Another blast from the past: an attempt at the Internet-hallowed form known as “snarky recap,” from early 2013. Because I always shoot for the advanced-level shit, this first effort was for a threefer — the novel, stage musical, and movie musical versions of “Les Miserables.”
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO LES MIS
Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables has been in theaters since Christmas Day, but with its multiple Oscar nominations and the general controversy surrounding the adaptation, people are still buzzing — and buying tickets. Whether you’ve already seen the movie and are kinda fuzzy about what exactly happened over those two and a half hours, or want an outline to help navigate the plot before you go in, or just want to be able to condescendingly correct people at cocktail parties who refer to the film as “about the French revolution,” here’s everything you need to know about the history, the novel, the musical and the movie — in a nutshell.
Before we even delve into the plot, the first thing to be aware of is that Les Mis is different from many popular musicals in that it is entirely sung-through; in this way, it’s more like an opera than it is like, say, Chicago. Although the category of “sung-through musicals” has been invented to cover the likes of Les Mis and other recent pieces like Rent, which are more pop-infused and lyric-heavy than traditional opera, it’s also worth noting that some of the vocal parts in Les Mis are also more traditionally operatic than you’ll find in most musicals — namely, the two leads of Valjean and Javert. So bear that in mind when you crap all over Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe: even a Broadway vet like Jackman struggles to stack up against the demanding range of Valjean. The other thing worth knowing is that the novel on which both the stage production and the movie are based is hella fucking long, you guys. Seriously. The movie runs two and a half hours, which feels like a marathon until you realize that two and a half hours of reading Victor Hugo’s dense prose still leaves you learning about how the Bishop of Digny is the greatest human being who has ever lived (for reference, the bishop is in the movie for all of, like, eight seconds). Most of the problems of the musical have to do with the unavoidable fact that compressing something as sprawling as Hugo’s epic political novel — which has been (kindly) referred to as “gassy” by fans — into something that is both entirely coherent and also less than seventeen hours long is damn near impossible.
Anyway! On to the movie. We open as the stage musical does: on the docks, with the chain gang. Unlike the stage version, however — which relies on the high technology of a rotating stage to showcase the many scenes of the musical — this movie is CGI’d way the hell up. Hey! Wolverine is helping to pull a giant boat! He’s a prisoner, and his prison guard is the Gladiator. Or, as he pointedly tells Wolverine while giving him his parole papers, Javert. Wolverine is Jean Valjean, which in French means “John Johnson,” and in literary theory means “Everyman.” Also, Valjean is super-strong. Like, he might still actually be one of the X-men. He heaves the giant, broken piece of wood that holds up the flag on a ship (I don’t know my maritime vocabulary), which manages to be a visual metaphor for Valjean-as-Christ-figure and also Valjean-as-Everyman-who-holds-up-the-nation-of-France. But enough with the metaphors now: Wolverine is freeeeeeeee!
Except it turns out that being free kind of sucks. First of all, Valjean’s been in the clink for nineteen years (five for breaking and entering — he was trying to steal some bread for his starving nephew — and fourteen more for trying to escape from prison), and dude looks like hell. Which is taken pretty directly from the book, in which even dogs attack him for looking like such a sloppy vagrant. He can’t get any work, because he must present his yellow parole papers everywhere he goes — his status as a felon is following him for life. Hey, it’s only been one-hundred and fifty years since Hugo wrote about this particular form of social injustice, and guess what? We still think it’s a pretty swell way to live! Well-played, society.
So Valjean gets spurned at joint after joint, until he rolls up to the bishop’s house. As I mentioned earlier, if you sit down and read the unabridged novel, you will learn everything the Bishop of Digny has done in his entire life — or at least it feels that way, given how much Hugo rambles on about the guy. (Fun fact: he went into such excruciating detail about how the bishop was the Best Guy Ever because he wanted to show what an ideal priest might actually be like, in order to shame and embarrass the actual prelates of his time, most of whom were pretty far off the mark.) The bishop in the movie is played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on the London stage; he’s the Original Valjean, or O.V. I always found O.V. to have a bit of a doddering-grandfather quality to him, so I like him much better as the bishop than as Valjean. But don’t share this opinion too widely in musical theater circles, as many consider it heretical.
The bishop is a pretty cool guy; he’s the sort of person whose boundless generosity and high expectations of others make you want to become a better person yourself. He feeds Valjean dinner off of some fancy silver plates — his lone extravagance in life — and lets him crash on his couch, and in the middle of the night, Valjean decides to take the silver and run (Couchsurfing.org does not use Hugo’s work as an advertisement). He gets caught pretty fast, though, on account of the entire town being terrified by the crazy-eyed hobo-felon who wandered in earlier; the cops have been watching his ass. They bring him back to the bishop’s house and give him the what-for: how could he dare to steal from O.V.? And to claim that the bishop had made him a gift of his silver — preposterous! But O.V. zigs when the po-po expect him to zag, and he says that yes, indeed, he did give the silver to Wolverine; in fact, he forgot the nicest part of the gift — two fat silver candlesticks. The police leave, and O.V. announces that he has now purchased Valjean’s soul for God. (Everyone wants Wolverine on their side!)
Narratively, this introduction is much more efficient than the novel, but it also minimizes the role of the bishop, who in Hugo’s work casts a very long shadow (in part because he takes up, like, four hundred pages before Valjean even shows up). The book has a gentler introduction to the Valjean/Javert dichotomy — we learn about his time in prison through tormented flashback, after he’s already met the bishop and had his soul bought — and Hugo has already taken great pains to point out the enormous social benefit of such iconoclastic mercy. The bishop is the anti-Judas, using silver to bring souls to God, but politically, he’s a royalist; his family was rich before the Revolution, like all sane folks he was appalled by the Reign of Terror, he was pretty cool with Napoleon (except at the end) and he’s down with the restoration of the monarchy. In short, the bishop might be the kindest, gentlest person alive in all of France, but he’s also not about to start agitating for the kind of serious structural change that would do much to seriously improve the lives of the peasants for whom he cares. Which is important towards the larger meaning of the story, which we’ll get to (though it will take a bit of time to explain, because seriously you guys, this book is eleven billion pages long).
So, back to the movie. O.V. brings Wolverine over to Team Jesus, though it takes Valjean a songologue to decide he’s on board; life has been hard for him up until this point, and accepting the bishop’s mercy is not easy, because it challenges him to live a better life himself. (Arch postmodern literary types who studiously avoid didacticism probably hate this story.) Ultimately, Valjean decides to tear up his parole papers with his Wolverine claws and make a new and better life for himself — he cannot fulfill the moral obligation the bishop has placed in him while still forcibly oppressed by the state, so he throws those yellow papers off a mountain, sells the silver (except for the candlesticks, which he will use as dreamcatchers for the rest of his life), and becomes a respectable man. From the mountains of Digny he lands in Montreuil, near Paris, where he runs a garment factory and serves as mayor. People are still hella poor here, though. When Tom Hooper’s camera zooms in on the streets of Montreuil we see that they are filled with peasants and beggars, dirty, wet, hungry types who part for Javert, who is riding through the town on horseback with his posse. (Russell Crowe is a better rider than singer.) He’s gone from gladiator to prison guard to police inspector, and he rides right up to hobnob with the mayor, a gentleman who goes by the name of Madeleine but who we all know is really Wolverine. Javert cannot fathom that a convict could ever become a truly decent person, so he doesn’t suspect him too much at first.
This is also when we meet Fantine, in the workroom of the factory; the foreman wants to bang her, because she’s the prettiest princess (or, you know, factory-girl) around. Also, all of her coworkers hate her for the exact same fact — specifically, they’re jealous of her beautiful hair and gorgeous white teeth, which, as this movie makes very visually explicit, are NOT common at this period of French history and oral hygiene. Fantine keeps to herself and is barely adequate at her job, so everyone gossips about her, and the song in both the musical and the movie does a pretty job of efficiently conveying that this is regular, routine sport for her coworkers — they’ve been razzing her for a while. In the book, Hugo takes pains to connect the gossip-ringleader’s attitudes towards Fantine and her open-secret of an illegitimate daughter with her political and religious background — in the novel of Les Mis just about everything is connected to politics and religion, whereas in the musical, the ringleader is just kind of a bitch. Although at least the musical doesn’t take the time to call her a “gorgon,” which the novel definitely does.
Anyway, Fantine gets thrown out on her ass after getting into things with the gorgon, which sucks, because she’s gotta support her illegitimate daughter, who lives with an innkeeper named Thenardier and his wife. They keep writing Fantine and asking her for more money, so she’s gotta come up with some way to bring in the benjamins (or the napoleons). She goes to the docks, where there are lots of whores and seedy characters waiting to take advantage of her need! This is a change from the stage musical, wherein “I Dreamed A Dream” happens right after Fantine loses her job — the rearrangement is much more powerful, and is possible because this is a movie, so there’s no need for a five-minute solo piece to allow enough time for the female chorus members to change from their factory-girl costumes to their whore costumes. Fantine sells a locket, then sells her gorgeous hair, then sells some of her teeth; the first two items are in the stage musical but the last is not, probably because that would be really hard to stage, but it’s taken directly from the book. Then some pimp sees her lying shorn-headed against a wall, nursing her wounded gums, and he’s all “Yeah, I’d hit that.” So she starts working for him, banging a captain and then being very, very sad about her life. She sings “I Dreamed A Dream.”
Here’s the thing about this movie: Anne Hathaway fucking owns it, and it is all because of this song. It’s amazing. I have never been a big fan of this number — not even when it is sung by Lea Salonga or Patti Lupone, and I love Patti goddamn Lupone — because, as a big solo number in a big Broadway show, it’s usually, well, big, belty and unsubtle and sung to fill a theater. But this is a movie, and Tom Hooper’s directorial decision to use mostly extreme close-ups pays off in this song more than any other. In the intimacy of film Anne Hathaway is able to communicate the depth of feeling motivating each word, some of which are more breathed than sung; it’s the opposite of the Susan-Boyle-esque whimsical sadness with which this piece is typically imbued, and what it conveys is a woman who is absolutely shattered by the choices presented to her by the world. It’s fucking phenomenal, and I usually hate Fantine (in the musical, at least).
Now that Fantine’s a prostitute she wanders the streets coughing a lot (because, oh yeah, she has tuberculosis, and let’s be honest, probably also syphilis) and getting groped at by random dudes, one of whom looks like a poor man’s Paul Rudd. PMPR smarms at her but she’s not into it, so he grabs her and she claws at his face, breaking the skin with her nails; PMPR cries out and because Montreuil has only one policeman in the entire goddamn town, Javert shows up. He’s ready to haul Fantine off to jail for assaulting the guy — violence against sex workers has always been a normalized part of society, apparently — but then Wolverine rolls in and asserts his discretion, as mayor of the town, to decide punishment for such incidents. He elects to take Fantine to the hospital instead of prison. Javert is displeased.
Valjean is wandering around his town when someone grabs him to help lift a wagon that has fallen on some old dude, slowly crushing him. Valjean uses his Wolverine-strength to lift the wagon that others could not (lift with your legs, people!), and Javert — seeing all this — recalls the freakish might of convict 24601, the man who lifted that heavy-ass piece of boat right before he got his parole. Gladiator is onto Wolverine’s game, y’all. But — what is this? Javert gets a letter from Paris, and goes to visit Valjean to confess: he thought the mayor might be a convict who escaped his parole, and reported him as such, but it turns out that they caught that guy and have him on trial, so, Javert’s bad. He’s all ready to fall on his sword over the matter, but Valjean is like, “Dial it down, dude, you can keep your job.” Valjean dismisses Javert and immediately begins to songologue his moral quandary — the false arrest of another man in his place is surely wrong, but if he confesses and saves this other man’s life, all of his current good works will be brought to a halt. Wolverine sings it out and ends up going to court and announcing himself, saving an innocent man and condemning himself instead. Everyone thinks the mayor has lost his goddamn mind, and folks are too shocked to arrest him yet. This is pretty much the way it goes down in the novel, except there’s a lot more detail about the courtroom and the trial against the innocent dude — Hugo’s book has many universal themes, about love and mercy and justice and mortality, but it’s rooted in the very specific details of French governance at a particular period in time, and he documents those narrative environs with sometimes-excruciating precision.
And now… Fantine dies. Valjean goes to visit her at her bedside, in the hospital (which is run by nuns), where she is hallucinating about her daughter, Cosette. Anne Hathaway sing-cries her way into the Great Beyond, and Valjean decides — promises! — that he will take Cosette into his care and raise the girl as his own daughter. It’s just like in the Princess Diaries! But before he can get out and do that, Javert shows up, and Russell Crowe is not very good at singing, you guys. Their confrontation does not have the dramatic tension it should, and at the denouement — Javert announcing that he is “from the gutter, too” and Valjean leaping out a window into a river to escape — it’s all kinda “meh.” Which is really too bad, because this can be beautifully sung, and Javert’s history is actually quite important to understanding the character as part of the whole of society that Hugo is trying to portray; he was born in prison and he understood from a very young age that this fact shut him off from most routes to “respectable” society. Without the ability to become a gentleman or a professional, Javert instead sought respectability via the only avenue open to him — an institution of violent authority, in this case, law enforcement (his other choice: the military). Javert lives by a straightforward moral code that has been shaped by his own experience in the world, an experience in which he was never shown the sort of transformative kindness at the hands of power that Valjean knew from the bishop. His moral rigidity — that if one lives rightly, by the rules, one can overcome one’s past as much as is ever possible (although never fully) in the eyes of society — animates everything he does, but Crowe is not a powerful enough singer to communicate any of that.
(Also worth noting: in the book, the whole confrontation goes down very differently. Indeed, when Javert first shows up at the hospital, Valjean lets himself be arrested, and then he breaks out of prison and runs back to the hospital, where he hangs out in Fantine’s room again. Javert immediately tracks him down but Valjean hides in the shadows and an awesome nun named Sister Simplice lies to Javert, who believes her because he is so immune to moral complexity that he cannot believe a good woman who is a representative of the authority of the Church would ever speak falsely. Obviously, Javert is not familiar with the capacity of nuns to be the most badass people in the whole Church hierarchy. The high school I went to is where Sr. Dorothy Kazel used to teach; believe me when I say that shit is for real, y’all. Then there’s a looooong digression about the Battle of Waterloo, and then Jean Valjean gets recaptured in, like, a paragraph, and made to work in the galleys of a ship again, until he jumps overboard to his freedom. The musical compresses all of this, and the audience is grateful.)
But anyway — Valjean escapes, one way or another, and runs off to find Cosette. Who is living with the Thenardiers, venal innkeepers in another small, nearby-ish town. Cosette is pretty and innocent and sings a song about imagining herself in a castle on a cloud where someone loves her instead of being stuck doing chores for some clowns who like to slap her around. She clutches at a doll that is basically a bag of dirt and is not so much a real character as an object of pity, which foreshadows the fact that Cosette pretty much never becomes a real, fully-drawn character in any version of this story. It is not Victor Hugo’s finest moment as a writer. Madame Thenardier — hey, it’s Bellatrix LeStrange! — sends Cosette out to get some water from the well and fawns over her daughter, Eponine, who is the same age as Cosette and appears to have everything Cosette does not. Then Bellatrix wakes up her husband, Borat, so they can open their inn and sing a hilarious song about how they are the scum of the earth. The Thenardiers are used as comic relief in the musical and the movie, but in the book their greed is portrayed bluntly for what it is: they are part of the parasite class, taking advantage of whomever they can, robbing from rich and poor alike, with no sympathy for anyone. They’re the sort of people who refer to themselves as “realists” to cover up the fact that they’re really just selfish, self-serving assholes who prey on the weaknesses of others. In short, they suck balls, but they’re very popular characters in the stage musicals because they’re funny about it. (And, to be fair, the musical really needs the comic relief. You can put the book down and take a breather when shit starts to get too heavy, but on stage or film, where you’re presumed to sit through the story more or less continuously, something’s gotta break up the parade of misery. Not all critics have enjoyed the somewhat jarring change in tone which occurs whenever they’re on-screen, but try to imagine getting through the damn thing without it…)
Valjean finds Cosette wandering in the woods, and she hides for all of three seconds before deciding that this random helpful stranger is probably less of a threat than the people she lives with. They roll on back to the Thenardiers, and Valjean pays to take Cosette away, covering Fantine’s outstanding debts plus all the profit that the Thenardiers extort from him, because that is what they do. It’s quite quick and very different from the book, wherein Valjean keeps his intentions hidden for an entire evening at the inn, choosing instead to play some serious mind games with the Thenardiers by paying them to stop yelling at Cosette and giving her a brand-new, giant-ass doll that makes young Eponine (who doesn’t actually have that great a life, except by comparison to the shit-show that is Cosette’s) crazy jealous. They have no idea who he is or what he’s after and it’s kind of amazing, but the musical ain’t got time for that shit.
Debt settled, Valjean and Cosette ride off into the sunset (or, Paris). Shortly after they depart the Thenardiers’ inn Javert shows up in pursuit of Valjean, making quite an impression on the innkeepers (which will come up again later) but not quite catching up to his man. Valjean is in a carriage with a sleeping Cosette, singing a fairly bland song about how this sudden fatherhood has changed his life even though so far all he’s done is buy a kid a damn doll. The song is new for the movie — it’s not in the musical — and it’s fine, but not great. They roll up to the gates of Paris only to find that carriages are being checked — Javert has gotten there first, and the cops are on the prowl for a fugitive! So Valjean wakes Cosette and they sneak out (but not before Javert spots them and follows), running through alleyways as they are pursued by the long arm of the law. They reach a dead-end and Wolverine busts out his mad X-men skills to free-climb a multi-story wall and then pull Cosette up after him, because Valjean really is a superhero after all — he was bitten by a radioactive bishop, and now shoots deadly mercy-beams from his eyes! On the other side of the wall they land in the safety of a convent whose groundskeeper just so happens to be the old dude whom Valjean saved from that carriage earlier, and who will of course keep their secret. See, kids, you never know when saving someone’s life might be the key to finding safe haven from an overzealous, self-righteous police officer later down the line! (Or maybe that’s only the moral if you live in Oakland, or early-nineteenth-century France.) This whole scene is quite well-done and is absent from both the musical and the book — it’s never really explained how Valjean manages to make it into Paris, so this is a welcome addition, even if it does stretch credulity a bit. (Although no more than some other things in the story. Victor Hugo was a big fan of coincidence, y’all.)
Even my love of French history could not power me through such an exhaustive recap — especially when it involved reliving Russell Crowe’s butchering of “Stars.” (I would love to post a video of Norm Lewis utterly crushing the same number as a balm to everyone’s soul, but apparently YouTube took them all down?! GOD DAMN THE MAN!)