Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Les Misérables - eventually!

At last we got to see Les Misérables, on Sunday afternoon. The movie had actually reached our local cinema (stands back in amazement) over a week ago. As our shared coughing virus has thankfully subsided to an occasional expanded "ahem" or two, we braved the outer world first time in what seemed like ages. There were only around 25 people at the afternoon showing, and three of 'em left around 20 minutes in and didn't return.

Neither the husband nor I have seen Les Miz the stage musical, I have seen DVD and tapes of the main parts of it, and we've both seen several variations of the straight film adaptation of the novel - over the years there have been many. I began reading Victor Hugo's 1,400 page novel (English translation) at New Year, my resolution is to read it all the way through. I've just finished Part One (covering the first 275 pages), and enjoying it, finding it so far an easy and comfortable read due in part, I guess, to Norman Denny's translation style.

My overall comment about this new film, as we left the cinema was: "I'm not sure whether I liked that or not....I'm glad to have seen it though. It wasn't bad, but there was something missing." Husband thought it was superbly made, with some great shots and angles, and some obvious difficulties which had to be overcome.

The film maker was able to show us scenes from strange angles and perspectives a stage presentation could never have approached. I enjoyed that part of the movie. There was an attempt at realism in the way the songs were sung live to camera, no lip-syncing or pre-recording, yet because of that I missed the grandeur of some of the show's famous "set piece" songs which seemed to be almost thrown away. That was a disappointment. I really didn't enjoy the "sung through" style: no straight dialogue at all. If the film maker had wanted to strive for realism it would have been better to make a straightforward, non-musical film of the novel - a better one than has ever yet been seen on screen, with all the new technological help, the best possible A-list actors in each key part, loyal to the descriptions in the novel, and who had no need to be able to carry a tune. Some of the musical's main themes could have been used in the background of certain scenes, as a nod to a relative.

Hugh Jackman wasn't my idea of Jean Valjean, far too good looking and he didn't age sufficiently during the movie; but he can sing a bit, which is obviously what got him the part. Russell Crowe looked more Jean Valjean-ish for me, but he can't sing - did his best with Javert though. Anne Hathaway as Fantine should've been blonde, much is made of her beautiful golden locks in the novel. Also, she should have sold her two front teeth according to Hugo, not two back teeth well out of camera's searching lens.

As it stands in this new film the best of the musical version is lost, and much nuance of the story itself is lost - in my opinion.

I guess one has to look on the four entities involved as completely separate and only loosely related: the novel, the film adaptation, the stage musical adaptation, and the film musical adaptation. There's something of value in each, and something lacking in each.

Every viewer or reader will identify some point of reference which, for them, is the key to the story. For some it might be the classic sin/mercy/suffering/redemption motif, closely linked to the teachings of the Christian church. For others "the terrible lot of a poor woman's life" motif, or the "love at first sight" motif, or the "ill-treated children" and "unfailing love of a father" motif, the "doggedly obsessed man of conscience, a policeman determined to catch a thief" motif or - and in my own case: the political theme: "downtrodden masses kept in poverty, suffering and need will at last rebel against the tyranny of the wealthy" motif.

Yes, my heart always beats a little faster when I hear:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

I don't know how many of the 20 or so people in the cinema with us were weeping at any point during the movie. I wept more than once. Why? I knew the story, I knew the ending, there were no surprises. The music and lyrics, derided by several snobbish critics, do put a strong pull on the emotions, especially in tandem with the sufferings of those depicted in close detail on the big screen - their squalor and their pain, their striving to do the best they can in the face of it all, while constantly being kicked back.

Below: a favourite scene from the anniversary DVD when all the actors who have played Jean Valjean in countries around the world came together on stage for a Grand Finale. I love this - it encourages me think that because Victor Hugo's story has survived, still fresh, and loved by people all around the world, there is still hope for us all.


mike said...

I've never been a fan of musical adaptations of any kind...give it to me straight out of the box. I haven't endeavored reading the book as you have begun, nor have I seen the theatrical presentations by various producers. Why do you think Hugo's novel was adapted for a musical and endured so many remakes?

Nice to know that you two defeated the invasion of the body snatchers!

Twilight said...

mike ~~ I've always been a fan of, and interested in, all kinds of musicals, flaws and all! :-)

I think the attraction to Les Miserables has surviveded through many manglings and well-intentioned variations because, at its heart there's an enduring message of hope.

Musical adaptations of novels can be hokey. I didn't care for Oliver - putting a tune to Dickens didn't impress me much. Perhaps it takes French sophistication, and that ol' je ne sais quoi, to pull it off.
Elitist critics of Victor Hugo's day, though, derided his novel. Elitist critics always hate anything the masses love. The masses loved Victor Hugo, and something of his appeal continues to shine through Les Miserables and still has power to touch us today, whether in book, stage or film format, a strong magical emotional pull remains.

From astrodatabank:
"On his (Victor Hugo's) 80th birthday huge crowds gathered at his home and cheered.

The night before his funeral his sarcophagus was placed under the Arc de Triomphe veiled in black crepe. The next day his body was placed on the hearse of the poor and carried through the streets. Crowds were so vast 10,000 police were needed to hold them back. Even people from the countryside came to mourn, brothels were closed and drunken bodies littered the Champs-Elysees. The Pantheon, resting place for National Heroes, was withdrawn from church control so that Hugo could be laid to rest there. He was laid to rest beside Rousseau.


Thanks - yes, we fought the good (if uncomfortable and noisy) fight and won - against whatever virus that was. :-)

R J Adams said...

Glad to hear you're both on the mend. Now, your video at the end of this piece has reduced me to emotional tears of joy. Like you, musical theatre has always been a great love of mine, though selectively. Cameron Macintosh must surely rate as one of the greatest ever producers of these stage epics and to see and hear all those Jean Valjean's perform was something else. Tears of joy also shed for being physically able to watch it. After eighteen long barren months of what is (laughingly) called "broadband" by the HughesNet satellite criminals, finally we've been hooked up to 25Mb DSL. We can watch video again; something impossible with the previous non-service providers. I look forward to seeing many more of the fine video offerings you display on 'Learning Curve' and over time will delve the archives for those I've wanted to see in the past, only to have them permanently freeze after the first few seconds.
PS I'm really not interested in seeing the film (Hollywood usually fails to impress these days) but I have just ordered the 10th anniversary DVD from Amazon. I didn't know it existed.

Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~~ Thanks!
I'm glad to have a co-lover of musicals! :-)

I have the 25-year anniversary DVD and the 10 year anniversary concert VHS tape and am waiting for a CD set to arrive - the Complete Symphonic Recording (part of husband's b'day prez to moi).

I found a message board yesterday devoted to musicals, with a Les Miserables section. There are some real Mes Miz nerds around, bless 'em! Some listen to the show in multiple languages, there's an interesting thread oon all the CDs/DVDs available with copious detail.

I'll fish out the link - you
might be interested to take a look


General link:


Pleased to hear your internet connection woes have been solved at last. I'm still struggling with the browser problem. think they're goading me to move from XP to Win 7 or 8 - which I shall do- but in my own good time. ;-)

R J Adams said...

Thanks for the links, Twilight. I'll take a look. As for Windows 7, my wife has it on her computer and I loathe it. I'm an XP man, and will stick with it as long as I can. Personally, I wouldn't touch Internet Explorer with a bargepole. Firefox, Opera, or - if all else fails - Chrome.