Revisiting the Movie Musical After Re-Reading the Novel
Since it was seeing the movie last year that got me started on this project, I thought I’d watch Les Misérables again after I’d finished re-reading the whole novel and see how my impressions differed from my initial review.
I liked it a lot better this time through, in part because I knew what to expect, and in part because when you watch it at home, on TV, it’s less overwhelming when the entire screen is a close-up on the face of someone who’s in utter despair. Seeing it the first time in the theater, the first twenty minutes or so just tear you apart emotionally. Seeing it at home, there’s a little distance. It’s less effective, but it’s more bearable.
The movie is still stunning visually, whether it’s the sweeping vistas of Jean Valjean walking across France, or throngs filling the streets of 1830s Paris. I also liked a lot of the simpler visual choices, such as the moment where Jean Valjean casually sits down while telling Cosette not to ask questions about the past, and the candlesticks are right there, or when a tormented Valjean’s face appears half-lit, half in shadow.
As far as singing style goes, I think they made the right choice for the movie. As I said in my first review, musical theater is a blend of singing and acting (and often dancing), not singing that happens to have people in costume, and while stage acting relies heavily on body language so that the whole audience can see, movie acting is able to pull in close-up…and that’s exactly what they did. “I Dreamed a Dream” is a beautiful song. The way Anne Hathaway sings it here isn’t pretty, but it’s utterly devastating and perfect for the film, and if she had sung it with proper technique, it would have been completely wrong.
The approach doesn’t make for the best soundtrack, but I think it makes for a better movie. At least, it does for this movie.
Russell Crowe still grates as Javert, but not as much. In fact, there are some scenes where he’s fantastic. When he’s just being a policeman, and when the music is moving too fast for him to worry about trying to sing, he’s great. On the other hand, his first meeting with “M. Madeleine” is hard to listen to, and “Stars” just falls flat.
Still not entirely thrilled with the Thénardiers, but I did rather like teaching Éponine the ropes during “Master of the House.”
Adaptation: Novel, Stage Play, Movie
I was really impressed by how much this is an adaptation of both the stage musical and the novel. There are so many details, so many moments, so many character bits and story beats, that aren’t in the show but are drawn from the book.
Almost every story change pulls something from the novel: The convent of course, but also Marius threatening to blow up the barricade, Éponine concealing Cosette’s note, Gavroche delivering Marius’ note instead of Éponine, Javert admitting to Madeleine that he’d falsely denounced him. Javert even interviews the Thénardiers about Valjean and Cosette, though in the book the trail’s a lot colder by the time he gets there.
I like that they brought in Javert’s turmoil over having falsely accused the mayor (or thinking he did), because it’s an important character moment that informs his suicide years later. I don’t think it worked as well onscreen as it could have, though.
I’m more ambivalent toward Marius and the powder-keg. It works better if you already have the sense that he actually wants to die, rather than simply not minding if he does. It also works better if you understand that the attack was moments away from overrunning the barricade, which doesn’t come through onscreen.
I found myself trying to identify the students other than Marius, Enjolras, and Grantaire. I couldn’t. The book describes them individually (though once you get to the barricade, their personalities matter less than their presence), but in the show, they might as well be a chorus, and that’s still true in the film.
Cutting from Éponine’s death straight to Gavroche’s reaction at the end of “A Little Fall of Rain” really got to me. In this version of the story he probably doesn’t even know she’s his sister.
One problem I had this time through which I don’t think has ever bothered me about the show until now is the same thing that bothered me about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: After the move to Paris, everything happens at once. In the novel, a year passes between Marius and Cosette first noticing each other and the night of the barricades. There’s flirting from a distance, then seeking each other out, then finally a few magical weeks of secret meetings. Love at first sight is certainly easier to tell, but it’s harder to sell the characters’ most difficult choices…such as the powder-keg.
Even now, I’m still on the fence about the musical and lyrical changes. Most of the changed lyrics are just to add exposition or fit a different setting. Some work better than others, but a lot of this type of change is in the recitative. The songs move so fast and are almost half-spoken, so they’re already a bit awkward. In a way, the changes that aren’t there for this reason stand out a bit more. Though I must admit that “Would you weep, Cosette, if I were to fall” sounds more natural than “…should Marius fall.”
The movie is about 20 minutes shorter than the original Broadway version, so a lot of introductions and connecting bits have been cut. And a few whole songs. Some I don’t mind, but I’m still mad that they cut the middle verses of “A Little Fall of Rain” and especially “Castle on a Cloud.” (I know, the 25th anniversary staging did the same thing, and it’s annoying there too.) The song’s barely a minute and a half to begin with. The twenty seconds saved here could have been regained tightening up one of the scenes they added.
Marius’ grandfather, while an interesting character in the book, doesn’t really add much to this version of the story. His existence serves to explain why they’re able to afford a nice wedding, and adds a bit of a class dynamic within the students, but he’s onscreen so little that I wonder why they bothered. As for that class dynamic, several of the other students are rich, too…including Enjolras. Saying “a game for a rich young boy to play” is rather disingenuous on his part.
“Suddenly,” like Javert’s confession to Madeleine, is a case where the character moment matters – it matters quite a lot in the book, as Valjean had reached another crossroads in life, and becoming a surrogate father not only filled the hole in his heart but kept him on the right path. But I sort of feel like it’s too early – it needs to be a few days in, at least, though I know there’s no good way to fit it anywhere else. And whenever it gets stuck in my head, it inevitably turns into either “Somewhere That’s Green” or “Someone Else’s Story.”
I do like the movie better on second viewing. I can’t think of anything I’ve actually reversed my opinion on, but there were a lot of aspects that were jarring the first time through just for being different, and listening to the soundtrack a few times and watching the film again (I still can’t believe it took me this long) has helped settle those out a bit into what I thought worked and what didn’t. And strangely enough, re-reading the book has enhanced the experience. There’s only one element I can think of that really bothered me specifically because of the novel, and that’s the timeframe.
I still wish they hadn’t been quite so merciless with the cuts, though. I wonder if there’s any possibility for an extended edition?