What Can We Steal From the 2012 Feature Film Version of Les Miserables?

Title of Work and its Form: Les Miserables, feature film
Author: Directed by Tom Hooper, Screenplay by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, based on the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg which was based on the novel by Victor Hugo.
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: As of this writing, the film is in theaters.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Adapting a Work

The film of the musical version of Les Miserables was twenty years in the making.  After the musical’s London success, Alan Parker (Evita, Fame) was engaged to translate the musical to the silver screen.  For whatever reasons, the film did not get made until now.  Parker and Tom Hooper endured the same ordeal that confronted Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg when they sat down and created the musical out of Victor Hugo’s novel.  Every person or team that has adapted the novel into a new form has had to make some brutal choices: some characters and story beats are cut; others may be introduced or changed.  Why?  Because when you’re adapting a work to a new medium, you simply must make big changes, no matter how much you love the source material.  (It’s equally true that you won’t be able to please everyone.)

The film version of Les Miserables is substantially similar to the musical, but with many changes resulting from Hooper’s need to translate the work to film.  What are some of the differences and what might have led to them?

  • You really can’t put the whole rooftop-Spider-Man-climby chase that occurs in the novel onstage.  In the film, however, you can have a cameraman strap on a Steadicam and follow Valjean, young Cosette and Javert anywhere you like.  In this scene and in the opening “Look Down” number, Valjean’s strength is emphasized.  Valjean’s surprising power is important because, among other reasons, it kicks off Javert’s suspicions of the Mayor.  In the film version, we actually get to see Valjean lifting the mast of a ship and its flag and carrying the cross…oops, I mean mast…in front of everyone and we get to see him do some wall climbing, reinforcing the strength Valjean has, even in middle age and after years of malnourishment.
  • In that “Look Down” number, dozens of convicts were pulling a giant wooden ship into a massive dry dock. (Or letting it out.  What do I know about ships?  Very little.)  On stage, half a dozen actors mime tilling the soil and breaking rocks.  Hooper is not only taking advantage of the screen’s far more massive scale, but he also got a big, impressive setpiece into the very beginning of the film.
  • “On My Own” is one of the big show-stopping numbers in the musical.  In the book, Eponine is unattractive with an unpleasant voice.  Does this work in a musical or a film?  Um…no.  So I understand why Eponines have always been attractive with beautiful voices.  In the 2012 film, Samantha Barks soars in the role.  Since I saw the film, I’ve been wondering why “On My Own” was moved from Act Two to immediately before “One Day More,” which ordinarily serves as the Act One finale.  Why did they make such a big change?  The musical is fairly long, but has an intermission.  You hear “One Day More,” then you leave your seat and get a drink.  The film has no intermission, so Hooper did not need to provide an emotional climax on which to send the audience off.  I suppose that having Eponine’s primary song come earlier adds more pathos to her plight.  We truly know how much she loves Marius during “The Attack on Rue Plumet” (when the Thenardiers are going to rob Valjean).  Eponine’s choice to ruin the raid with a scream carries more weight after hearing “On My Own.”
  • “Dog Eat Dog” was cut completely and “Beggars at the Feast” was shortened and performed while the Thenardiers were being carried out of the wedding of Marius and Cosette.  Why were these things done?  Because the movie needed to end!  When you’re reading Les Miserables, no one else is affected by anything you do.  It’s just you and the book.  When you’re creating a film, you need to think about attention spans and bladder sizes and the complete inability of so many people to keep their mouths shut during the film.  So they needed to get to the finale ASAP.  “Dog Eat Dog” only reinforces something we all know about Monsieur Thenardier: he’s an opportunistic jerk with no morals.  So it’s gone.  “Beggars at the Feast,” when shortened and performed in transit, doesn’t slow down the story and provides a brief chuckle before the very very very very very very very sad ending of the musical.
  • During the finale, Valjean has traditionally been welcomed to Heaven first by Fantine and then by Eponine.  The three sing a beautiful trio as Valjean dies.  Fantine and Eponine are parallel characters.  Eponine is the idealistic romantic Fantine was when she got pregnant.  Eponine and Fantine both died because they gave everything they had to someone else.  Both epitomize what may be the true theme of the novel: “to love another person is to see the face of God” and harmonize this theme as Valjean sings these dying words.  In the film, the Bishop of Digne returns to literally welcome Valjean into a church/Heaven.  Why the switch from Eponine to the Bishop?  The change got Colm Wilkinson into the finale; that was fine by me.  The Bishop’s kindness and loving nature were the catalyst for Valjean’s personal change, but he only appears in the very beginning of the musical and then goes away.  I suppose there’s a balance between the masculine and feminine in the choice.  The harmony itself must change, too; Colm Wilkinson simply can’t sing as high as most Eponines.   You know, it was that whole puberty thing.  (And Hugh Jackman simply can’t sing that high, either.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Murder Your Darlings.  It’s not clear who formulated this advice for writing, but it’s true.  No matter what you’re writing or editing, it’s sometimes necessary to cut beautiful stuff that you love with all of your heart.  You need to think of the piece as a whole.  So when you lose a verse from a Les Miserables song, it was all in the service of the greater good.
  • Give your characters time to shine.  Many critics have commented upon Hooper’s decision to frame a lot of the movie in close-ups.  (Particularly that chilling one-take “I Dreamed a Dream” scene.)  The film, like the musical, gives each character a great moment that sets them apart and locks them in the audience’s memory.  Gavroche has his simple little song and gets shot while singing it.  Eponine is dismissed as she expresses her joy in finally being held by Marius.  Fantine sees her daughter before she dies.  (In fantasy, of course.)  Javert commits suicide in the interest of maintaining his dignity.  If you’re acting in Les Miserables, you have at least one moment to look forward to each night, even if you’re playing “Prostitute #7.”

What Can We Steal From Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables?

Title of Work and its Form: Les Miserables, novel
Author: Victor Hugo
Date of Work: 1862
Where the Work Can Be Found: The unabridged book can be downloaded in various electronic formats here. The book can also be purchased from secondhand bookshops, including shops such as Syracuse, New York’s Books and Memories.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

One of the primary reasons that Les Miserables is one of the classics of Western literature is because the book engages in a meaningful discussion of nearly every human emotion and primal longing. This depth makes the book hard to summarize, but here are the basics: Jean Valjean wants forgiveness and a connection with the rest of humanity after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread intended to feed his sister’s children. The Bishop of D—- offers mercy to Valjean, giving a thief the silver that would make him an honest businessman and (relatively) caring employer. Inspector Javert, having been born in prison, has a dangerous infatuation with justice (in his view, synonymous with the law).  Valjean adopts Cosette, the illegitimate daughter of one of his employees and runs away from Javert to raise her.  When Cosette grows up, she falls in love with Marius, a student who is part of a group of revolutionaries.  Eponine loves Marius, but she never has a chance.  The French Revolution starts, lots of people die and Valjean carries a wounded Marius to safety through the sewers; it’s a happy ending for all.  (And by “all,” I mean Valjean, Cosette, Marius and the Thenardiers.  Pretty much everyone else is dead.)

Hugo is very shrewd in populating his stories with parallel characters.  Fantine is as great a mother as she can be, Madame Thenardier is a terrible mother.  Marius is a young man infatuated with love who will do anything to make it happen, Enjolras is a young man infatuated with freedom who will do anything to make it happen.  Valjean loves “real” justice and doing the right thing, Javert loves the immutable law and feels that legality makes something “right.”  The novel could be boring and didactic if he had instead engaged with these conflicting ideas on their own.  Instead, these characters represent their principles and the characters’ actions allow Hugo to make his grand argument in a captivating way.  (After all, stories are often more compelling than polemics.  Stories are also usually more popular.)

What responsibilities do we have to each other as human beings?  Instead of writing an editorial, Hugo depicts the life of a sympathetic character whose life is dictated by the opposing issues people hold.  Yes, Valjean broke the law by stealing bread…but did he really deserve such a long sentence?  He was trying to feed children.  Indeed, people in societies will always hold values that will inform rules that are eventually codified into law.  But does Fantine deserve all of the problems she experienced for the “crime” for being a single mother?  To what extent should society have helped or punished her?

Hugo is also careful to make his characters seem human.  Upon being paroled, Jean Valjean does not have a magic, instant epiphany and become a “good” person.  No, the nineteen years in jail have hardened him and made him doubt the humanity in the humans around him.  Hugo’s makes an important choice in allowing Valjean to change: he makes the transformation messy and difficult.  A lesser writer (like me) would have made Valjean turn “good” immediately after the Bishop gives him the silver.  “Why am I angry at the world,” I would have Valjean say.  “The Bishop told the gendarmes that he gave me the silver I stole.  The man of God lied!  For me!  Why am I being such a jerk?  I think I’ll head to Montreuil-sur-Mer and start a factory and give lots of money to the poor.”  Instead, the veil over Valjean’s soul isn’t lifted until later, when he steals, quite by accident, a coin from a little kid named Petit Gervais.  That’s when Valjean realizes he has been living like a cur and resolves to live a life dedicated to justice.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Populate your story with parallel characters.  A story may be an illustration of the conflict between good and evil.  More importantly, a story is a slice of life that just happens to be taken from a fictional world.  Great fiction may contain big ideas and fierce ideological argument, but it is really about the characters: real souls breathed to life by the writer.
  • Empower your characters to have messy internal conflicts.  Real people are complicated.  They contradict themselves.  They often act in such a manner that violates their strongest beliefs.  When you allow your characters these idiosyncrasies, they will seem all the more vital to your reader.
  • Read the classics early and often and appreciate your teachers.  I was introduced to Les Miserables by Miss Rowe in eleventh grade.  I’m sure that I looked at that brick of a book with some measure of suspicion, but her enthusiasm and patience coaxed me to begin a journey that has been tremendously fulfilling.  You never know when you are going to fall in love with a book.

Émile Bayard’s iconic illustration of young Cosette.