Tag Archives: Adaptation

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 “Éponine 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 Misérables 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.

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Classics Illustrated: Les Misérables Comic Book (Review)

Classics Illustrated: Les MisérablesI recently discovered that the Classics Illustrated adaptation of Les Misérables is available digitally through ComiXology. For $3.99, of course I had to check it out.

It’s a very faithful adaptation. At 45 pages, it’s also very abbreviated, focusing even more tightly on Jean Valjean than the Jordan/Perkins film did. Still, it manages to get a surprising amount of detail into that space. For one thing, this was done in the era when comics would cram as much story into a panel as they could, using narration and speech/thought balloons to make a single panel do double or even triple duty. In many cases, they actually quoted lines from the novel. Continue reading

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Review: Les Misérables Movie 1978 (Starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins)

Les Misérables 1978 DVD CoverI think I’ve unwittingly started another project: watching the various movie adaptations of Les Misérables. One of the hazards of searching Netflix by title.

I watched the 1978 film starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins. It’s extremely focused on the story of Jean Valjean vs. Javert, and while it’s able to add more to that thread, the whole suffers. The Thénardiers are basically gone, you don’t get any sense of what Fantine was like before her fall, and the insurrection and barricade feel like just one more event in passing, not the culmination of a major storyline.

And while they didn’t technically change the ending, they stopped early enough to make it happy.

Performances

Jordan is a good Valjean during the first half of the movie, but is somehow diminished in presence after the final time-skip to 1832. I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Perkins is an imposing Javert, and as in the book he tends toward insufferability and even cruelty when he’s sure of himself. The confrontation at Fantine’s deathbed is a particularly frustrating scene to watch, and yet it’s exactly what happens in the book. He’s also completely obsessed, to the point that he requests a transfer specifically to follow Valjean to Paris, and contests another transfer that puts him off the trail.

Ian Holm shows a lot of promise as Thénardier, but sadly only appears in one scene. I’d really hoped to see the shrewd, dangerous Thénardier of the novel.

Story

The film opens with Jean Valjean’s theft of the bread, and spends some 20 minutes or so following him through his prison sentence and various escape attempts, showing his descent from a fundamentally decent man to a savage animal. He really is “a dangerous man” by the time he gets out. Strangely, Valjean is never released on parole in this version. Instead, he escapes by falling into the river (as he does during his second stint in prison).

Some of the characters glossed over in the musical get a little more attention here: Bishop Myriel’s wit has a chance to shine. Mme. Magloire actually has lines. Even Sister Simplice, the ageless woman who never speaks a word that isn’t true, appears. But the whole Thénardier family is gone, including Éponine. Even the ABC students are little more than background characters.

Every once in a while someone speaks a line of philosophy, and the phrasing sounded familiar every time. This would have been just two years after the Norman Denny translation that I just finished reading. I wonder if that’s the one they were working from.

Some details I liked seeing:

  • Valjean quoting regulations to Javert to claim jurisdiction over Fantine
  • Fauchelevent’s interview with the Mother Superior at the convent — a rare bit of humor.
  • How and why Valjean and Cosette left the convent.

The chase through the streets of Paris was done much better here than in the 2012 movie, though they decided to set it during the day.

Things start really diverging after the jump to 1832. All the time they put into Valjean’s prison sentence has a cost, and that’s cutting the rest of the story down to the bone…and then amputating.

The ABC students never really get any focus. They’re giving speeches in the park when Cosette and Marius start making goo-goo eyes at each other, and then a few scenes later they’re fighting at the barricade, with no build-up. As near as I can tell, the fighting is continuous (with one odd break, which I’ll get to later). And while I say “students,” I could swear Enjolras is 40. Marius, on the other hand, looks like he’s desperately trying to look older by growing a beard.

The movie takes the same love-at-first-sight shortcut that the musical does, but without the songs, and without enough screen time dedicated to the blossoming romance, it’s not convincing.

Marius’ grandfather actually has something to do in this version, though why they put him in a gigantic country palace instead of a well-to-do Parisian house, I couldn’t tell you. He’s rich, but he’s not that rich.

Back to the barricade: Gavroche dies just returning from his errand. If they were going to include him at all, you’d think they’d feature his signature moment. Then Valjean shows up, and the army stops shooting because “he’s a loyalist” while he picks up Gavroche’s body and carries it over to the barricade. Then they start up again. He’s got some serious Plot Armor.

It feels like they were going down a list of bullet points from a plot outline, crossing off what wouldn’t fit, and just making sure the others appeared on screen without really connecting them. I found out afterward that the DVD is actually cut down from the original version, and the additional 30 minutes include the scene in which Valjean is buried alive. I would have loved to see that. I also wonder if the full version paid more attention to the rebels and barricade.

One thing that bothered me was Javert declaring when he confronts Valjean in the sewers that “there is no God, only the law.” That’s not how he thinks at all. He believes in order, and the order of society includes the church, but since he believes the law is infallible, he just assumes God agrees with the law and doesn’t really give it much thought. What ends up breaking his mind is that the levels of “right” above him have come into conflict. Giving him this line not only alters his character, it casts the entire story as a struggle between a good Christian and an evil atheist, instead of the struggle between two men who are both trying to be good, one helping people at the expense of the social order, the other preserving the social order at the expense of people.

The ending works well enough if you don’t know that the original story runs all the way to Valjean’s death. It’s at least a matter of just stopping early rather than altering events to make them turn out happy (Valjean is too melancholy for that to have rung true), and it’s still a bittersweet ending, but it doesn’t quite fit. It could be worse, though — the 1998 movie cuts out even earlier, and I once saw a version of The Glass Menagerie that had a happy ending.

Overall

If you’re in it for the Valjean/Javert story, this is a great version to watch, especially the first half, before it settles into bullet-point storytelling. If you like the other characters more, you won’t find a lot here.

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Revisiting the Movie Musical After Re-Reading the Novel

Les Misérables: Little CosetteSince 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.

Singing/Performance

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.

Musical Changes

Les Misérables Blu-Ray.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.”

Overall

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?

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I Watched Three Les Mis Parodies Last Night

Jean BonbonYesterday the Les Misérables Broadway page on Facebook linked to a YouTube video of “Les Mousserables,” a Sesame Street sketch in which Cookie Monster, as Jean Bonbon, must learn to recognize other people’s feelings and share his cookies. It was…okay I suppose. It had its moments (like “One Day S’more”), and it was fun to see them take on the movie’s visuals (Snuffleupagus as the Elephant of the Bastille, for instance). Maybe my expectations were too high, or I was in the wrong mood for it. I’ve seen a number of “Elmo the Musical” bits that were quite entertaining, and I loved the “Finishing the Splat” sketch with Oscar the Grouch.

Yes, I have a toddler in the house, in case you’re wondering.

YouTube recommended “Les Miseranimals,” which has long been one of my favorites. It’s the sketch that got me to look at Animaniacs at an age when I was old enough not to be interested in afternoon cartoons (with the exception of Batman: The Animated Series), and it was quickly clear that even if the show was aimed at younger viewers, there was plenty of fun for a teenager to enjoy as well. So we all watched a grainy copy on the tablet even though the crisp DVD was sitting on a shelf across the room. It still holds up, though some of the songs work better than others. I’m not sure how I never noticed before that M. Tristesse (the restaurant owner) is basically one of John Cleese’s French caricatures from Monty Python.

I also found it sad that Rita’s song “There is a Flat in Gay Paree” is no longer shorter than “Castle on a Cloud” in the current version of the show.

From there YouTube recommended a clip from Forbidden Broadway‘s take on the show, which turned out to be someone’s recording from the audience in some production. That sort of thing bugs me, but I watched the whole thing, having discovered a few months ago that my aging audio cassette is no longer playable (and not having gotten around to replacing it). This was hit and miss, partly because a lot of the parody depends on the show being new at the time.

I suppose technically I watched four parodies, because even though we were ready to stop after 30-40 minutes of tiny videos parodying the same show, there was a link to a three-minute clip called “On My Phone.” It’s apparently from a more recent Forbidden Broadway show, and it’s brilliant.

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