In 1985 Les Misérables revolutionised music theatre in the same way that Jerome Kern’s Show Boat did in 1927. Usually film versions of musicals cannot compete, but there are exceptions that prove the rule.
The musical play Les Misérables is based on the novel of the same name by the French writer Victor Hugo. With music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer, it opened in London on 8 October 1985 produced by Cameron Mackintosh.
In the booklet of the original London cast recording (1985) released on CD, theatre critic Sheridan Morley wrote: “Once in every five years or so, given average theatregoing luck, a musical soars out at you across the orchestra to strike between the eyes as well as the ears. Les Misérables is one such: a great blazing pageant of life and death at the barricades of political and social revolution in Victor Hugo’s nineteenth-century France… this show is not about glamour or success: and yet, as its score surges through the theatre and onto this recording, you are made aware time and again of how triumphantly the translation works in a framework somewhere at the boundaries of Dickens and Brecht.”
At the end of 2012, after more than 10 years in development limbo, a film version of the musical play finally hit the silver screen. Cameron Mackintosh, one of the film’s four producers, had said that “We don’t just want an adaptation. We want a film that audiences will find as fresh as the actual show.” Directed by Tom Hooper, with an ensemble cast led by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried, the film hits its mark from the outset.
Despite mixed critical reviews in the UK and the USA, audiences agreed with Peter Bradshaw writing in The Guardian (10 January 2013): “Even as a non-believer in this kind of ‘sung-through’ musical, I was battered into submission by this mesmeric and sometimes compelling film.” As of 25 January 2013, according to Box Office Mojo, it had earned a worldwide total of US $283,825,150.
The book is one of the masterpieces of French literature. As musical theatre it can be compelling. But the film captures the story in ways that the stage version could not. It is more savage, more wrenching, more visceral and, unlike the theatre version, less sentimental. That does not imply unfeeling. The director takes every opportunity to portray the bitterness and hopelessness of what Victor Hugo labels the “social damnation” and “artificial hell” of la misère (the book’s original title, meaning destitution) and les misérables. The French is difficult to translate succinctly, but it means those who are poverty-stricken, marginalised, abandoned, without hope.
For anyone familiar with the world’s worst slums – say Orangi Town in Karachi, or Kibera in Nairobi, or Neza-Chalco-Itza in Mexico City – the film resonates with contemporary questions. There is also a scene that links 19th century Paris with 21st century Aleppo, in which the viewer suddenly glimpses the common thread of all insurrections and conflicts: what Hugo describes as “the heroism of monsters”. The scene follows the death of everyone on the barricade, when the bodies are laid out in a row for others to identify. It is an image familiar from mass media coverage of civil wars today.
Unfortunately, that scene has an incongruous and sentimental sequel which is not in Victor Hugo’s novel and which strikes a false note. Inspector Javert kneels over the slain gamin Gavroche, who had cheekily defied the soldiers before being killed by a sharpshooter, and pins on him a medal that he is wearing. It is a mistake on the part of the director.
Neither the musical nor the film can replace actually reading Victor Hugo’s astonishing and heartfelt plea for compassion and social reform. Yet both can persuade those unfamiliar with the novel to brave its great length and historical digressions about the city of Paris to discover one of the world’s best storytellers. The superb new translation into English by Julie Rose (Vintage Books, 2008) is the place to start.