 1995 movie (a Chinese restaurant.) Anna and her mother go there on Thursday night and get into a heated fight [3]Happily, unlike in the 1995 Freaky Friday, their sparring is heated but never too nasty for a comedy. about a scheduling conflict between a once-in-a-lifetime audition for Anna’s garage band and the rehearsal dinner for Tess’s wedding. A mystical old Asian woman (Lucille Soong)(another stereotype) overhears and gives them prophetic fortune cookies, if I can say that without redundancy, which they open at the same time. As in the book, they awaken the next morning to discover their minds have been switched, rather than having it occur after Friday morning is well underway as in the last two movies.

The movie’s biggest asset is the two lead performances. It’s a shame I don’t have a better choice of screenshots to show off their marvelous facial expressions and body language. Lindsay Lohan gives easily the funniest and most convincing adult-in-a-child’s-body performance in any of these movies, bringing an air of fierce dignity to the role, and not even breaking a sweat. In the wackier role of child-in-an-adult’s-body, Jamie Lee Curtis also rises to the top of the pack despite stiffer competition from the other Freaky Fridays. A major inovation of this version is that mother and daughter are actively working together to find the cause of the switch and undo it throughout. This allows Curtis and Lohan to really develop a relationship between the characters and they play off each other really well. The bit where they quarrel over fast food is a highlight.

Image gallery for Freaky Friday - FilmAffinity

It’s amazing how this movie keeps repeating basically the same joke over and over again, of Anna or Tess doing something in the other’s body that would be inappropriate or out of character for them while the other characters look on in bafflement, without getting tired. This is especially so when you consider how the fantastic/comedic premise was nothing new at the time. In addition to the past Fridays, similar themed movies included 1987’s Like Father, Like Son and 1988’s Vice Versa. [4]The latter was a remake of a movie from 1948, which was adapted from a novel by F. Anstey from 1882! The two stellar lead performances have a lot to do with keeping it so engaging, but Waters deserves credit for his direction and Hach and Dixon for their script too. Even the dialogue for the aforementioned annoying stereotypes is amusing and while I may often be nonplussed by the movie when I watch it, I never get the urge to turn it off.

To paraphrase the 1967 Freaky Friday, this movie is a whole lot smarter than you’d hope and a whole lot dumber too. Its biggest flaw is how unbalanced it is in its treatment of mother and daughter. Tess finds that Anna’s problems at school, which she’d assumed to be her child’s own fault, are actually because of others and beyond Anna’s control. The problems in Tess’s life turn out to be either based on misunderstandings on her part or are easily blown off by her daughter. Anna doesn’t enjoy having to fill in for her mom at work, but she’s able to bluff her way through therapy sessions by repeating, “how do you feel about that?” And the one time she really interacts with a patient, her perspective as a teenager gives her insight the real Dr. Coleman wouldn’t have had. The biggest source of stress in Tess’s life seems to be her perpetually beeping pager, which Anna simply turns off and since, as the title dictates, the switch only lasts for a day, this never comes back to haunt her. We finally get a scene where it looks like Anna is going to be in some hot water when she unexpectedly has to go on a talk show to promote her mother’s new book. But this leads to the movie’s stupidest scene. After making a few stabs at impersonating her mother, Anna proclaims that the reason adults are frequently tired is that they worry about “stupid things” like cooking, cleaning and parenting. (That’s not the stupid part. That’s funny.) Tess, watching “herself” on TV, is humiliated, but every member of the studio audience, with the exception of bemused by supportive fiancé Ryan, cheers this sentiment. It even has the effect of endearing Anna to Jake albeit when she’s in the wrong body.

And this isn’t an isolated incident of everyone applauding the daughter except for her mother. In a complete inversion of the book and the original movie, Anna gives her dowdy mother’s body a stylish makeover. Tess is horrified but the other characters compliment her on the hot new look-including Ryan! There is one instance of Tess using her adult knowledge to do something Anna couldn’t in the scene where she stands up to a tyrannical English teacher. Unfortunately, it’s a scenario about as ridiculous as the talk show scene, but it’s such a rare win for the character that I can’t help but enjoy it. Tess’s worldview and perceptions of others are overturned at nearly every point. Anna, on the other hand, is forced to reevaluate her brother and her future stepfather and that’s pretty much it. [5]There is a funny moment when she realizes how hard it is be nearsighted, but this isn’t played for even implicit character development. Ostensibly, she starts to respect her mother late in the movie when Ryan praises her for always putting her kids first, but we sure don’t see any evidence of Tess actually doing this earlier. Anna also gets to enjoy some of the perks of adulthood, like a driver’s license and credit cards, but Tess never enjoys any advantages to being young again. [6]Well, except for the climax where she ends up enjoying filling in for her daughter at the musical audition. But this is presented as her learning to respect Anna’s music, not fulfilling any … Continue reading

The effect of all this is to make this Freaky Friday kid/teen pandering in a way none of the others are. It also limits the comedy of the daughter’s story since it’s less fun to when the character is never totally overwhelmed or receiving comeuppance of some sort. But the movie does end on a high note. The scene where “selfless love” restores Tess and Anna to their true forms is more powerful than it has a right to be, thanks to the sensitive direction and acting. Lohan and Curtis deserve some kind of award for their performances in that scene, the former for coming across as specifically an adult being emotionally vulnerable and self-sacrificing and Curtis for coming across as a child being the same. This makes for the most touching moment in any Freaky Friday movie, so much so that I’m willing to ignore the fact that it doesn’t make sense when you stop to think about it. And the addition of the mother’s wedding to the story does make for a nice finale as the different generations, which have had little use for each other throughout, come together at last to celebrate the same event.

If You Knew What I Go Through: Freaky Friday (2018)

Freaky Friday (TV Movie 2018) - IMDb

This last Freaky Friday began life as an off Broadway stage musical written by Bridget Carpenter of TV’s Parenthood in 2016. She adapted her own work for this Disney Channel Original Movie. It was directed by Steve Carr, who, according to IMDB, has probably the least impressive resume of any Freaky Friday director, but let’s not get too cynical right away. This adaptation combines elements of the original book and the 2003 movie. [7]As in the 1995 version, the mom ends up having to attend a biology and a gym class as her daughter, but that one is so under the radar, I’m inclined to believe those similarities are a … Continue reading The inclusion of the dead father/husband from the latter gives a different resonance to a detail from the former never before included in an adaptation: the daughter’s (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) dislike of euphemisms for death like “passed on.” This mother, Katherine Blake (Heidi Blickenstaff, who played the part in the original play) is, like her most recent counterpart, about to be remarried. Instead of a therapist though, she’s a caterer who is doing her own wedding and is about to be subject of a cover story for a big magazine. Rather than an athletic or musical competition, as in the other movies, the big upcoming event in her daughter, Ellie ‘s life is a scavenger hunt. [8]Don’t ask me why the daughter now has the name of the original mother. After the somewhat lazy characterizations of the 2003 movie, that last adaptation choice feels refreshingly creative.

Another creative detail is how the heroines switch bodies. Instead of fortune cookies, necklaces or plain old Friday the thirteenth, the device used is a magical hourglass, which was a gift from Ellie’s dad. Katherine and Ellie express their mutual wish to trade places while both touching it on Friday morning and, of course, said wish is granted. [9]I guess that’s something the movie borrows from the 1976 version, but the connections between the book and the 2003 movie are much more prominent. This also leads to the hourglass breaking. Katherine once had a matching hourglass, but it’s been sold to an antique store. The goal of the characters, when they aren’t each dealing with the other’s responsibilities, is to track down this hourglass and restore themselves to normal before the wedding.

See the source image

To its credit, the script makes smart decisions as to which elements to borrow from each previous variation of the story. This is arguably the only Freaky Friday in which both main characters have a character arc of equal depth and weight. [10]The mother in the 1976 movie certainly takes her licks and isn’t coddled like the 2003 daughter, but she lacks her daughter’s well designed arc, inherited from the source material, in … Continue reading A scene where Ellie in Katherine’s body breaks down because “everyone keeps asking me questions and I don’t know the right answers” is something the 2003 movie really could have used. But there’s also a feeling of too much borrowing and not enough originality. Maybe it’s less of a problem if you haven’t watched all the Freaky Friday movies in one week, but I couldn’t help notice how many scenes and jokes were variations of old ones. The writing is strong enough that they’re amusing variations, but I also can’t help thinking longingly of the 2003 Friday, which, for all my criticism of it, was able to come up with new jokes from the premise.

One obvious way in which this version does set itself apart from the others is in being a musical. Happily, the songs are a lot of fun and go someway to justify the existence of a new Freaky Friday, though the choreography is sadly nothing to boast about. In particular, Just One Day, an early song establishing the characters and their problems, is great, but isn’t helped by the accompanying dance steps. The lyrics describe how the conflicting interests and growing frustrations of different family members and the music conveys growing intensity and pressure (in an appropriately lighthearted way.) But the choreography looks far too smooth and, well, choreographed to express any of this.

See the source image

Something else that arguably stands out about this Freaky Friday is that its the most family friendly movie with that title [11]Ironically, the original stage play was arguably the raciest thing to be called Freaky Friday. with none of the mildly adult humor of the 1976 and 2003 movies or the occasional swearing of the latter. I don’t entirely approve of this cleanliness myself, being foremost a fan of the book, which could be fairly adult in its content at times. But I guess I can also see the value of a Friday that parents can feel comfortable watching with their youngest children.

In the role of the body-swapped Ellie, Heidi Blickenstaff is hilarious. I wouldn’t say she gives Barabara Harris or Jamie Lee Curtis a run for their money, but she doesn’t disgrace herself beside them and she’s more fun than Shelley Long was in the corresponding role. [12]I don’t think she’s necessarily a better actress than Long. It has more to do with the 1995 Freaky Friday‘s script. This movie is usually at its most entertaining when she’s onscreen. A highlight is the scene where she has to demonstrate her mother’s planned wedding dance for the magazine reporter.

See the source image
See the source image
Please ignore the little white circle, which is supposed to indicate an Easter Egg in this scene, and focus on Blickenstaff.

Cozi Zuehlsdorff regrettably gives the blandest portrayal of a mother in her daughter’s body in any of these films. [13]I note with some annoyance that she’s also noticeably thinner than the actress who originated the part on stage. Not saying that specific actress should have had the role here, but it’d … Continue readingWhich makes it frustrating how this movie is clearly trying to be more of a vehicle for her than for Blickenstaff. I’m particularly miffed that After All of This and Everything, a big emotional song for Blickenstaff, was cut [14]After All of This and Everything (From “Freaky Friday” the Disney Channel Original Movie) – YouTube while What It’s Like To Be Me and At Last It’s Me, the songs bookending the movie, were specifically written for Zuehlsdorff-and the last one is the movie’s weakest song! (After All of This and Everything was apparently cut because the director couldn’t figure out how to have the camera simply focus on the character sitting in a chair and singing to her brother for a whole song. If you’ve read my series on Les Misérables (2012), you know what I think of that.)

See the source image
See the source image

I’ve praised this Freaky Friday for giving both mother and daughter a well thought out character arc, but there’s a price to be paid for that. This is definitely the sappiest of the Friday movies. Now I don’t have a problem with sentiment. One of my favorite authors is Charles Dickens, for crying out loud. And the original book did have some very dramatic material which the first movie left out. But I prefer the way that book and all the movies, except for the 1995 one, start out as pure comedies, and somewhat cynical ones at that, before slowly beginning to introduce emotional elements around the halfway point. Here we get emotional moments as early as the second scene, where Ellie is hurt to find that her mother has sold a gift from her father and Katherine gently explains to her daughter that the family could lose their house if the big magazine cover story about her wedding doesn’t work out. During the movie’s last third or so, we keep getting bombarded with one emotional exchange or revelation after another, some much more effective than others, to the point where they stop having an impact. Still, at least this Freaky Friday‘s attempts at emphasizing drama aren’t as unpleasant as the 1995 movie’s were.

Conclusion

So which is the best Freaky Friday movie? My vote goes to…the 1976 one. I know that isn’t the majority opinion. The first Friday certainly is a very 70s movie and today’s viewers aren’t going to be drawn to it that much. [15]Though I’d argue all these movies are dated in their own ways. But while it doesn’t reach the heights of the 2003 FF, neither does it sink to its depths. Actually, a more accurate description would be that the 1976 movie is great for most of its runtime but has a dumb yet skippable climax and the 2003 movie blends the brilliant and the stupid throughout. The 1995 and 2018 versions are seldom particularly stupid or particularly brilliant. The 1976 adaptation also gets points from me for being the closest to the book, which is really the Freaky Friday I recommend people pick if they can only check out one. It’s a very fun read, breezy and quick but with surprising depth and nuance that rewards rereading.

Children and Young Adult Book Recommendations | BYU McKay School of  Education

References

References
1 Though I believe the movie would have been greatly improved dramatically if Anna had grown to sympathize with the latter and come to respect her mother’s work as a result.
2 Though I admit the subtitled argument between the two Asian characters halfway through the movie is a guilty pleasure of mine.
3 Happily, unlike in the 1995 Freaky Friday, their sparring is heated but never too nasty for a comedy.
4 The latter was a remake of a movie from 1948, which was adapted from a novel by F. Anstey from 1882!
5 There is a funny moment when she realizes how hard it is be nearsighted, but this isn’t played for even implicit character development.
6 Well, except for the climax where she ends up enjoying filling in for her daughter at the musical audition. But this is presented as her learning to respect Anna’s music, not fulfilling any wishes of her own. To be fair to the movie, if there are any advantages to being a teenager, I’m sure they don’t involve high school.
7 As in the 1995 version, the mom ends up having to attend a biology and a gym class as her daughter, but that one is so under the radar, I’m inclined to believe those similarities are a coincidence.
8 Don’t ask me why the daughter now has the name of the original mother.
9 I guess that’s something the movie borrows from the 1976 version, but the connections between the book and the 2003 movie are much more prominent.
10 The mother in the 1976 movie certainly takes her licks and isn’t coddled like the 2003 daughter, but she lacks her daughter’s well designed arc, inherited from the source material, in which the mother’s character development was a subtext at the most.
11 Ironically, the original stage play was arguably the raciest thing to be called Freaky Friday.
12 I don’t think she’s necessarily a better actress than Long. It has more to do with the 1995 Freaky Friday‘s script.
13 I note with some annoyance that she’s also noticeably thinner than the actress who originated the part on stage. Not saying that specific actress should have had the role here, but it’d have been nice to see a chubbier girl in the lead.
14 After All of This and Everything (From “Freaky Friday” the Disney Channel Original Movie) – YouTube
15 Though I’d argue all these movies are dated in their own ways.
Posted in Comparing Different Adaptations, Remakes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Which Friday is the Freakiest? Candidates 1 and 2

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Many more people know the premise of Freaky Friday than have actually watched any of the movies bearing that title. And many more will have seen one of those movies than will be familiar with the original source, the 1972 Young Adult novel by Mary Rodgers. [1]The daughter, incidentally of composer Richard Rodgers. I’m not sure how many people out there even know the book exists. But with four Freaky Friday movies having been released by the Walt Disney Company over the course of forty years, two theatrical and two made for television, society demands a verdict: which is the best take on the source material? Right, Society? Well, OK, mostly I just want to give a verdict. So without further ado…

I’d Like To Be You For a Day: Freaky Friday (1976)

Freaky Friday (1976) - IMDb

The screenplay for the first cinematic Freaky Friday, directed by Gary Nelson, was actually written by Rodgers herself. Perhaps naturally then, its characterizations are the most faithful to that of the source material. Rebellious 13 year-old Annabel Andrews (Jodie Foster), her prim mother, Ellen (Barbara Harris), seemingly goody-two-shoes younger brother, Ben AKA Ape Face (Sparky Marcus), work-absorbed father, Bill (John Astin) and Boris Harris (Marc McClure), the neighbor for whom Annabel carries a torch, are all here, pretty much the same as they are in the book.

The Andrews family, however, has been moved from an apartment building in New York City to a home in an unspecified bayside suburban area. More important is the change to the narrative structure and the circumstances by which Ellen and Annabel swap bodies for the good part of a Friday. The book is entirely Annabel’s story. We’re introduced to her as she wakes up on Friday morning, having had a fight with her mother the night before about freedom, to find her mind is now in her mother’s body. We actually don’t know right away that the two have switched places as the book’s beginning chapters mislead reader and Annabel into thinking that her mind is somehow in both bodies. The whereabouts of the mother are a mystery for most of the story. We follow Annabel as she goes from being ecstatic about getting to experience adult independence to being panicked and overwhelmed as events spiral out of her control. Only then, when she has been humbled, is she reunited with her mother and returned to her old body. Turns out it was the Mom who switched them, which she inexplicably has the power to do, to teach Annabel a lesson.

In the movie, mother and daughter are switched around by, in the book’s words, “a third party.” On Friday morning, while each one is separately recounting the previous night’s skirmish to someone else, they say at the exact moment, “I wish I could trade places with her just for one day.” Apparently, when two people simultaneously express that wish on Friday the thirteenth, the universe is happy to oblige, or so this movie would have it. Far from being in control of the situation, Ellen initially wants to go home, and only commits to posing as her daughter when stung by the assertion that she couldn’t handle “a simple school day.” From that point on, Annabel and Ellen share the role of heroine and Ellen’s idealized view of childhood as “the best time of a person’s life” is deconstructed as well as Annabel’s concept of adulthood as the Promised Land of glamor and independence. So the premise we normally think of when we hear the title, Freaky Friday, was actually pioneered by this movie. [2]The book does have Ellen deal with not being able to purchase cigarettes or use her charge plates without permission. In fact, her experiences lead to her conclude that too many adults treat children … Continue reading

In the bookend scenes of her as Annabel, Jodie Foster perfectly captures the book’s narrator. She manages to convey a girl who is both perceptive enough to intelligently mock every adult authority figure in her life and totally oblivious to the justice of most of the criticism she receives from them. However, she’s not quite as good in the main body of the movie where she portrays Ellen in Annabel’s body. There’s nothing really wrong with her performance. It’s just not the best. Barbara Harris, on the other hand, is both convincing as the ladylike Ellen and natural and hilarious as the brash, blunt Annabel. She more or less carries the film on the shoulders.

But that’s not to imply she’s the only good actor in it. There are lots of cameos from fun character actors like Sorrell Brooke, Patsy Kelly, Dick Van Patten and Kaye Ballard.

Despite the liberties it takes with the book’s plot, the movie’s script is witty and engaging, even when not laugh-out-loud funny, in the same way. The forceful personalities of Ellen and Annabel, who are equally smart-alecky in their contrasting ways, keep the movie bouncing along from embarrassing mishap to embarrassing mishap without growing tiresome. Well, for most of the runtime anyway. My only major beef with the script is the overelaborate slapstick climax. While it involves an amusing twist on audience expectations, this climax goes on about five minutes too long and kills whatever suspense the movie had generated as it soon becomes clear there will be no physical repercussions to whatever violence befalls the characters. Was this climax Rodgers’ idea or was she forced to include it since 7os Disney comedies always had set pieces like this? As a fan of the book, I find it disappointing that this replaces that version’s climax which managed to be both dramatically tense and hilarious.

The climax does have value in that the father gets some comeuppance for being such a “male chauvinist pig.” (Annabel’s description.) Throughout the movie, he dismisses his wife’s thoughts and concerns, expects her to prepare a huge meal for his business associates at the last minute and “show up looking beautiful” to said meal in a sexy black dress. We’re clearly not meant to approve of this, but the fact that he never apologizes or tries to change dates poorly. [3]Some also object to the way Annabel’s beloved Boris, in both the book and the movie, only becomes attracted to her after her braces are removed and she receives a girly makeover. I suppose … Continue reading The character in the book also expected his wife to produce a big meal at the last second, but he had more scenes showing him in a more sympathetic or neutral light. What was the point of making him so unlikeable here? The movie’s ending feels like it was setting up a sequel in which the father would undergo his own character development. But, for better or for worse, no such sequel was made. [4]Mary Rodgers would eventually write a literary sequel to Freaky Friday along these lines called Summer Switch. It followed the movie’s lead, rather than the book’s, in having parent and … Continue reading Remakes aplenty, however, were.

Someday You Ought to Try My Life: Freaky Friday (1995)

Freaky Friday (1995 film) - Wikipedia

In 1995, Disney collaborated with ABC to do a TV remake of Freaky Friday directed by Melanie Mayron from a script by Stu Krieger. This is easily the Friday that’s most under the radar, not being on DisneyPlus and, I believe, never having been released on home video. (So no screencaps this time, folks.) If it weren’t viewable on YouTube as I type this, I wouldn’t have included it at all. To put it bluntly, the fact that you probably haven’t seen it is no huge loss. But for those interested in tracing the evolution of this story over the years, [5]By which I mean myself it’s valuable as a “missing link” between the 1972 movie and the 2003 one. [6]In particular, the father figure in this one is interesting in that he’s halfway between the negative figure he was in the first movie and the positive figure he would become in all subsequent … Continue reading

Shelley Long’s Ellen Andrews now has a job outside the home [7]Though in Mary Rodgers’ sequels to the literary Freaky Friday, the character already got a job at a museum. and is trying to overcome her cigarette addiction, though she amusingly falls off the wagon due to the stress of unexpectedly swapping bodies with her daughter, Annabel (Gaby Hoffman) (or Annabelle as IMDB would have it.) An update more important to the story is that she’s divorced. Bill is now the name of her boyfriend (Alan Rosenberg) whom her daughter resents. This is a change that both future remakes would borrow though their mothers would be widowed. [8]Probably just as well since the 1995 movie initially makes a big deal about the divorce, but never really explains how it happened. The whole thing comes across as an undercooked attempt at … Continue reading While it’s still on Friday the thirteenth that the switch happens, this movie introduces another explanation for it: A pair of matching Talismans from a Chinese restaurant that do magic when the wearers’ think the same thought at the same time.

The conflict between mother and daughter is the same as in the 1976 movie, but the tone is weirdly more dramatic. In that movie, the big fight between Ellen and Annabel was related rather than seen. In this one, we see several sharp disagreements between the two during the first twenty minutes or so. They sound like a real mother and daughter fighting, which means they come across as really unpleasant and not particularly funny. The 1976 characters managed to come across as both snippy and likable in a way these two don’t. They do gain audience sympathy after the switch-too much sympathy frankly. The book and the original movie had the characters accept the story’s fantastic premise with surreal ease in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek tone of the work. Here Annabelle and Ellen are realistically freaked out and it’s not a lot of fun to watch them desperately pleading in vain for others to believe them. I’d like to stress that I’m not blaming Hoffman or Long for this unpleasantness. They do what I think the script wants them to do and do it with energy. I’m just not convinced the script has the right idea.

Where the first Freaky Friday movie gave Annabel and Ellen each a number of obligations that made them envy the other and which the other was unprepared to handle upon their transformation, this one gives both daughter and mother one big responsibility. Well, two big responsibilities in the mother’s case. She’s stuck with the roles of firing a nice but useless employee and impressing a prickly client. Annabelle, as captain of her swim team, is given the choice of which of the alternates should replace a teammate for the finals, a choice that could spell social disaster for her as the best candidate is also the least popular among her peers. These specific woes of adulthood and adolescence aren’t mined for wry humor nearly as much as the generalized ones of other Freaky Fridays. They play out more like drama, which I suppose isn’t, by definition, bad. But it’s only occasionally interesting drama. The overall effect is again more depressing than anything else.

When the script decides to be a comedy though, it can be very fun, such as in the scene of Annabelle’s floundering attempt to speak Spanish or Ellen’s impassioned speech in biology class about the “antiquated and sadistic, not to mention sickening, ritual” of frog dissection. [9]Though that one does foreshadow one of the dumbest moments in the 2003 Freaky Friday. And I appreciate that this movie’s revised climax is toned down from the 1976 one. I may have made this Freaky Friday sound worse than it really is, but there are reasons you’ve likely never seen or even heard of it. What are my takes on the Fridays with which you are more likely to be familiar? I hope to discuss those very soon.

To Be Continued

References

References
1 The daughter, incidentally of composer Richard Rodgers.
2 The book does have Ellen deal with not being able to purchase cigarettes or use her charge plates without permission. In fact, her experiences lead to her conclude that too many adults treat children as “deaf, dumb, blind and utterly insensitive.” But the book really isn’t about that.
3 Some also object to the way Annabel’s beloved Boris, in both the book and the movie, only becomes attracted to her after her braces are removed and she receives a girly makeover. I suppose that’s a legitimate gripe, but I’d argue that (a) in his defense, Boris has reasons besides her appearance for being repelled by Annabel, (b) he starts to be attracted to her personality before he sees her new look, albeit while that personality is also in a more attractive, though inappropriately old, body, and (c) while it’s presented as a triumph that Annabel is able to charm the boy who once dismissed her, it’s also presented as a triumph that she reaches the point in their relationship where she no longer grovels before him and even upbraids him.
4 Mary Rodgers would eventually write a literary sequel to Freaky Friday along these lines called Summer Switch. It followed the movie’s lead, rather than the book’s, in having parent and child switch places when they express the wish to do so at the exact same time. I doubt Summer Switch was written with the intention of being adapted by Disney though, given its adult content and mature themes. Incidentally, while Summer Switch and Rodgers’ earlier non-body switch themed follow-up, A Billion for Boris, are well worth reading for fans of the characters, neither is as good as Freaky Friday.
5 By which I mean myself
6 In particular, the father figure in this one is interesting in that he’s halfway between the negative figure he was in the first movie and the positive figure he would become in all subsequent ones.
7 Though in Mary Rodgers’ sequels to the literary Freaky Friday, the character already got a job at a museum.
8 Probably just as well since the 1995 movie initially makes a big deal about the divorce, but never really explains how it happened. The whole thing comes across as an undercooked attempt at topicality.
9 Though that one does foreshadow one of the dumbest moments in the 2003 Freaky Friday.
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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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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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