Les Misérables–What a Tome!

Cossette, Illustration by Emile Bayard from 1886 French Edition

Cosette, Illustration by Emile Bayard from 1886 French Edition

Victor Hugo Brooding Photo taken by his son Charles Hugo 1853-55

Victor Hugo Brooding Photo taken by his son Charles Hugo 1853-55

Eagerly, I opened the Netflix DVD envelope containing Les Misérables, the film adaptation of the musical that had received such acclaim and raves over Anne Hathaway’s performance. I inserted it into my DVD player and sat down excited to view this Oscar nomination.

I regret to report that I was not as moved as I had hoped to be by this movie. Why? I didn’t think there was enough emotional color to the singing, contrary to the general opinion; and contrary to the overwhelming panning of Russell Crowe’s singing, I rather liked the quality of his voice. I don’t care if technically he wasn’t the best singer. I thought his voice suited well the character of Javert. Also, contrary to popular opinion, I thought Samantha Barks, as Eponine, sang the best. “Do You Hear the People Sing”, reprised in the finale, did not carry the fervor and elicit the thrill I remember from singing it in a choir. I am puzzled by my indifferent response to this film. Is it because all the hype about it created unreasonable expectations in me that could not be fulfilled?

Beyond this not being my favorite musical, I was dissatisfied with the story. The film left me wanting to know more about the period, and more than that, to read Victor Hugo’s novel. The 1463-page book is at first daunting, but I dove in, determined like Edmund Hillary to reach the summit of Mount Everest and to return alive at normal human body temperature.

Boy, would Hugo’s tome get the hatchet job by any editor today! An agent would tell him to go sit on his stack of manuscript pages (handwritten probably a good four feet high or more. In a word–unpublishable today, yet for me a joy forever–and I did think the joy would last long enough to carry with me into the grave. Jesting aside, a reader has to be a nut like me to read it as well as to enjoy the many chapters of digression into the travails of French history. Who else could bear long chapters recounting the Battle of Waterloo and descriptions of the terrain and surrounding villages both at the time of Napoleon’s defeat and during Hugo’s own lifetime? Who else could enjoy the in-depth (and I do mean in-depth) look at the history of the Paris sewer system since its medieval founding? Who else could appreciate Hugo’s disquisition on argot, particularly the argot of the streets? He understood how language evolves and how every occupation, every segment of society has its own jargon? He appreciated how slang expressions can become part of accepted usage. Who else would enjoy the insertion of poetry and song lyrics? But the reader is invited to skip over expository passages and read only the story of Jean Valjean, Cosette, Marius, Javert, Gavroche, the Thénardiers, Enjolras, and his comrades.

This mid-nineteenth century work blends two genres–historical chronicle and the novel. The book both recounts events of the fifty years since the Revolution of 1789 and creates a fictional story with unforgettable characters. The historical event that moves the plot towards its climax is the Paris uprising of 1832. Even in this, Hugo cannot resist a long treatise on the distinction between an uprising and a revolution. None of this is for the faint-hearted. The reader must have an intense interest in history to equal Hugo’s own. Diarrhea of the fountain pen propelled him to write an epic that combined a history of the past half century and a fictional story with characters rivaling the stature of classic Greek heroes. I am not just inferring the classical parallels. Victor Hugo draws analogies from Homeric poetry throughout his description of the fight at the barricades. Recognizing the classical allusions is one benefit of my own recent reading of Homer. I understand why Civil War soldiers were avid readers of the novel after its publication in 1862. Even though the book added weight to their knapsacks, they marched into battle with it and dubbed themselves “Lee’s Miserables.”

I have one dissatisfaction with the story line. It bothers me that Jean Valjean did not think of fleeing to England before he discovered Cosette’s infatuation with Marius. I thought he’d have the sense to get out of Dodge before the gunfight began. After all, Victor Hugo split for the Island of Guernsey when the political heat was on, and he lived rather happily there for many years.

I was curious how the book’s title emerged and marked the passage where the word les misérables appears. It occurs in the episode where Marius observes through a peephole in the wall, the scoundrel and blackmailer Thénardier alias Jondrette and his gang of street criminals.

Undoubtedly they seemed very depraved, very corrupt, very vile, very hateful even, but people rarely fall without becoming degraded. Besides, there is a point when the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word les misérables; whose fault is it? And then, when the fall is furthest, is that not when charity should be greatest?

The character of Valjean acts out the process of redemption through the practice of charity. That’s how I, one reader nutty enough to read it, describe in a nutshell Les Misérables.

But I had not put to bed yet my ruminations over Les Misérables.

After turning the 1463rd page, I wanted to compare my reaction to the musical film version to my reaction to the 1998 film adaptation starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, which I haven’t watched since I first bought the DVD some ten years ago. I watched the film again with a favorable response until half-way through when major distortions of Hugo’s novel began appearing. Rafael Yglesias, the screenwriter, justified them as necessary to produce a two-and-a-half hour feature. In my mind the result is a film distortion not a film adaptation. Portraying Marius as the leader of the uprising instead of Enjolras jarred my sensibilities. My jaw dropped during the scene in which Cosette demands to know the identity of her ostensible father, and Valjean tells her he was a convict–a total fabrication and violation of the spirit of the novel. The scene is fabricated too in which Cosette, seeing Marius for the first time, listens to him deliver a political speech in the streets. Marius notices her in the crowd and follows her home, falling instantly in love with her. This is not Hugo’s Marius Pontmercy. In light of these distortions and many more, the film should have been given a different title than Les Misérables . The film credit does, as a sort of disclaimer, state “based on a novel . . .,” but given the radical changes in the plot, I object to titling the film Les Misérables.

I’ve been as wordy in this blog as Victor Hugo. My apologies to the bored who may have manage to read this far. Until next time, happy skimming through nineteenth century novels!


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by irisinidaho on June 19, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    How many film versions are there? I’ve watched a B & W Turner Classic version that I found captivating. I love your writing. I love your brain. Will you marry me?


    • I found 5 other versions: 1978, 1935, 1934, 1958 and 2000. The 1934 version was done by French director Raymond Bernard. Per Netflix description, it’s considered the best. I put the 2000 one with Gerard Depardieu in my instant play queue for tonight’s viewing. I put the 1934 one in my mailed queue. Was the Turner Classic the one starring Charles Laughton? I’ll marry you if we honeymoon at the International Choral Festival. Most people prefer my brain to my body. Maybe I should donate my pickled in a jar brain to science.


      • The version starring Depardieu was faithful to the novel within the constraints of its length. The 1934 Raymond Bernard version, almost five hours in length, was extremely good and a faithful adaptation. Harry Bauer, playing Valjean, was an excellent choice, because he looked like a rough, unattractive, husky criminal–even more so than Depardieu, not notable for his great looks either.

  2. Posted by Jennifer on January 8, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Your disappointment with the recent film version is very well put. I wish that everyone who saw that film would read the book.


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