Les Misérables is an even better novel

More than 20 film adaptations and countless theater productions later, Victor Hugo seems like a forgotten man

Published December 28, 2012 4:25PM (EST)

Scene still from "Les Misérables"
Scene still from "Les Misérables"

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Los Angeles Review of Books I’M SURE WE ALL RECALL this stirring “reality television” moment from a 2009 episode of "Britain’s Got Talent."

With a single song, Susan Boyle, a 47 year-old Scottish nobody, became an internationally famous somebody, prompting humorist Andy Borowitz to pen the headline “Talented, Ugly Person Baffles World.” But anyone who knows the musical version of "Les Misérables," from which Boyle took her song, knows her overnight success was more a product of the right singer picking the right song at the right time. In the show, “I Dreamed A Dream” belongs to Fantine, a fired factory seamstress forced into prostitution as a last resort. Her final song is a remembrance of her youth, when her dreams for a beautiful life seemed achievable. Fantine’s “What a Life I Could Have Known,” and lyrics like it were obviously applicable to Boyle, a middle-aged woman with learning disabilities who, for most of her life, took care of an ailing mother. Her unselfishness and amazing turn in fortune (she is now a recording artist with three best-selling albums) fit the novel that preceded the musical.

For Fantine, though, things didn’t work out quite so well, as any fan of the musical — with music, lyrics, and libretto by Claude-Michel Schoenberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer, respectively — can tell you. The musical in turn owes its success to Victor Hugo’s 150-year-old epic of poverty and its consequences. "Les Misérables" has not ceased to stir emotions all along that formidable span of time, most recently in Tom Hooper’s monumental new film adaptation — one of more than 20 cinematic renderings of "Les Misérables" to date.

Born in 1802, Victor Marie Hugo first won acclaim as a poet; the volumes "Les Contemplations" and "La Legende des Siécles" being particular critical favorites. But outside of France, his novels "Notre-Dame de Paris" (1831) and "Les Misérables" (1862) were far better known and popularly acclaimed. Consisting of five volumes, with each divided into books, and subdivided into chapters for a total of 365 chapters resulting in 1900 pages in unabridged editions, "Les Misérables" is one of the longest novels ever written.

As imposing as that sounds, readers have had little difficulty in following the ups and downs of the Christ-like Jean Valjean, a man who, on being freed from a 19-year prison stretch for stealing a loaf of bread, rebuilds his life despite being hounded by one of literature’s most implacable and stubborn foils, police inspector Javert. These antagonists are the principles in a massive tapestry whose other characters include the seamstress Fantine (who goes to an early death), her daughter Cosette (whose image from the book’s first edition has become the blazon of the show), Cosette’s beloved the political firebrand Marius, the street urchin Eponine (who loves Marius unrequitedly), and a ton and a half of other fanciful figures. The story culminates in the Paris uprising of 1832 — a prequel of sorts to the Commune of 1871, the first working-class power grab of the Industrial Revolution.

French illustrator Émile Bayard drew the sketch of Cosette for the first edition, and this engraving was prepared for an 1886 edition.

Thanks to Hugo’s novel, all such popular revolts have a made-to-order fictional-yet-historical touchstone. Jean Valjean is Everyman struggling against a system designed to crush him. And "Les Miz" — as the musical’s fans lovingly dub it — sets that struggle to music, in one heart-wrenching (or bombastic, depending on your taste) song after another.

That a novel as enormous as "Les Misérables" possesses zeitgeist in perpetuity may seem unusual. But its continued impact likely derives from the way this epic tale has been boiled down, in the popular imagination, to the Valjean/Javert confrontation, with the fates of the other characters served as emotional side dishes. And its the notion of fate, with its obvious religious underpinnings, that distances a social reformer like Hugo (who was a Royalist in his youth) from an otherwise similar novelist-cum-muckraker, Charles Dickens. "Les Misérables" gives readers an emotional rollercoaster ride with a patina of social consciousness that keeps the political at a polite distance. One can appreciate the book’s humanist political message but, make no mistake: the story’s shameless melodrama is what has kept this story told and retold. It’s a story, not a tract.

The first film of "Les Misérables" appeared in 1909. The standout versions are the fifth, directed by Raymond Bernard in 1934 with Harry Baur as Jean Valjean and Charles Vanel as Javert; the sixth, directed by Richard Boleslawski in 1935 with Frederic March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert; and the 11th, directed by Jean-Paul Le Chanois in 1958 with Jean Gabin as Jean Valjean and Bernard Blier as Javert. Without question, the most novel version is number 17, directed by Claude Lelouch in 1995 and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a modern lower-class everyman obsessed with Hugo’s novel. This made it possible to do a contemporary story with 19th-century parallels frequently intercut with flashbacks in which Belmondo enacts sequences from the book. Still, sight unseen, version number nine, directed by Ricardo Freda in 1948, has to take some sort of cake as acting diva Valentina Cortese, not content merely to play Fantine, impersonates her character’s daughter Cosette as well.

All of this is by way of saying that a musical version was well-nigh inevitable. Speaking as an inveterate musical-comedy aficionado, first exposed to the form at the tender age of four when I was taken to see "Guys and Dolls" with the original cast on Broadway, "Les Miz" has never particularly appealed to me. It has nothing as joyful and rousing as Stubby Kaye singing “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — the “11 O’Clock Number” of Frank Loesser’s classic. "Guys and Dolls" comes of course from Damon Runyon’s observations of real-life characters. In its lush allegiance to melodrama, "Les Miz" seems once removed from anything “real.”

My view is obviously a minority one. The show’s fans love it the way I love Frank Loesser. Indeed, for them, "Les Miz" has become part of the cultural DNA, its every word memorized for life. That’s apparent from this clip of Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segal.

They would be perfect casting, if anyone’s planning another stage revival anytime soon. As for Susan Boyle, while she may not look like anyone’s idea of Fantine, many may wonder why Hooper didn’t insert her in his film version. I expect producer Cameron Macintosh couldn’t meet her price.

"Les Miz" (the movie) opened worldwide Christmas Day. It’s bound to be met with big crowds and big Oscars to follow. (It’s so much more entertaining and edifying than Spielberg and Kushner’s somniferous "Lincoln" there should be next to no contest.) But the true spirit of "Les Miz" cannot be contained in a single form. We need look no further then this 2010 protest, organized in less than 24 hours as a response to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s draconian collective-bargaining ban for government workers. Victor Hugo sings to the soul of the common man in the 21st century every bit as much as he did in the 19th. Take it away, kids!

By David Ehrenstein

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