Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables - The Five Star Movie Musical

I am a big fan of musicals. Less so than some other things, but still, I have many among my collections. Hollywood used to make them even if Broadway didn't, and of course they adapted all the major musicals of the day, sometimes more than once.

The latest in this long line is Les Miserables. Unlike many movies, this production is helmed by the the man who originally produced it for the stage, coupled with an Academy Award willing director. This set the bar for what I was expecting very high and the film paid off. As a particular fan of Les Miserables (the novel) and being familiar with many of the adpations, this film is one of the three best adaptions of the book to every be filmed. The other two were French productions. Well, so was this in many ways. Most people know this musical as a Broadway or West End production, but the creators are French. To quote Wikipedia, "music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer"

So why did they get it right and others who have brought the tale to the screen fail? Because they told the whole story. All of the Hollywood versions of the story end with Javert's suicide. Having listened to the Complete Symphonic Recording of the musical and read the book, I was in shock when the Liam Niesen film went from Javert's suicide to credits. For how excellent it had been up until then, that ruined the film for me and I have never watched it again. some of the older version stray even further.

One of the problems with adapting Les Miserables to the screen is length. It is a huge story. It was first printed in 1862 in five volumes (for those interested, Project Gutenberg has digitized the original French edition and it can be found in the odd library). Each volume was approximately 100,000 words making the whole roughly half a million words. Roughly the same length as The Lord of the Rings. That one was brought to film as three 2 1/2 hour movies. Fortunately Victor Huge tended to ramble on. Before you ever meet Thenardier or Marius, you get a detailed examination of the Waterloo battlefield. He manages to keep such side track interesting and riveting with his excellent writing, but much of that can be dropped. Even so you are left with a huge volume of story.

The two French versions that tell the complete story are the 1958 film staring Jean Gabin clocking in at 210 minutes, and the 2001 TV miniseries staring Gerard Depardieu consisting of 4 90 episodes (360 minutes). My dream is to have the 1958 film, in French, with subtitles. If anyone knows where to find such a version, let me know. I have a descent copy of the 2001 version. Neither one adds any filler and both still omit a detail or two.

Which brings me to the film version of the musical. The musical, first performed in its present form in London's West End at the Barbican Theater in 1985, tells much of the story in song. This allows for cramming much more information into a shorter time period. Still, things are missing. Between the original French concept album and the first performance in 1985, Eponine's sister Azelma vanished. There is nothing to link Eponine and Gavroche, her brother. Fantine's back story only appears in song (where you get the gist of her having a love affair, getting pregnant, and being abandoned). We are given a wonderful song to introduce the Thenardiers that really sets the tone of their character. Song gets right to the heart of the characters with little need for long establishing scenes or explanation. Brilliant song writing gets to the heart in a few hundred words and a few minutes where a normal movie has to spend time showing you the events and Victor Hugo spend endless pages filling in back story. The musical strips away the extraneous and leaves the core story, from beginning to end, with few omissions that are missed in a 180 minutes show.

And then there is the film adaption. Tom Hooper didn't just adapt the musical for film. No, this is a re-adaption using musical as its inspiration. In so many ways he went back to the book and restored much of what had been lost (sadly, Azelma still didn't make the cut, even as a background character). Marius's Grandfather is back, we flash to Gavroche when Eponine dies, the letters are in their proper place, and we finally get to see the convent where Jean Valjean and Cossette hid for many years. The musical has been adjusted to be closer to the book.

Most of all, we break from the musical format. A musical is performed on stage where the audience is by necessity distant from the action. My wife and I had excellent seats for the touring production that came to Denver in 2011. As I watched the movie, and reexamined it after the fact, I came to the conclusion that the movie give us an intimacy that the stage production just can't. That is a flaw in many filmed musicals, you still aren't in the action. I this film, you are there, you are with the characters. It isn't just the closeness of the camera, the final piece that lets us in the story is that the actors were signing live. You hear and see what the camera caught. There are effects (much of the wider picture, such as the ships and port in the opening scene, are added), but they are just set dressing. Much of the film comes to the theater as filmed, sound and image.

My previous favorite musical adaptions were Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound of Music, both are a mix of dialog and music. Les Miserables is more music than dialog. It could have been dry like the adaption of Phantom of the Opera, but the live singing isn't just a gimmick, it brings the audience into the film. Think of it as sonic 3D. On top of that were an excellent cast, adept at acting and singing, fantastic sets and costumes, an attention to detail for the period, epic cinematography and editing. I found many of these roles, especially the three female lead roles, to be the best of any version of the musical I have heard, and I've heard a lot of them.

As a movie adaption of a musical, it is excellent. Hollywood can't help but change things and the difference between this and Phantom of the Opera is in stark contrast. Phantom was very faithful but lacked heart. Something didn't click. Les Miserables clicks, everything works, and yet it is not nearly as faithful. Words were changed, songs omitted, songs added, and yet it is even more powerful than the original musical. Tom Hooper's changes all bring the movie closer to the book and the original powerful story. Every change serves to heighten the emotional impact of an already stirring musical. I couldn't help thinking that the stage production could be improved by adopting some of the changes made for the movie. Normally I detest changes that Hollywood makes as they tend to detract rather than add. The two film version of South Pacific pale in comparison to a Nebraska community production of the original stage version. Yet this time, each change, although noticeable, only enhances, never detracts.

I can't wait to see it again and see what else I notice. The more I see it the less I'll notice the changes and the more I'll enjoy it. After just 1 viewing I would say it is the greatest movie musical of all time. It might end up supplanting Gone With the Wind and Star Wars as the film I consider the greatest of all time. I definitely give it 5 stars.

What Makes A Good Review

This topic has been on my mind for a while, especially since yesterday. In fact, as I plan on writing a movie review for my next post, you may end up reading that post before this one. No matter. It relates to reviews of all sorts.

Part of what sparked this was an absolutely horrible review of the film Les Miserables that can be found on CNN's website. I gave the reviewer and F, not because she panned the Golden Globe nominated film, but because of the content an nature of the review. Not every film is for everyone, but when you are in the business of writing a review, it needs to have information useful to those reading it. This particular review had nothing of use and really didn't say much besides showing that the reviewer hated the music the movie was based on and didn't seem to realize that was based on a classic book. There was little information on the quality of film making (be in writing, cinematography, set design, sound editing, film editing, singing caliber, acting quality, casting choices, or much else). The only thing that was clear was that she didn't like the musical and had judged the film based on that dislike and that she found Russell Crow's performance to be forced.

It is a perfect example of how NOT to write a review. Whether you are doing this professionally or because you have an opinion to share, you need to explain yourself in a manner that gets to the heart of what you like or don't like. For instance, I intensely dislike Star Trek: Generations. Why? Simple, the part of the story that revolves around Geordi and the hack of his visor throws 7 years of good writing for the series out the window. For someone who watched the TV series (the target audience for the film) it yanked you right out of the film. Yes, it was that bad. Those same tricks had been tried time and again in the series and the crew had detected them and performed as trained each time. It was like the crew had been replaced by fakes. Bad writing on one sub-plot destroyed an otherwise descent movie.

That is how you say way you disliked something. It needs to be specific and useful. A reader (or viewer if you make your review recommendations in video format) needs to come away from your review with information so they know if they are likely to agree with your review or disagree. Someone who has not watched the 7 seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation isn't likely to be bothered by the same things that I was about Star Trek: Generations.

This holds true for book reviews. For independent authors, if you want the author to get something out of the review, you have to be specific. I've had a couple of reviews that comment that the book needs editing, but they don't say whether it is typos, grammar issues, or larger story issues. Is this person picky, or did I miss something obvious. I don't know from the general nature of the comment. Be specific. It might be something as simple as they don't like the dialect I write in, or it might be something as major as I used the wrong master document when I formatted it for upload.

Be specific, even if you are saying you liked it. What did you like? The reader of the review needs to know this for the review to be of any use. When reviewing a published book, you can give it a star rating to give your overall impression of it, but if you are going to take the time write something, give some details. Even something as simple as staying the story was enthralling says something. It means you were absorbed and there is a good chance the reader of your review will be as well. Don't say, "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" or "something just didn't work". If that is all you have to say, just give it the star rating or don't do anything.

That said, I have much to say about the film version of Les Miserables. And that is the criteria I use for when to write a review. If I just couldn't get into it and felt it just wasn't for me, that doesn't tell anyone anything, not unless you know exactly what I like and don't. Chances are the reader of a review isn't going to go out and check on all your likes and dislikes. If you become famous, that might be enough, but most reviewers aren't famous and never will be. Give the details and make your review something of value. A book can be well written and in need of proof-reading or it can be a good story that needs some editing to bring it out. Or maybe the movie you saw was well acted but poorly written (though sometimes it is hard to see that like the horror that is Highlander 2).

Give the reader something to go on, something to let them know if your review is useful to them or not. That is how to write a good review.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Art of Voice

If you are a serious writer, you will know what I mean by 'voice'. It seems elusive and nebulous, but I've found it really isn't that hard to understand or to find. The problem most writers have is with quality.

Your writing voice is how you put your words together. All of us who use language to communicate (and I suspect that Dolphins and Wales may be among those numbers) speak in a unique way. Speaking is very natural and we are programmed to learn it as children. Each of us speaks with a unique voice. We adopt slang from our generation or from generations we associate with. We use words common to our environment and we learn how to say things in a certain way by those we have around as our language skills develop. Usually our parents and siblings, who are around us constantly in our first years, are the most influential, but as can be seen from people who grow up speaking multiple languages, school and society are equally important.

All this goes into creating the way we speak. The way we tell stories, such as how our day went, what the dog did with our homework, or to regale an audience with our summer exploits. We have a unique voice even if we are illiterate.

Many people make the great mistake in thinking that writing is our primary form of communications. Writing is just a series of symbols that encode our spoken language into a tangible form that we can share with others. It has recorded the words spoken by others for thousands of years. We can learn how they spoke because for most of human history there was no difference between the written voice and the spoken voice.

Fast forward to modern times. Experts on writing are looking for this mystical thing called 'voice' and can't pin down what it is. Some say you either have it or don't. Some say you can learn it or develop it. Some say everyone has it, it's just a matter of quality. Well, they are all true to some extent. Our modern society has divorced speaking and writing, turning them into two distinct methods of communication. Writing has gained this mythic status as something you have to have talent at. Rubbish! Far too many writers out there make writing far more complicated that it really is and they really want others to believe it is that hard. For the most part they have succeeded, but it is all hogwash.

Writing is speaking through a pen or keyboard. That is all. Just put the words on paper as you would speak them. Too often we get caught in the mystique of writing and forget its origins. For some, this will not result in grammatically acceptable writing, but that is something easy to correct. Good grammar is important for verbal and written communication to maximize your audience. As a society we are far more accepting of oddities in verbal communication then written communication. So that is a concession we have to make. Still, your writer's voice is not some mystical thing, it is the ability to imprint your writing with your unique personality.

I discovered this by accident many years ago when I was tutoring a foreign student in college. She had a paper to write and knew the material very well. But her mistake was to compose it in her native language and then translate it to English. I made her tell me what her idea was verbally and then made her write down what she had just said. The result was an A on the paper. Writers too often try to compose their words and then translate it to the page. The secret is to write it as you would say it. If you have seen the commercials for Dragon Naturally Speaking, there's another example. The people in the commercial go on and on about how it helps make writing easier. Why? Because speech recognition software records your spoken word in text. It bypasses all that translation from thought to speech to writing. If you want to find your writers voice, learn how to speak on the page instead of translating your thoughts into what you think writing should be. You'll get in your own way and obscure your natural voice.

That isn't to say you have the ability to tell a story. That is a different talent only distantly related to your ability to string words together. But it is your ability to string words together that is the key to voice when you write. It puts YOU on the page so that readers can hear your voice when they read your writing. And even the experts tacitly acknowledge this. One of the many ways suggested to improve your writing is to read it aloud. If you follow my advice, when you do that it will flow naturally. Better to have it sound right from the beginning rather than try to fix it at the end. That makes more work and creates and inferior product to what you could have had in the beginning. The closer your rough draft is to your final draft, the more alive it will be. The more it will sing with your own unique voice in every sentence.