Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Review: Les Misérables Movie 1935 (Starring Frederic March and Charles Laughton)

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…

Les Miserables 1935 and 1952

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 Eponine. The Thénardiers barely appear even in the earlier segment, and Eponine isn’t named as a child that I can recall. Yet during the riots, when Eponine 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.

“On My Own,” Mis-translated

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.”

Manga Classics: Les Misérables (Review)

Les Miserables Manga Classics

The Manga Classics adaptation of Les Misérables turns out to be a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel. Very little is altered except for streamlining, and a lot more is included than I was expecting.

Art

It’s a modern adaptation in manga style. SunNeko Lee makes some really interesting choices with her character designs, taking different stylistic approaches with each. Valjean and Javert are very realistic, for instance, while the Thénardiers are caricatures, and Marius, Cosette and Eponine are drawn in a more shoujo style with big, expressive eyes. It helps to convey personality instantly, as well as keeping them visually distinct in the black and white art.

Story

It has a lot more space to breathe than either Classics Illustrated version, and Crystal Silvermoon makes use of it to make Fantine, Marius and Cosette full characters rather than merely incidentals in Jean Valjean’s story.

Sometimes the transitions can be a bit choppy, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the added complications of the format.

Format

The format is a little wonky. Despite being an English-language production, it’s presented with right-to-left pages and panel arrangements, as if it were adapted from Japanese. That in itself isn’t a problem — I’ve read plenty of manga that way — but the story is choppy enough that there are places where I had to do a double-take before I realized that no, I hadn’t read that in the wrong order, it just didn’t flow.

This is further complicated in the digital edition, where (at least on ComiXology) you still flip pages to the right, but of course the panels proceed to the left. Guided View mostly avoids this, as it not only shows panels one at a time, it will often split large panels in such a way as to send you to the earlier word balloon first.

Extras

The artist and writer each say a bit about the process, appropriately enough in essay and comic strip form. There are also a couple of joke strips about Little Cosette that could be fun as a regular feature.

Digital edition on ComiXology

Les Misérables: Classics Illustrated’s Original Comic Book (Review)

The Les Misérables comic book that you can read digitally isn’t the first adaptation Classics Illustrated did. It’s a completely new adaptation done in 1961 as the older art style had fallen out of favor.

Les Mis Classics Illustrated Splash Page PanelI found a copy of the original 1943 adaptation on eBay, and I’m actually quite impressed. The storytelling works a lot better than the later adaptation for one simple reason: Instead of trying to present serious literature, it simply tells an adventure story. The themes are still there, but in the background instead of in your face.

This does mean that some episodes, like the rescue on board the ship Orion, get a lot more attention than they probably need. But if you’re going to focus exclusively on Valjean, this approach makes much better use of the medium. Besides, those scenes include the rebellion, which I’ve noticed seems to get shorted in a lot of adaptations.

The comic’s writer isn’t credited (only Victor Hugo), but an article from the later edition names her as Evelyn Goodman. Her script uses narration sparingly, allowing the visuals and dialog to tell the story. It’s less wordy than a Silver Age superhero book, and in some ways feels more modern. It’s also a lot more cohesive a narrative than the later version, which is full of odd gaps in the structure.

I can see that Rolland Livingstone’s art would look outdated a generation later, but from 70 years on, it’s a great example of Golden Age comic book art. I was caught right away by the splash page, in which factory smoke forms the spectral image of Inspector Javert. His art is detailed where it serves the story, sparse where it doesn’t, and never static.

Les Mis Classics Illustrated JavertThough Javert’s perpetual sneer does get old after a while. Seriously, he has one expression.

Unfortunately, the story just stops after Javert’s suicide (like the Neeson/Rush movie). I suppose it’s partly the result of focusing on the adventure — an old man deciding he doesn’t want to live anymore makes for good drama and tragedy, but isn’t exactly rip-roaring.

And Fantine’s plight is reduced to her getting into a fight when she’s fired. Obviously a 1940s comic book aimed at kids isn’t going to tell you about her ultimate career path, but even the 1937 radio play managed to convey her descent into poverty without getting specific.

Overall, though, it’s a pity that this version is out of print. Digital comics have made the newer edition easy to find and buy, but the fact that I could find this one at all is a testament to the value of physical media and the collector’s market.