Cinematic Saturdays - Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

In addition to being sophisticated as s***, we’re also shameless trend-followers. Stop shaking your head, you know you went to see the movie on Christmas day like everybody else. So grab a baguette and some fancy French cheese. You’ll need the sustenance if you intend to last all 1,463 pages of one of my all-time favorite (and lengthiest) novels, Les Misérables.

Title: Les Misérables
Author: Victor Hugo
Publisher: Signet Classics
Publication Date: 1862
Pages: 1,463
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction


Summary (from Goodreads): Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean - the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread - Les Misérables (1862) ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose.

Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope - an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.

::Cracks knuckles:: Here we go.

First of all, I have to give Victor Hugo a giant, grave-defying pat on the back for writing such real and sympathetic female characters. It was a feat not often attempted by male authors of the day. And while Hugo’s heroines are broken, bruised, and beaten down by society, they are anything but weak. It’s kind of amazing to consider that while his counterparts were writing superficial, irritating, or marriage-obsessed females (if not omitting women from stories altogether) Hugo was writing Fantine, whose heartbreaking story alone could fill an entire novel. See my brief description below. Beware of spoilers!

Impregnated and later abandoned by a wealthy Parisian student, the impoverished Fantine is left to raise their illegitimate daughter, Cosette, alone. By the time Cosette is three years old, Fantine is forced to send her away to live with an innkeeper and his wife. She works in a factory for money to send in exchange for her care, but when her supervisor discovers Fantine is an unwed mother, she is fired from her position and left with no income. Desperate for money to support her child, Fantine begins work as a prostitute. Subsequently, she contracts tuberculosis and dies having never gotten to see her daughter again.

Stone. Cold. Bummer. Why are all of my favorite books so sad? And the salty tear tsunamis don’t end there, not that one could expect them to with a title like “Les Misérables,” which directly translates in English to “The Miserable Ones.” Another applicable title could be “Everyone tries their best, fails, then dies.”

However, the sadness isn’t what’s meant to be taken away from Les Miz, which is ultimately a story about resilience, determination, liberation, and strength. It’s a harrowing chronicle of survival and redemption (not to mention, Marius, my favorite fictional heart throb), things that everyone can relate to. Its timeless relatability is just one reason why Les Miz was, is, and will continue to be a best seller.

And now for the “negative.” I won’t lie to you, antique prose can be a challenge. It’s difficult for me to fully immerse in a book in which no one speaks the way I do. Therefore, completing it can require a certain amount of patience and commitment. But I can guarantee you that Victor Hugo’s story telling and character development are well worth the effort.

One other small issue I had was with the dynamic between Valjean and Javert, whose never-ending game of cat and mouse often seemed extreme and unrealistic. Although, I’m not sure this is so much a flaw in the writing as it may just be a shift in cultural norms. Maybe in the 1830’s – before iphones, social networking, and the widespread self-importance we’re now all familiar with – people were more apt to be fatally dedicated to their jobs, like Javert, and tirelessly hunt all those well-intentioned, bread-thieving, fugitive single fathers. Say THAT five times fast.

Oh, one more thing. Like many protagonists, Valjean sometimes reads the tiniest bit flat. His only real “flaw” is his willingness to steal to survive. The only reason he was even imprisoned in the first place was the theft of a single loaf of bread to feed his sister’s dying child. The nerve.

All in all, this book is amazing and beautiful. And yes, by “beautiful” I mean it’s an F-5 supertornado of tear-drenched heartache! Five out of five stars.

Up top, Victor Hugo! Being dead is no excuse to leave a sistah hangin’. ::holds hand high::

So, if you’re a tenacious ball of bibliographic lovin’ who made it through the entire book and still crave more, NEVER FEAR! There are eight film adaptations of Les Misérables to sink your greedy little teeth into. Now, because we all have lives and loved ones who may want to see us again, I will not take the time to review every one of these versions. Instead I will address two, my personal favorite, made in 1998, and the 2012 adaptation of the Broadway musical. Let’s begin with the most recent.

Why, hello Marius.

I should begin by saying that I sometimes struggle to get into musical theatre. As a writer myself, I relish quality narrative and compelling dialogue; two things easily lost when an entire story is presented in song. Granted, some musicals contain reasonable amounts of non-melodic prose, but Les Miz is not one of them. For all three of you who haven’t seen it yet, be warned. Every. Word. Is. Sung.

Every. Word.

Now, I’m willing to overlook this for a couple reasons; a. because the music is good, and b. because Les Misérables is the literary love of my life, and any presentation of it, whether it be novel, musical, or comic strip would be just fine by me. It probably goes without saying that, even stripped of much of its content and Hugo’s beautiful narrative voice, Les Miz is my favorite musical.

Cinematically speaking, the 2012 adaptation is flawless. Every shot is gorgeous, every setting perfect, every costume impeccably executed, etc. You could watch this film on mute and still be moved to tears.

The performances were impressive, especially Anne Hathaway’s (Fantine), and I was pleasantly surprised by Hugh Jackman, whose previous role as an “X-Man” had me doubting his ability to pull off the emotional complexity of Valjean. You go, Wolverine! Moreover, Sasha Baron Cohen was a perfect choice to play the innkeeper, and I have to give some major props to Daniel Huttlestone who, at only thirteen years old, owned his role as Gavroche. But not all performances were quite so perfect.

I feared my glasses would shatter into my eyeballs every time Amanda Seyfried hit a high note. And then there was Russell Crowe. Just…why? He spent months with a vocal coach before filming began. Could anyone tell? “Not I,” said the cat. Eddie Redmayne’s head shook in time with his vibrato, not that it stopped him from being painfully dreamy. And hey, at least it provided some comic relief to an otherwise bleak (but beautiful!) story.

Okay, here’s where you take a quick breath and slam a shot of espresso, cause we’ve got one more film to discuss. I’ll try to keep it brief.

And hello again...other Marius.
The 1998 adaptation of Les Miserables is one I felt expressed original interpretation while maintaining the story’s integrity. Director Billy August creates a world that, in contrast to the aggressive drama of other adaptations, feels quiet and meditative. His style works to mirror Valjean’s introspection and constant inner conflict. Liam Neeson is great in the role of Valjean, and Claire Danes’s Cosette is one of the least annoying I’ve seen.

The only real issue I have is with the role of Marius who, while still hopelessly swoon-worthy (see photo above for reference), is made the leader of the revolution instead of Enjolras, the leader in the book.

Beautifully shot and performed, and definitely worth a watch.

I give both films two fistfuls of pirate booty, and a gleeful jig. (Because! That’s why!)

For those of you who would like to brave the novel, and I highly recommend it, you can purchase it via the link below. As always, thanks for tuning in, and let me know what you’d like me to review next.

Infinite high fives,

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