Tag Archives: Adaptation

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.

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. Continue reading

Cozy Classics: Les Misérables (Review)

Cozy Classics Les MisérablesLast year, a friend gave me Cozy Classics: Les Misérables for Christmas, an adaptation by Jack Wang & Holman Wang, along with their version of Moby Dick. Well, ostensibly they were for my son, who was three years old at the time. Cozy Classics is an odd idea, but an appealing one to someone with a geeky disposition, an interest in literature, and kids.

It’s a board book, and it brings “abridged” to a whole new level: The story and characters are distilled down to just twelve words, which are illustrated with cloth dolls and scenery. The idea is that you can read them to babies and toddlers, or children who are just beginning to read can do so on their own, and they can get a sense of the story.

As usual, it focuses on Valjean vs. Javert, Cosette, and Marius. The book has some good pairs of words for contrast, though of course aimed at small children, they shy away from the darker side. (That said, there’s a great image of felt-doll Marius holding a torch to a barrel at the barricade, labeled simply, “Fire.”) The images are adorable.

I’m not sure how much they’re really meant for children and how much they’re meant for parents. Still…the other day I was moving a bookshelf, and my son (now four) was helping me stack the books. He picked up Moby Dick and proceeded to read it to me. It’s hard to argue with that!

Review: Les Misérables Movie 1998 (Starring Liam Neeson & Geoffrey Rush)

Les Misérables 1998 posterI don’t remember why I never got around to watching the 1998 Les Misérables movie before — I was heavily into the musical at the time it was released (even subscribing to a fan newsletter and running my own fan website), and I was certainly aware of the film. It may have simply been a matter of “it’s not the musical” (or possibly “Eponine isn’t in it”).

Whatever the reason, I never got around to watching it until now.

On one hand, I wish I had seen it at the time. On the other, I might have been more caught up in “Augh! It’s different!” objections when I was younger. I’m a lot more mellow about adaptation changes these days, except when they completely miss the point. Not that it’s hugely different, but there are some fairly major changes.

It’s beautifully shot, some of it on location in Paris. It’s as visually appealing as the Tom Hooper-directed 2012 musical (my review) — more so, when you factor in how gritty the 2012 version gets. (The sewers in this version must have been the cleanest in Europe. The sewers in the Hooper version….let’s jus say they’re a bit more true to the sewers in the book.) I’m not familiar with director Bille August‘s work, but I see that he also directed The House and the Spirits – a movie that I remember thinking (at 18) was a dull waste of a great cast. Fortunately I never got that feeling here, though both are epics dealing with the intersection of family drama and political turmoil.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the music was composed by Basil Poledouris, whose score for Conan the Barbarian is one of my favorites, but this score didn’t make much of an impression.

Story

This is another adaptation that focuses heavily on Jean Valjean’s story, to the exclusion of everyone else’s threads, in order to cram at least one complete story into a single movie. (The musical is unusual in that it actually treats the story as an ensemble piece.) It’s not quite as extreme as the Jordan/Perkins version. Sure, it drops the Thénardiers once the action moves to Paris, and the rebellion seems to take about as long as the chase through the sewers. But Fantine and Cosette have more presence, and it does a much better job of setting up the revolutionaries and making it feel like they have their own story that’s intersecting with Valjean’s, even if you don’t see much of it.

The acting is much more…human here than in the 1978 version, though it does suffer from not showing you at least a little of Valjean’s backstory at the beginning.

Modernization

I liked the way they tried to expand Fantine’s story, showing a little more of her slow descent into poverty and giving her and Valjean the beginnings of a relationship, cut short by the fact that she’s dying. You can imagine the two of them raising Cosette together in a happier world.

I also liked what they did with Cosette, giving her more agency and allowing some of the fire to burn that is tightly controlled by 1832 society in the book, and completely absent from the 1978 version (my review; she and Marius could both be replaced by cardboard cutouts). She’s the one who chooses to leave the convent, not Valjean. She demands answers from her father…and gets them. She even convinces him to help Marius during the rebellion.

Maybe it was just a way to give Uma Thurman and Claire Danes more to do, but I think it made for a better film. Though it did write them into a corner at the end. (I’ll get back to that later.)

I was impressed that, 16 years ago, they took the bold step of making Enjolras black…until I saw that they’d made him second in command. Way to throw away an opportunity.

Alterations

Les Miserables 1998 Blu-Ray

A lot of the changes to the story, particularly those that would have bothered me at 22, are clearly designed to raise the stakes of the drama. Jean Valjean actually strikes Bishop Myriel during the robbery. Javert actually witnesses the attack on Fantine (by three men, not just one), and arrests her when she fights back. Marius isn’t a hanger-on with the revolutionaries, he’s their leader. And it isn’t fear of Javert that prompts Valjean to leave Paris, it’s Javert showing up at his door…for, as it turns out, a completely unrelated reason: he’s trailing Marius. This leads to several scenes in which Javert and Cosette actually meet…including a physical confrontation between Javert, Cosette, and Marius. (Javert needs to learn: you don’t try to kidnap Liam Neeson’s daughter.)

For the most part, these changes work. But it’s baffling when they make changes that don’t have any clear purpose, except maybe to make them easier for the English-speaking actors to pronounce, like changing names (Fauchelevent becomes Lafitte, and Montreuil-sur-Mer becomes Vigau).

And then there’s the fact that Valjean actually tells Cosette the whole truth during the insurrection. That makes the main conflict for the last 100 pages of the book impossible, which is probably why they just stop with Javert’s suicide. My wife and I watched as the credits rolled, and said to each other, “They’re leaving it here?” But the earlier change didn’t leave them anywhere to go, except maybe the wedding.

It’s the only way to honestly walk away with anything resembling a happy ending, but it’s also deeply unsatisfying.