Category Archives: Reviews


Les Miserables is full of such timeless examples of social injustice that it’s hard not to find parallels in a modern context.

Mme Thénardier’s empathy is limited. Anything she gave to Cosette would be taken away from her daughters, in her eyes. So she hates the girl, mistreating her even as they benefit from her labor & exploit her illegitimate status. Not that Cosette had any choice in the matter – her mother brought her, hoping for a better life, and hiding her own status so she could find work. But they blame her anyway, resenting that she takes up space in the inn and uses their resources (meaning table scraps and rags), totally ignoring the contribution she makes to keeping the inn going – and keeping Eponine and Azelma from having to do the drudge work.

Meanwhile in Montreil-sur-Mer, a self-made man single-handedly revives local industry with his invention of a new process, leading to an economic boom for the community. Good thing officials didn’t demand his papers first, or they would’ve missed out!

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Fantine: Alternate Possibilities

Fantine tells Mme Thenardier that she’s a widow. If Valjean could invent a new ID and go years undiscovered, could she have invented a dead husband and kept Cosette with her? How detailed were records in small-town France at the time? Sure, “Madeleine” arrives under special circumstances that distract officials from checking his ID, but would they have bothered to check the papers of a young mother and child? And if she was living openly as a widow, would the town busybodies have cared as much to dig up the truth? It’s her mooning over a secret, and her constant correspondence, that call her to their attention.

Maybe the factory wouldn’t have hired her. Maybe town officials would have seen through the story. Maybe the busybodies would have been just as motivated, or more, to dig up the truth, and she would have had to go through everything with Cosette traumatized alongside her.

There’s some similarity between Javert and the moral guardian who denounces Fantine in that they both think they’re doing the right thing to persecute her. But Javert comes across as less deluded, because even though he put the blame on the wrong person, at least there was a fight involved. Fantine wasn’t harming anyone by hiring a letter-writer on a regular basis.

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Fantine Before the Fall

Following up on my commentary from last time, here are some things that struck me about Fantine’s chapters this time through.

“In the Year 1817” is basically Victor Hugo writing one of those Buzzfeed listicles about the year’s big celebrity and news stories, only about a year 40 years before his initial audience read the book, and 200 years before modern audiences. Donougher added so many notes, they’re almost as long as the chapter.

That said, those notes have some fascinating info in them…like the fact that a proto-roller coaster opened outside Paris in 1817 — yes, 1817 — and that’s one of the things Fantine and her friends do on the day the boys all leave.

Oh, and the opaque description of the group as “Oscars” is a reference to a popular song of the day.

I have a better understanding of the dynamic now. The other women were more jaded about hooking up with students from the countryside, it wasn’t their first rodeo, and they weren’t expecting the men to stay. Hugo doesn’t say whether the other couples were actually sleeping together, but it seems likely that they were, but the other women took precautions Fantine thought she didn’t need.

I still get a real “Tell me on a Sunday” vibe from this chapter.

And damn, Tholomyes is an insufferable ass even before he becomes a deadbeat dad. Dude probably crusades for ethics in amusement park journalism.

More examples of translation choices: Instead of just humming, Mme Thenardier is singing a specific song, with a few lines actually written out.

Fantine’s often lost in thought (with a dreamy far-off look? – no books, though, since she can’t read), which other women take as “putting on airs.” Like being an introvert in a society that demands extroversion. Honestly, I don’t think I’m better than you, I just would rather live in my head than be social right now.

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Review: Les Misérables TV Miniseries 2000 (Depardieu/Malkovich): English

What stands out the most for me about the 2000 TV adaptation of Les Misérables are the unusual character choices and the strong presence of the Thénardier family as a real menace. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but there’s still enough there that I’d like to see the longer, French version sometime.


John Malkovich plays Javert as very matter-of-fact, almost bored. Rather than intensely cruel, he seems like he’d really rather the scum of the street just get it over with and go to jail so he can get back to what he was doing (but you have no idea what that was). Some of that is John Malkovich, but some is the script: for instance, he actually catches Fantine the first time she’s out at night, and lets her go on the basis that she hasn’t crossed the line yet. It took some getting used to, and I’m still not sure how well it worked – but it also made his last hours, helping Valjean carry Marius home from the barricade, seem more in character.

I liked that we got to see into Cosette’s head a bit more than usual. What does she think of all the moving, all the name changes? She knows something’s up, but her father has earned her trust, so she comes up with an honorable business-related explanation for it all. Virginie Ledoyen plays her with enough range that she becomes a person (unlike the 1978 cardboard stand-up or the (1952 floor lamp). And there’s a fascinating scene where she and Éponine (Asia Argento) meet as adults. Éponine admits she was horrible to Cosette as a child, but she’s following enough in her parents’ footsteps that she has no thought of asking forgiveness.

I also liked Otto Sander’s portrayal of Monsieur Bienvenu as a much more practical Bishop Myriel than the saintly way he’s often portrayed. He’s still kind to a fault, of course — he has to be, since his kindness is literally what changes Valjean’s life — but his wit has a little more bite to it, and he becomes a bit more of a character in his own right (even for the handful of minutes he appears) instead of simply remaining a plot device.

Gerard Depardieu’s Valjean is more driven by fear than other versions I’ve seen. It’s obviously a big part of his character, trying to evade capture for years, but here it seems stronger than his need to pay forward the Bishop’s trust in him. It makes him seem less present? I’ve also seen some remarks on his interest toward Cosette being…a bit strong, shall we say? But that didn’t come through in the cut that I saw, so I imagine it’s different in the longer version.


One of my favorite things about this version is that almost everyone is involved. The Thénardiers don’t disappear after one scene, we see them again in Paris — and they’re not comic relief, they’re full-blown villains. Even Azelma’s included. Éponine’s actually meaner than in the book, which is the opposite direction that she’s usually taken, though Azelma’s more thoroughly their parents’ daughter.

Overall it’s a more faithful adaptation than most of the movies I’ve seen, and there are tons of details showing that they really did their research, like little Éponine swinging on a cart chain when Fantine and Cosette arrive in Montfermeil, or Mme Gorbeau, or the festive atmosphere before the barricades go up. But there are also a lot of odd, random changes that don’t seem to be there for movie logic or adaptation reasons, just someone wanted to do something different.

Abridged Edition

I mentioned there’s a longer version. Apparently this miniseries was produced as a four-part (1½ hours each) miniseries in French, and cut down to two parts (also 1½ hours each) in English. The cast is mostly French and German, with a few exceptions like Malkovich and Argento. Literally 50% of the running time was cut, which is utterly ridiculous.

In the version I watched, part one runs from Valjean’s prison time through Cosette leaving the convent, and part two picks up with Marius and Cosette meeting in the park, and runs through the rest of the story. Yes, all the way to the end. Part one works dramatically. Sure, more detail would be nice, but it all flows together well enough. Part two, however, has several places where you where you can tell that parts of the story are missing. You can put together what must have happened, but the gaps stand out — especially during the barricade section.

I’m really curious to see the full version. How much of the story flows better? What scenes made the longer cut? What other things did they change that didn’t make it to the shorter release? And heck, what other weird things did they change that don’t make sense?

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Review: Les Misérables Movie 1952

The 1952 version of Les Misérables is an odd one. It’s a decent movie overall, though none of the cast really made an impression. Elsa Lanchester is the only name that I can remember without looking it up, and she’s in a tiny role.

The cinematography is good: Except for the opening scene at Valjean’s trial, everything has a strong sense of being part of an actual, lived-in place, with people going about their lives in the background. Fight choreography in the barricade scenes is markedly better than in the earlier film. Though I was amused that Valjean’s papers have the word “YELLOW” stamped across them to get around the fact that the film is black and white.

Oddly Familiar

It’s clearly influenced by the 1935 version, or else both draw from some intermediate adaptation. They follow the same structure, from Valjean’s initial trial through Javert’s death, with a tightened timeline (only 10 years in prison). Both feature scenes, beats, and even dialogue in common that aren’t in the book: Javert as a warden, refusing to let the guards remove the collar from an injured man due to regulations. Title cards reading “Thus ends the first phase in the life of Jean Valjean.” Rescuing Cosette before Fantine dies, allowing them a reunion. Champmathieu could almost have been reused footage if he hadn’t been interacting with the other actors.

There’s also the travel itinerary for Valjean’s parole. I don’t recall it coming up in the book, but it’s brought up in the 1935, 1952 & 2012 films. I assume it’s something that one scriptwriter or another found in their research, but it makes me wonder where it first showed up.

But it diverges significantly from other versions and the book in several ways:

Altered for the Fifties

An entirely new character, Robert, befriends “M. Madeleine” when he arrives in town and becomes his confidante and second-in-command at the factory. It’s nice to see how “Madeleine” establishes himself, but Robert only really gives the actor someone to talk to before the action moves to Paris. (The Thenardiers and Eponine are missing entirely, though Gavroche at least gets his street lamp smashing moment.)

Marius becomes a rough-and-tumble revolutionary who manages to get his shirt off as soon as he meets Cosette. After fleeing from the police, jumping over the convent wall and meeting the gardener, he’s got a shoulder wound and Cosette’s got nursing skills. He spends his time making demands of people and acting tough, because that’s what 1950s audiences expect in a revolutionary, I suppose. Also, I think he’s in his mid-thirties.

Cosette’s portrayal, and the way Valjean and Marius treat her, makes for a disturbing comparison between 1935 and 1952 Hollywood. In 1935, it’s clear that she and Marius are pursuing one another, and while her agency is limited, it exists, and the two men in her life treat her as a person. Here, the last third of the film is dominated by Marius and Valjean being possessive, dismissing her wishes, being suspicious of each other’s motives, and arguing over who she should go with. Marius repeatedly insists that Valjean shouldn’t make her choices, saying, “She’s not a child, she’s a woman!” — but he doesn’t mean that Cosette should make her own choices. He means he should make them. As for Cosette herself, she’s mostly overwhelmed the whole time. It’s a sobering example of the post-World War II backlash against self-reliant women in movies.

Inspector One-Note

Javert never doubts himself, never thinks he’s denounced the wrong man. It’s not clear whether he planted the idea that Champmathieu was Jean Valjean or took advantage of it, but he’s clearly trying to trap Madeleine into revealing himself, and the result is less “What a relief, I was right after all!” and more “Gotcha!” It’s funny that a scene that didn’t make it into the musical for 30 years has become so critical to my view of the character: It shows how Javert’s sense of law and punishment applies to himself, and sets up both a more fervent response when Valjean is unmasked and his ultimate undoing after the night of the barricades. Without that scene, and without some sort of view into his head (like the musical does with “Stars”), he loses depth.

Overall: not a bad film for its time, but I liked the 1935 version (which this was packaged with) better.

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