I’ve been watching a lot of “Les Misérables” adaptations since finishing the novel. I’ve watched the usual suspects, and I’ll list them below (slight spoilers), but I have to start with one of the very best, only 10 minutes long, that I found entirely by chance.
Click on the photo for Inspector’s Javert’s vlog, or Javlog:
Because I love all things Andrew Davies, his six-part BBC miniseries from 2018 was my go-to upon finishing the novel:
There are many reviews online and I’m not going to make my own here, but I will tell you a few things that stayed with me:
- Dominic West as Jean Valjean
- final stand of Enjolras and Grantaire
- the trial of Champmathieu
- Derek Jacobi as Bishop Myriel
I love seeing Jacobi in anything and here he is welcoming and warm as the Bishop — a man on earth, as Hugo intended, and not a bloodless saint. (Note: some forty years ago, Jacobi had also done well as the evil priest Claude Frollo in a television production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”)
Above all, I appreciated the length of this new BBC miniseries; we have enough time over six hours to see things like Fantine’s backstory.
My kids, who are 12 and 10, sat down with me to see the first three parts — through the encounter with the nuns. They really took to this story, even when I feared the romance or action would be too much. Some scenes were just too mature and I skipped over them. Andrew Davies is famous for “sexxing up” his adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice” and “War and Peace”, though I didn’t think he did anything in those miniseries that was fundamentally out of place with the source material; but in this, particularly in episodes 2 and 4, I think he has a few scenes that are just not Hugo.
Otherwise, this was and will be my go-to adaptation for “Les Misérables.”
The novel nearly brought me to tears. The trailer above tossed me over the edge, as did this one:
Best bits for me:
- “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
- “Master of the House”
- “Empty Chairs”
- “On My Own”
- “I Dreamed A Dream”
- “One More Day”
I had never seen the Le Miz musical in any form and I was surprised to see how well it represents the novel. Yes, some characters are changed significantly: the Thenardiers are funny; Marius is political; Javert is religious. And of course much is cut out: the backstories of Fantine, the Bishop, and Marius. But I don’t find of these changes controversial.
This film contains a brief but appreciated interlude among the nuns which is missing from at least some of the stage musical renditions, as is Hugh Jackman’s touching number, “Suddenly.”
In “One More Day” we can see each character in their own context and place. They are separated by physical distance, and it’s thrilling when they join their voices to anticipate what God has in store for them.
Russell Crowe does grate on the ears, but I enjoyed “Stars” to a shocking degree.
The movie has been criticized extensively but I agree entirely with Rolling Stone’s review.
Most memorable for me:
- Claire Danes as Cosette
- Geoffrey Rush as Javert
Liam Neeson is a good fit for Jean Valjean, though I don’t like some of the things that have been done to his character (e.g., he physically strikes Cosette). His office high above the factory floor in Montfermeil has been designed, surely, to remind us of Neeson’s similar perch in “Schindler’s List”, but that is no problem.
Claire Danes’ character has been written as fiercely intelligent and she’s easily my favorite Cosette. She even briefly points a gun at Javert. All of these things echo her starring role in Baz Luhrmann’s film of “Romeo and Juliet” two years earlier. Cosette’s scene at the garden with Marius, the two of them whispering at each other through a wall, particularly evokes her scenes with Leonardo DiCaprio in the earlier film. But there’s nothing wrong with any of this, because Hugo explicitly likens Cosette to Juliet at one point in the novel; and when Marius climbs through the wall to see her, Hugo is openly borrowing from the Bard.
Peter Vaughan is otherworldly and formidable as Bishop Myriel. He’s not, to my mind, warm enough, but boy he leaves an impression.
Geoffrey Rush might be my favorite Javert, what else can I say? It’s delicious but restrained villainy, compulsively watchable.
Best thing for me is Charles Laughton as Javert. We just don’t get enough of him. A two-hour window is simply too short for this story!
(Musicals and vlogs seem to defy this rule somehow.)
Frederic March is surprisingly good as Jean Valjean; he won me over even though I felt from the start that his delivery and look were all wrong. His glance to the sky above the Seine stayed with me.
It’s also interesting to see Cedric Hardwicke as the Bishop, given Hardwicke’s turn in the 1939 adaption of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” as the villainous Frollo. Hardwicke has a quiet power here — almost too quiet — especially when he gives us gazes that are subtly turned into glares in the latter film.
Two months ago, despite being born and bred in New York, I had never seen the stage musical, read the novel, or known anything of the story, from the name “Jean Valjean” and some vague idea that a man served jail time for stealing a loaf of bread. The only real encounter I’d had with the story was was a tangential one. It’s shared by millions of others, and to me it gets across much of the spirit of “Les Misérables” — again in under 10 minutes — so I’m giving it the last link.
Take it away, Ms. Boyle: