Orson Welles’ Les Misérables Radio Play (Review)

A few days ago I was looking through a cabinet and stumbled on a set of audio cassettes featuring Orson Welles’ 1937 radio adaptation of Les Misérables. Since I’ve only got one cassette player left (and I’m not sure it works), I went looking for a place to buy it online. It turns out that Archive.org has the whole thing in their Old Time Radio collection: Seven episodes, half an hour each…perfectly suited for listening during a commute.

I quite liked it, except for one section that I’ll get to later. It took a bit to get used to the different acting styles and sensibilities of the era. Fantine definitely would have been played differently today, and Cosette’s got that squeaky woman-trying-to-do-a-child’s-voice sound. The sound quality reminded me of The Wizard of Oz (which I’d just re-watched a few weeks ago), which makes sense given that they’re roughly contemporary. Acted scenes are interspersed with narration and excerpts from letters, or Javert’s notebook.

As usual, it focuses on Valjean, and includes a lot of details that are often left out. It takes a more philosophical approach than, say, the 1998 film, really getting into Valjean’s and Javert’s heads.

The Bishop actually gets five minutes or more by himself, including the tale of how he once went into bandit-controlled hills and came back with a chest full of loot that they decided to return through him.

There are some great spooky descriptions for Cosette’s nighttime walk in the woods (though Mme Thénardier scares her even more), the chase through Paris, and Javert’s final walk to the Seine.

Children make for good narrators for audio. “Papa, who is that walking around in the hallway? Why did you put out the candle? Why are you telling me to be quiet?”

They dance around Fantine’s final career move. This was, after all, a public radio broadcast in 1937. The closest they came was Javert calling her a “woman of the town.” But they still managed to follow her entire story, from being dumped by Cosette’s father through her fall into poverty.

I was surprised by episode 5, “The Grave,” which focuses almost entirely on the entry into the convent, complete with Valjean being buried alive and shot through with gallows humor. (The previous episode announced that it would be called “Marius,” which makes me wonder: did they just find that the Valjean/Fauchelevent scenes worked better and expand them?)

The last two episodes condense a lot — Most of the second half of the book is either dropped or crammed into the sixth episode, which covers the barricade, the flight through the sewers, and the final meeting of Valjean and Javert. It works well enough, but might have worked better if they’d taken just a little more time and broadened the focus to really establish Marius, Cosette, and the revolutionaries.

Ironically, one of the things I most appreciate about this adaptation is that it allows events to take time. Even if the telling is condensed, you understand how long it took for Javert’s careful investigations, Valjean’s escapes, even Marius and Cosette’s long courtship (which is described after the fact rather than presented directly).

Unfortunately, the final episode drags in the middle, as a good ten minutes are simply recapping the first few episodes. That may have been helpful for the original audience, particularly if people were picking the series up two or three episodes in. But now that it’s possible to listen to the whole thing in one sitting, or over the course of a few days, it’s redundant. Once it gets back to the present, though, it picks up again.

On an unrelated note, there were times I found myself picturing The Brain reading the narration. What can I say? Animaniacs had a formative influence on me.

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