Special to The History Place
Les Misérables was published by the French novelist Victor Hugo in 1862. The musical of the same name was written originally in French and performed in Paris in 1980, before an English adaptation opened in London in 1985. The show got bad reviews, which were overcome by positive word-of-mouth endorsements. The three-month run sold out. Les Mis opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran continuously until 2003, posting 6,680 performances. The only wonder about the new film version is that it was so long in arriving.
The new motion picture musical is actually the 11th iteration of Les Misérables on the big screen. The first appeared in 1934, followed by a second just one year later. These two Depression-era films must really have resonated with moviegoers during those hard times. The ’35 version featured two big stars, Fredric March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert.
More film adaptations of Hugo’s goliath tome were released in 1947, 1952, 1957, 1978, 1982, 1995 (this iteration updated to the Nazi occupation of France), a 1998 rendition with Liam Neeson providing a credible Valjean, and 2000 (a French TV adaptation).
All these renditions, recountings and reconfigurations suggest that Les Misérables is a tale that touches things deep down in the human heart. Great literature is said to have “universal” appeal. At least in the Euro-American world, Les Mis clearly speaks in a universal language.
Although a fan of Russell Crowe, the singing Javert of the new movie, I was skeptical that the veritable operetta would transfer credibly to celluloid. Remarkably, the thing works. The secret of its success lies in large part in the way the songs are performed. Reportedly, all the singing was done on the sets by the actors themselves–no post-production dubbing back in some sound studio. Hugh Jackman (Valjean), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Crowe and the rest, while not necessarily the best singers in the film firmament, overcome their vocal range limitations with effective phrasing. The painfully realistic sets and make-up combine with their performances to recreate Hugo’s France of the early 19th century in a way that just happens to include an orchestral score. Yes, it actually works.
In a nutshell, and sans spoilers, for the benefit of the half dozen readers of this review who have never read the book, seen one or more of the movies, or attended the musical: Jean Valjean is a convict, released on parole after 19 years of slave labor. He catches an early break, which enables him in the next decade to become a prosperous factory owner and the mayor of his town. When Javert, the irrepressible policeman and Valjean’s life-long nemesis, is transferred to Jean’s city, circumstances conspire that cause Monsieur le Maire to flee to Paris. He adopts the orphaned child of one of his former workers, Fantine, and takes her with him.
Fast-forward another decade or so. The adopted child, Cosette, is now a young adult. She falls for Marius, one of the wealthy students conspiring to overthrow the king and feed les misérables. The story’s climax revolves around the so-called Summer Rebellion of 1832.
The 20-year tale jerks more than a few tears in the span of 157 minutes. It opened on Christmas Day, just in time to be eligible to garner eight Academy Award nominations. These include Best Picture, Jackman for Best Actor, Hathaway for Supporting Actress, plus the predictable ones for sets, costumes, sound and songs.
Running neck and neck, Les Mis and Spielberg’s Lincoln, which I reviewed recently in this space, – both 19th-century sagas – make Oscar® predictions a tough call this time around. Suffice to say that both historical costumers are worth your time and the price of admission.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Jim Castagnera is the Managing Director of K&C Human Resource Enterprises and the author/co-author of 19 books, including the upcoming Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom