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.


  1. Very informative review. I'd seen the stage show twice, and the anniversary concert version, but didn't notice the songs that were omitted. I didn't ever realize (I have not read the novel) that Gavroche is Eponine's brother. Nor did I notice Marius' grandfather. But I agree with your feelings about this adaptation of a stage show to film. The live singing brought an immediacy and immersion that no stage show could offer. IMO, I Dreamed a Dream and Empty Chairs were both revelations in their emotional intimacy. Not to sound like the sap I am, but I can't think of any movie that has brought me to tears so many times. Brilliant film. I can't wait to see it again, and it will be one of the very few movies I'd buy on Blu-ray. I was a little afraid, with my high expectations, that I might be a tad disappointed, but it exceeded what I'd hoped for. I gather the same is true for you. Good.

  2. I just saw the movie this afternoon. Loved it as well. I'm not as familiar with the stage musical (my sister is the expert), and I've not yet read the book (it's been on my eReader waiting for me far too long). But I thoroughly enjoyed it as a self-contained event.