Tag Archives: Movie

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?

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonReads@BookToot.Club on Mastodon.

Thoughts on Les Misérables: The 2012 Movie Musical – A Fan’s Review

Les Misérables: Little CosetteI got out to see the film of Les Misérables last month. As a fan of the stage musical from way back (I’ve seen it at least a dozen times, used to have it memorized back in the 1990s, and even ran a fan website for a while), I’ll say it’s very good. It’s not perfect, and I’m not sure whether it’s great.

Enough of the score has been changed or rearranged that it’ll probably take another viewing or two to sort out what bothered me because it was genuinely awkward and what bothered me just because it was different.

Performances

First thing’s first: Hugh Jackman does a great job as Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway is absolutely amazing as Fantine. I think the word “heartbreaking” is thrown around too much, but it fits here.

The rest of the main cast is good, with the unfortunate exception of Russell Crowe as Javert. He would have been fantastic in a non-singing adaptation, but in the musical, he just didn’t have the vocal presence that Javert needs.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are funny as the Thénardiers, but a bit too buffoonish. There’s an undercurrent of menace to the pair that just didn’t come through. Carter’s Madame Thénardier was a bit too similar to her Mrs. Lovett in Sweeny Todd. I did find Cohen’s affected accent when trying to put one over on someone an interesting character bit. Update: It fits with the book version’s tendency to put on multiple identities for different scam targets.

Style

It does take 15-20 minutes to get accustomed to the cinematic style, which unfortunately lines up with a very intense, depressing section of story. If the updated stage version pulls you along without giving you any breaks, imagine how much harder it is when they don’t even break for applause. You’re just dragged along from one painful, desperate situation to the next until you get to the broad comedy of “Master of the House.”* It’s exhausting.

A digression: When I studied theater in college, I was taught that the difference between an opera and musical theater is that in an opera, singing is still the most important part of the performance. In musical theater, the singing works together with the acting and (depending on the type of show) dancing to create a combined performance that conveys the character, theme or plot better than any individual component would alone.

The decision to record the songs live instead of ahead of time, and to focus on acting through the singing instead of around it, and the ability to show the actors close-up, made for some very intense performances. Valjean’s Soliloquy, “I Dreamed a Dream” and others work even better in the film than they would have otherwise. The downside of this melding is that I don’t think you can separate the visuals from the audio and still have something whole. I bought the soundtrack on discount a couple of weeks before I saw the movie, and I still haven’t listened to it.

*And that was written to bolster the spirits of people watching the original stage show, which did allow you to catch your breath and pause to applaud the performers.

New Music

Some of the new music worked for me, and some didn’t. Gavroche’s bit in “Look Down” about how they once killed a king and have one back again sounded like it could easily have been a lost verse from an earlier form of the show (it would go well with “Ten Little Bullets”), and while I can’t bring to mind the song Cosette sings after Valjean goes into hiding, it’s nice that they let us see her react to him leaving.

Valjean’s new song, “Suddenly,” which he sings on the way to Paris after picking up Cosette from the Thénardiers, didn’t really do anything for me. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t sound like Les Misérables. Update: Now I know why: It sounds like a song from Chess.

The new recitative chunks with Javert and “Monsieur Madeleine” really grated. They might have worked better with someone else playing Javert, but as is, they would have been better off replaced with one or two spoken lines. In addition to sounding better, it might have freed up enough time to add back the missing verses from “A Little Fall of Rain” or “Castle on a Cloud.”

Changed and Missing Music

Moving “I Dreamed a Dream” later, after “Lovely Ladies,” was a brilliant decision to heighten the impact of the song. It’s not just, “Oh no, I’ve been fired, now what do I do?” it’s “I’ve hit rock bottom and there’s no way to climb back up.” I can’t hear the line, “So different from this hell I’m living!” the same way anymore.

I was surprised to find “Dog Eat Dog” gone (probably because it requires that Thénardier seem threatening), but found that I really didn’t miss it. “Castle on a Cloud,” however, is way too short with two verses instead of three, and “A Little Fall of Rain” could really benefit from the missing second verse.

There are minor changes here and there to go with storytelling choices. A lot of them feel awkward to me, but like I said, some of that is just because I know the stage version so well.

Visuals and Story

There were some great cinematic details: I liked, for instance, that Jean Valjean tears up his parole papers at the edge of a cliff, paralleling Javert’s soliloquy on the edge of the bridge. For that matter, Javert’s habit of walking precisely along the edge of a rooftop is a nice bit prefiguring his eventual fall. The moment where Javert finds Gavroche’s body and pins a badge on his shirt, set to the instrumentals of “Bring Him Home” on the “He’s like the son I might have known…” verse is the most moving moment with Javert in the film.

I loved the fact that they went back to the novel to fill in details and even scenes that were missing from the show. Two bits that stand out for me:

Worst line in the film: “Who goes there?” “The French Revolution!” Aside from potential audiences already being confused about the timeframe, there’s the fact that attitudes toward THE French Revolution were…complicated at the time. Update: Um…oops. It turns out the exchange is actually in the book. By the time I got up to that point it was clear that they basically see themselves as the modern representatives of the Revolution’s ideals.

I did like seeing them talk about the other barricades in the uprising, indicating that it’s not just an isolated group of weirdos and that they might reasonably expect the people to rise alongside them. It also makes it clear why the army doesn’t just come at them from the other end of the street. Though the number of ways they get around the barricade is kind of ridiculous. The point where they slide a section aside like it’s on rollers really pulled me out of the film. (It also reminded me of Aragorn sneaking out the side door at Helm’s Deep.)

As rousing as the finale was, something didn’t sit right with me about all of them being on this giant barricade. I still can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe because it’s presented as Valjean’s view of the afterlife, and the barricade was just one episode for him, not his driving crusade. Or maybe that the whole point is that they’re looking for something beyond the barricade, and while the lyrics imply that they’ve found it, the visuals have them still stuck there.

Overall

Les Misérables Blu-RayI do want to see it again, and I do plan to buy it on Blu-Ray (these days I try to only buy movies that I expect to watch at home more than once)… and it did inspire me to start re-reading the book for the first time in two decades (here’s the start of my commentary). As I said before, for all its flaws, I do think it’s a good film, but only time will tell if it’s great.

Update: I watched it again after finishing the book. Here’s what I thought a year later.

I wrote large chunks of this during the week after I saw the film, and then filled in the rest about a month later when I realized I’d better finish it up before the Academy Awards.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonReads@BookToot.Club on Mastodon.