If you haven’t already seen it, Saturday Night Live’s sketch last week with Jean Valjean as a singing lobster is utterly bizarre. And it gets stranger as it goes along.
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.
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?
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.
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 Thénardiers and Éponine 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.
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.
I quite liked Richard Boleslawski’s 1935 movie of Les Misérables starring Charles Laughton as Javert and Frederic March as Jean Valjean. Like the 1978 version it focuses heavily on Valjean vs. Javert, starting with Valjean’s trial. But you get just enough of the other characters like the students (and even the bishop) to make them seem real. It feels like their stories are intersecting instead of them just being part of Valjean’s background.
It’s contemporary with the classic Universal monster movies, and the cinematography kept reminding me of the Frankenstein series. Though I have to admit fight choreography has improved over the years…
March has strong presence as Valjean throughout, though the star is clearly Laughton. His Javert, rather than being stony, is nervous and has a bit of an inferiority complex due to his family background. It becomes the reason he’s such an overachiever and holds everyone, himself included, to an impossible standard, and when he slips, the cracks show quickly. He even helps lifting the cart, showing the heroic side that’s often left out.
A refrain that links Valjean and Fantine: “Do you know what it’s like to be hungry and out of work?” In 1935, probably a big chunk of their audience did.
Speaking of Fantine, one of the biggest changes to the story is that Valjean actually manages to get Cosette before Fantine dies. It’s the only version I’ve watched so far where Cosette sees her mom past the age of two. This also means there are a lot fewer secrets between her and her adoptive father.
Those College Kids: What a Riot
The students are basically Marius and his rabble-rousing pals. They make the point that they only want to reform the justice system, which I suppose keeps them thematically connected to Valjean, but is presented in an awkward, editorial-made-us-do-this way. Reducing the insurrection and barricade to a mere riot makes for the weakest part of the adaptation. On the other hand, having the heightened police presence in Valjean’s bolthole neighborhood heightens the tension nicely.
Cosette and Marius actually spend time getting to know each other. It’s maybe a thirty-second montage of their dates, but it was nice to see them having a relationship instead of simply simply being struck by love at first sight.
I had to wonder if they filmed and deleted more scenes with Cosette and Éponine. The Thénardiers barely appear even in the earlier segment, and Éponine isn’t named as a child that I can recall. Yet during the riots, when Éponine is acting as a messenger, Cosette recognizes her name. She doesn’t say or do anything about it, but you can watch the penny drop in what’s essentially an Easter egg for those who have read the book.
In the End…
This is another one where the story ends with Javert’s suicide, but unlike the 1998 version, it doesn’t feel abrupt or unearned as an ending. The reason is that Valjean has already said his tearful goodbyes to Cosette and a barely-conscious Marius.
The DVD edition I watched is two-sided, and has the 1952 remake on the back. That one’s a decent film for its time, but I didn’t like it as much as this one.
Malinda Kathleen Reese’s “Google Translate Sings” project returns to Les Misérables with “On My Own,” run through several layers of Google Translate from one language to another to another and finally back to English. As she says, it’s a good thing they had Hebert Kretzmer to translate it the first time around!
It’s another great entry in a series full of funny takes on musicals, pop songs and Disney classics. As for Les Mis, she previously tackled “One Day More” — or rather “Extra Day.”