No doubt, you’ve heard this story before: a downtrodden ex-con is given a second chance in life thanks to the generosity of a benevolent priest. With his new found fortune, he transforms his life, turning away from selfish desires and dedicating himself to helping those in need. Victor Hugo’s much beloved book Les Misérables may not be at the top of your reading list today (it is after all, very long), but it has been adapted so many times in recent decades that the source material has ceased to act as the story’s primary signifier. We remember the famous Broadway play, one of the movie adaptations, or perhaps we think of the new PBS miniseries. It seems we can’t get enough of the miserable characters who populate Hugo’s famous story – from the tragic Fantine, to the unloved Éponine, to the uncompromising Inspector Javert. Even protagonist Jean Valjean’s story seeps with injustice. Les Misérables is a hard story, so why do we love it so much?
To begin with, the musical adaptation by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil which first released in France in the 1980s is a stunning theater spectacular. Ask anyone who has seen the Broadway production and they will inevitably tell you that it is the most memorable play they have ever seen. The sheer power of the music combined with Valjean’s epic rag to riches story produces a play that simply feels larger in scale than anything you’ve seen before. I was lucky to catch the current travelling show of the Broadway production and had no trouble seeing what all the fuss is about. The production asks a great deal of its cast – dishing up some of the most difficult singing parts I’ve ever heard – and they deliver with staggering perfection. The play culminates in a battle sequence on the streets of Paris, which pushes past the boundaries of what you thought was possible to portray on the stage.
That said, a dubious feature of the new travelling production is that it seems to rely upon the audience’s familiarity with the storyline. Perhaps to keep the runtime down, the first act barrels through the story’s exposition in what seems like a race to reach the climatic second act while providing as little of the plot as possible. Some of the omissions of the coincidences and more sentimental aspects from the original story are welcome changes. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that Valjean’s catalytic interaction with the priest was shortchanged. Perhaps this is because of my familiarity with Tom Hooper’s recent film version, which dwells upon this moment with great sensitivity and gives Hugh Jackman the space to exercise his peak acting abilities in his portrayal of Valjean. This film version has become so ubiquitous that the play now exists only in dialogue with its film adaptation; the current travelling production leans into this dynamic.
I noticed that many members of the current cast resemble the movie cast in both their appearance and the style of their signing. The Broadway cast is generally comprised of much more accomplished singers than the film; the film featuring primarily top-notch actors who can also sing. Hooper’s decision to record the music live during filming also added to the difficulty level for his actors. Some (Anne Hathaway) rose to the challenge tremendously, others (Russell Crowe) were not as adept at handling acting and singing at the same time. Despite its occasional stumbles, the film excels in bringing Hugo’s story to life. It balances the intimate moments (which the play sometimes skips over) with the heroic moments (which the play does so well) and gives a deeper sense of Valjean’s character. I left the playhouse feeling elated and impressed, I left the movie theater feeling deeply, emotionally moved.
At its core, Les Misérables is a story about contrasting world views. Valjean begins by viewing the world as a cold and cruel place. His interaction with the priest gives him a new lease on life, teaching him the intrinsic value in all human existence and helping him to find joy. Valjean’s new perspective on life comes into stark contrast with his arch nemesis Javert’s, who believes that the misfortunate deserve their circumstances and sees no value in the virtues of mercy or kindness. Late in the story, Valjean saves Javert’s life while putting his own at risk and Javert faces a moral crisis. In the wake of Valjean’s kindness, his entire perspective on the world shifts and rather than undergo a similar conversion experience, Javert decides to kill himself. The entire story hinges on whether or not a character can change his or her perspective and empathize with the plight of others, a theme that resonates deeply in our contemporary polarized world.
This brings me to the current PBS miniseries. Though it adheres to the book closely in terms of plot, it seems to miss the whole point of the story. Dominic West offers a fantastic performance as a scarred and tortured version of Valjean, but the essential conversion experience feels anticlimatic. Much of the enjoyment in previous versions stems from the triumph of Valjean in his ability to move past his pain and transform into a character who embodies Christian love. The conversion experience of the miniseries (at this point) is much more gradual; West’s Valjean is often angry, stressed, and insensitive to the feelings of others. In previous versions, Valjean permeates goodness and warmth to the miserable characters around him. Though the story often takes tragic turns, it maintains an aura of triumph through Valjean’s heroism. Without this beam of light in the center of the story, the miniseries is unbearably dark. The gritty adaptation spin is a new (hopefully short-lived) trend in high quality television – another casualty of this trend is Netflix’s disastrous Anne of Green Gables adaptation. Like Anne of Green Gables, Les Misérables tells the story of a character who emerges from dire circumstances and refuses to let the past dictate the future. These stories are classics because they inspire, rather than depress. I am hoping the miniseries will take a more optimistic turn as it progresses, since it is otherwise quite promising. It has a top-notch cast – most notably including David Oyelowo in a fantastic turn as Javert – and boasts excellent production value.
In sum, if you want to be horribly depressed by actors working at the top of their game, watch the miniseries which is currently free on the PBS app. If you want to be uplifted by Broadway performers working at the top of their game, catch the traveling show as it moves across the country (you may just want to watch Hooper’s movie version first to get the major plot points). For the time being, Les Mis will continue to saturate popular culture across performing arts mediums. If you haven’t already, why not jump on the bandwagon?