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Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables is No Lord of the Rings, I Can Tell You That Right Now

   Alright, I just got back from finally seeing Les Miserables and I am happy to say that I was not disappointed. For those of you who don't know, I absolutely love both the musical (Ash and I have seen the stage version 4 times so far) and the book. In fact, for quite a while now, the stage production has been my go to example of how it actually is possible for a book to successfully cross media formats without being diminished.
  Cameron Macintosh and crew managed the same feat in the transition from stage to screen and that is no mean feat. The movie manages to be a bonified movie musical where the temptation for die-hard stage enthusiasts may have been looking for a filmed stage production and the full bore movie people will probably be upset that it is a musical at all (look for words like "melodramatic" as an indication that the review just doesn't actually like musicals).
  What I am generally looking for when a story crosses media formats is the preservation of the stories essential themes and characters. While I love what Peter Jackson did with the visual aspect of Middle Earth, I have to fail him on these points for what he did to Faramir, Treebeard, Saruman, Merry and Pippin and for his utter rejection of Tolkien's understanding of the relative power of good and evil, of the importance of age and wisdom and of the potential beauty of hierarchy. Wether Jackson approved of those things or not, he had no business changing Tolkien's story, his proper business would have been to tell his own story or that of someone else with whom his agreed.
  Les Miserables certainly does make some edits and changes so if you are hoping to see everything you love from the stage production you will be a disappointed there, the Thenardiers get more airtime but less song time (beggar at the feast is dramatically reduced and somewhat reinterpreted while dogs eat the dogs is cut down to a single line),  and while most of the numbers get an appearance, most of them are also shy a verse or so.
  What the movie does is capitalize on its own form. A movie allows for a far lazier imagination than does a stage production (which in turn allows for a lazier imagination than a book) by putting the story in its full setting.  On the stage we get a few props and some great costumes and the rest is up to us when it comes to setting. On stage there are no close ups and we can't really see things like tears so the crew has to find other ways of conveying personality and emotion. In a movie all of these are possible and Les Miserables uses them to the fullest extent. I have read some complaints about extended close-ups on characters as they sing, but I thought these were all incredibly moving (Fantine, ValJean, Javert and Marius all get them). I am not an expert in either stage or film so I will stop there but I was certainly pleased with the use of the new medium.
  The great thing though, is the preservation of Victor Hugo's essential themes and I am reasonably sure that not all of them are popular today. I have always loved the novel's ability to insist that life really is both horrendously tragic and wretched and also painfully beautiful and noble. Where so many stories and philosophies fail by trying to balance the good and evil in life or to choose one over the other and being dominant in our existence, Les Miserables refuses to admit to a watered down compromise and instead sets all the horrors of early 19th century Europe against true sacrifice, repentance, loyalty and nobility (there's a virtue we don't run into much anymore). I wept for both pity and joy while reading it and each of the times I have watched it.
  The victory of mercy over Justice without condemnation is also still present in the movie and comes across quite powerfully. Russel Crowe's Javert, while not a great a singer (I miss the baritone) was certainly well acted. As by brother put it, "this Javert is a lot more sympathetic but no less the villain". Redemption, Grace and the hope of Joy were all present as well.
  I certainly recommend it and hope you all go see it. Then leave me a comment and let me know how you liked it and what I forgot to mention.


  1. I can't wait to see it...but I'll have to. It doesn't come out in Turkey until March! Oh well, anticipation sweetens the satisfaction. Thanks for the well-written preview.

  2. I have seen a lot of successful film adaptations of books. I do think LOTR was a successful adaptation. Of course, I saw the movie first and then read the book (a strategy of mine to keep from disappointment.) Now I am really disappointed with the ending of the Harry Potter films. Talk about missing the point! But I digress. Only one film adaptation of a musical comes to mind and that is The Phantom of the Opera. In that case, the musical is pretty much just a shell of the book and therefore I am not a huge fan of the musical. But I don't think I've ever actually experienced a story in three different formats. Long story short, I agree with you about preservation. But I've never seen the musical Les Mis or read the book.
    I loved the 2012 film version. I actually liked it more than the Liam Neeson version.

  3. My favorite song is Red and Black. My favorite character is Eponone (in the movie, at least; I hear she's different in both the musical and the book). What are yours and Shlee's?