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Stray Thoughts: Adapting Les Misérables

🥖 Well You Know We All Want To Change The World...

Victor Hugo's magnum opus Les Misérables is kind of like The Ramones. It's important, it's influential, and it's left an indelible mark on the culture... but is it actually all that good? Oh, there are great moments in it, to be sure. But, like, it's also got long boring stretches and is very much of its time in a way that's impenetrable to a modern consumer. And... okay, this metaphor is breaking down so I'm going to abandon it. It's weirdly structured, droning, and melodramatic. And yet it's oddly compelling. The best-known adaptation is the musical, originally penned in French in 1980, and whose English translation has been a staple of both the British and American stages for nearly four decades now. Additionally, there have been a total of nine film adaptations going back to the 1930s, plus a concert film, multiple miniseries, and an anime. And it just so happens that one of these adaptations is one of my favorite movies.

And no, it's not the 2012 Tom Hooper film. It has its moments and some killer performances, but overall it's a hot mess with ugly production design and all the nuance of a Chuck E. Cheese birthday singalong. I'm talking rather about the 1998 film directed by Bille August.

I want to look at this movie as a piece of adaptation. It's based on the book, rather than the musical, but the fact that it exists in a world where the musical is still quite popular is going to invite comparison. It needs to deal with the book's structure and sprawl, as well as bringing the audience up to speed on 19th Century French political unrest and the peculiarities of its penal codes. You have to sell an ending that basically amounts to the antagonist choosing to kill himself rather than win. And then you have to deal with changes to the source material that come from the musical and manage audience expectations therein, not least of which is recasting Hugo's proto-Marxist humanism as religiosity. And let's be very clear that Les Misérables succeeds on all counts, and it does so by making some very smart choices about the way it tells its story.

First let's talk about casting. Movies live and die by their cast, and the cast here is superb. Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush were not terribly well-known actors in 1998. They'd each had starring turns--Neeson in Schindler's List and Rob Roy, and Rush had won an Oscar for his role in Shine--but the movies that would make them into household names were still ahead of them. Neeson plays Jean Valjean with a weary ferocity, like an old lion who mostly wants to be left alone. Rush's Javert is a relentless force of nature: cold, calculating, and absolutely dispassionate. They're both perfect. Meanwhile, the most famous person in the cast was arguably Claire Danes, who had starred in Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet a few years earlier. Or you could argue it was Uma Thurman, fresh off Batman & Robin and Gattaca. And that's an interesting choice, given that both of those women are only in half the movie and never actually get to interact. Thurman is heartbreaking as Fantine, descending into despair and illness over the first half of the movie. Danes' Cosette is arguably the weakest in the main cast. She gives a solid performance, but the character is slightly underwritten (I say slightly because the character has a lot more agency than she does in the book) and Danes' accent is occasionally distracting.

And I guess we might as well talk about structure. The book is divided into five main volumes, each grouped around a character or event. The musical uses a time jump between Volumes II and III as an act break, which neatly divides the story into a first half focused on Valjean escaping Javert and a second half focused on the June Uprising of 1832. The movie keeps this conceit, which each half functioning as a sort of a mini-movie with its own 3-Act structure. The first half starts with a prologue where the Bishop of Digne "buys" the convict Valjean's freedom and compels him to become a good person. Act I is in Vigo where Valjean has become the mayor and revitalized the city. The inciting incident is Javert's arrival. The break into Act II happens when Valjean confronts Javert in order to free Fantine. Act II is about Valjean trying to nurse Fantine back to health and bring back her daughter Cosette while keeping Javert off his trail. The midpoint reversal is the trial in which Valjean reveals himself to the court. This then results in another confrontation with Javert and Fantine's death. Act III has Valjean fleeing Montreuil-sur-Mer (renamed Vigo as a concession to we the English-speaking), recovering Cosette from the Thénardiers and narrowly escaping Javert to find safety in a Paris convent.

The second mini-movie is similarly structured: The inciting incident has Cosette deciding she doesn't want to be a nun. Act II starts with Cosette disobeying Valjean and becoming enchanted by a young revolutionary named Marius Pontmercy who just happens to be under investigation from Inspector Javert. The midpoint reversal Valjean learning that Cosette has been meeting with Marius, and that doing so has brought him to Javert's attention. He plans to leave the country, a plan that is immediately thwarted when Lamarque's death that spurs the June Rebellion into action. The second half of Act II is Valjean navigating the Rebellion, trying to keep Marius alive for Cosette's sake and encountering Javert and choosing not to kill him. Act III begins with the Rebellion being lost and Javert capturing Valjean, who pleads to allow him to take the unconscious Marius to safety in exchange for surrendering to Javert. After he returns, Javert is overcome by the cognitive dissonance of Valjean's actions, and the film ends with Javert abandoning his pursuit, and also his life, and Valjean walking away, finally free. We will get back to that ending, but there's something else I want to dwell on first.

You see, the film is functionally like two mini-movies, but it also imposes 3-Act structure overtop of that, one built around a character arc where Valjean learns not just to be a good person, but also the importance of personal sacrifice. It's subtle--a lot of the movie is cat-and-mouse between him and Javert, which doesn't require a great deal of character journey to make for engaging cinema--but it's specifically called out and tied into the ending. In this framing, the inciting incident is Fantine being fired for having a child out of wedlock, something that happens due to Valjean's inattention and his commitment to following the rules instead of focusing on the needs or circumstances of individuals. He was too busy worrying about Javert to realize that a woman's life was being destroyed and he could have prevented it. His critical choice is confronting Javert in order to free her, because he now feels like he must atone for the harm he's caused, but he's still focused on self-preservation. Act II is entirely framed by his promise to Fantine that he will take care of her daughter Cosette. The midpoint reversal is Valjean's retrieval of Cosette and subsequent flight to Paris. The second half of Act II is about his domestic life in Paris falling apart because Cosette is falling in love, and the low point is where is gets physical with her upon learning of her "betrayal" because, again, he is still primarily focused on self-preservation. Act III is the June Rebellion and we even get a "false climax" with Valjean pretending to murder Javert and instead setting him free, an act that would be a solution to the problem except that he hasn't actually learned or changed yet. It's not until he voluntarily surrenders himself to Javert in exchange for Cosette's happiness that his arc is completed and he is finally able to be free.

And it may sound like I'm talking out my ass here, but this arc is definitely there, and you can see it in the things that they changed for the movie, especially as compared to the musical. The movie explicitly blames Valjean for Fantine's fate. There is a very light framing device of hands packing a doll, which we only learn at the end is Valjean packing the doll Cosette had as a child while making his final preparations to return to Javert. He tells her explicitly "I stole happiness with you, I don't mind paying for it." And then there's the final scene of the movie, in which is does the miraculous: it makes Javert's suicide not feel like a cheap deus ex machina.

This is one of my big gripes with the musical. In it, Javert dies alone after Valjean sets him free. It's sort of explained that Valjean had every right to kill him, and that Javert would have considered this a righteous death, but since he was robbed of that, he throws himself into the River Seine. It's not very satisfying. The book is not much better, with Javert torn between his inability to hand over Valjean after being shown mercy but also unable to do his duty according to law. In the movie, Javert doesn't kill himself until Valjean returns from delivering Marius to Cosette and surrenders himself. This makes it a confrontation, and Javert's decision boils down to a single sentiment when he says "I've tried to live my whole life without breaking a single rule." This is the crux of their conflict. Javert is a proper villain in that he is a dark inversion of Valjean, a version of the person that Valjean could have become if he had chosen a different path. Specifically, Javert follows the rules but does not have compassion, while Valjean has broken many rules, but he does have compassion, even to the point that he was willing to return to prison in order to save the life of a boy he barely knew. While there's no physical conflict, the ending is a moral confrontation--one that Valjean wins. That's why this ending works.

Keeping the story focused on Valjean's character journey is the main reason the movie works as well as it does, and in service of that, a lot of the melodrama and side characters have been excised. The Thénardiers are only there for a single scene in which Valjean effectively buys Cosette from them. They don't show up to rob the bodies after the revolt, and there's no love triangle with their daughter Eponine. There's not extended coda of a wedding, and it doesn't end with Valjean's dying.

On top of all of that, it's just a good film. It's quite funny at times. Fantine and Valjean have an amusing moment when they're trying to deal with a piece of correspondence from Thénardier but realize neither of them can read. There's an invented character named Captain Beauvais who acts as a kind of moral compass sitting between Javert and Valjean. He's also quite funny, and he has a grounding effect for the first half of the film. The film does a great job of efficiently giving the audience just enough information to understand why it's a bad thing that Valjean only has a yellow paper or why it would be a big deal that Lamarque is getting a state funeral. Or, for that matter, why it's okay that Marius would be allowed to live when all of his friends were lined up and shot. Neeson and Thurman have great chemistry in the first half. The whole thing is gorgeously shot. The score is beautiful. And hey, eagle-eyed viewers will spot Toby Jones in a bit part.

Anyway, if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend. It's heartbreaking and uplifting.

That's what I think anyway,