In another world the author would apologize for the terrible pun, but in this same alternate world, she wouldn’t have to lose yet another part of her soul sitting trough that movie a SECOND TIME for the sake of objectivity. But she had to, and she is as unapologetic about that pun as the 2012 musical movie is about misadapting the classic Les Misérables.
Before getting to the heart of the problem let’s make a bit of contextualization. Yes, I am aware that the movie is an adaptation, quite faithful, of an incredibly popular Broadway musical. Yes, I was aware of it when I first saw it in the theatre in 2012. Yes, unlike a lot of French people, I do like musicals in general (even if I don’t thing they are a proof of my general good taste, I just like listening to people
screaming singing passionately about their feelings). No, I didn’t go to the theater with apprehension, quite the contrary. And yes, I know that Les Misérables is incredibly difficult to adapt and that you have to cut a lot of things if you want to make the story a two-and-a-half hour movie.
But still, nothing excuses the low bastardization of Victor Hugo’s most famous novel that this movie is.
Because, you see, Victor Hugo isn’t just any French author and Les Misérables isn’t just any French novel. Victor Hugo was an immense author of novels, pamphlets, poems and plays, engaged politically to the point of being sent into exile during the Second Empire. He is the only French author to have lived on street named after him (you will never be classier than that—don’t even try) and got national funerals. Les Misérables, while challenged by Notre Dame de Paris (wrongly translated as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“), is his most famous work, and was described at its release as *the most dangerous book of the century*. You don’t touch something like that without being extremely careful.
Les Misérables carries a message, and the author make no secret about it. Victor Hugo wanted to use his story to denounce what his world was doing to the more fragile: how the use of societal, economic, and state power was throwing them to the ground. Making them miserable, despite their dreams and aspirations, and despite how they fight against it. The characters are in a sea of fatality, swimming for a nonexistent shore until they drown. The characters are the keys to that story.
The movie, while following the events happening in the book quite faithfully, completely misses that.
The attentive reader has probably already noticed from the title that when talking about the 2012 movie, actually called “Les Misérables“, I used the popular nickname “Les Mis“. I shall continue this throughout the article for two reasons: it’s more practical to make an immediate difference between the book and the movie (we like that here) and also… I AM NOT CALLING THAT MOVIE “LES MISÉRABLES”!.
Or the pun that never stops giving.
As I said before, Les Misérables is a social tragedy driving by its characters. So that’s the one thing you have to get right. Here’s how Les Mis didn’t.
I have two problems with Jean Valjean in Les Mis. The first one is the casting; the second one is how the character is written. Let’s start with the casting.
No, I am not going to criticize Hugh Jackman’s ability to sing (I keep that for Russell Crow). I am not going to criticize his acting skills either, he does a pretty good job with what he was given. I am going to criticize his physic.
Jean Valjean is a force of nature. He is so strong that he is remembered as impressively strong among his fellow convicts of the Bagne, a prison where the prisoners are used for physically-demanding tasks. Jean Valjean isn’t regularly hitting the gym. Jean Valjean probably doesn’t have a six-pack, but he still can send you directly to Hell by hitting you on the head only once. Jean Valjean isn’t beautiful; he keeps trace of an hard life on is face. I personally don’t get that “is a reincarnation of Atlas” damaged by life vibe when watching Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean. You will probably tell me that casting that type of physic isn’t easy, except I have already seen far better cast in the past: Lino Ventura in the 1982 adaptation.
The problem with the casting of Hugh Jackman isn’t that he doesn’t look the part. No, the problem is that it reinforces a big error of scripture of the character: making Jean Valjean less menacing.
In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is first introduced as an ex-convict boiling with hate for the rest of mankind. He asks Mr Myriel for somewhere to stay for the night, while being sure that the man will not open his house. Sincerely, if I was in the shoes of Mr Myriel, I will not have welcomed the man, because he looks freaking dangerous and up to no good, and that’s what Mr Myriel’s sister and help were thinking. They are proven right later when he steals from them. And it’s not the only time when Jean Valjean is intimidating: while meeting the Tenardiers in Paris, he burns himself with a red-hot iron to prove that they should not joke around with him. Jean Valjean isn’t only being chased by the police because he broke his parlor, but also because he stole again from a little boy after the incident at Mr Myriel’s house! Every time that Jean Valjean faces a dilemma in the book you wonder what he is going to do, because he has a potential to do very bad things, and often does.
In Les Mis, when Jean Valjean arrives to Mr Myriel we have only been with him for 8 minutes, seeing what he has been trough, and we are already thinking: poor baby! After the incident at Mr Myriel’s house, Jean Valjean has a grand musical number about identity a decision to serve God (to bad that he isn’t faithful to Mr Myriel’s spirit rather). At that point, Jean Valjean isn’t a work in progress; you can make him sing about his doubts as much as you want, but we all know he is always going to make the good choice.
Jean Valjean from the book is a character you have to learn to trust. He proves himself to the other characters and to you during all the story, because the point of Les Misérables is to prove TO YOU that any person regardless of their social background can be good. Jean Valjean in Les Mis is our mandatory hero, and God prevents us to face one day a complex character or to think by ourselves.
Fantine, oh Fantine. Fantine who has by far the best song of the movie. Anne Hathaway does a fantastic job singing it, making me feel for her. Too bad that once again Fantine has been deprived of one of her very interesting characteristics.
In Les Misérables, Fantine is a fighter. Every time she faces a problem, she finds a solution. Until the very end, you believe that she will manage because she has more resilience than anyone could ever have. She loses her job? She starts sewing uniforms for the army! She needs more money? She sells her hair but buys a bonnet and becomes even prettier than before! She is going to get through it! She is so strong!
But she isn’t. Nobody is. And you know that when she ultimately sells her two front tooth after saying “I will never do that”. She crosses her own line. Goodbye Fantine’s smile. Goodbye Fantine’s hope. After this moment, Fantine is just the shadow of herself.
In Les Mis, Fantine suffers everything. The decision of selling her hair and her tooth barely comes from her.
Fantine in the book steps voluntarily toward Hell, because it is the only way. Fantine in the movie slips to Hell, being pushed by others, and you never have that feeling of her making a choice at any point. The story of Fantine in Les Misérables is the story of what happens to strength in the middle of misery. The movie forgets that. Thanks God the song salvages a bit of this spirit.
This is where everything goes very wrong. Okay, repeat after me: THE THÉNARDIERS AREN’T COMIC RELIEF! THE THÉNARDIERS ARE MONSTERS!
The Thénardiers, especially Mr Thénardiers, are simply terrible people. They are responsible of the death of Fantine, they abuse her daughter (making her work, beating her with a whip) and then sell her to a perfect stranger, and they kidnap people and torture them until getting a ransom. And of course they have never been sent to the Bagne. They are here to prove not only how unnecessarily cruel the judicial system is, but how inefficient. If there is a bad guy other than the general shitty unfairness of the society, it’s Mr Thénardier.
What does Les Mis do with them?
Utter and total betrayal here. In the same vein as Claude Frollo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Javert is the antagonist that you like despite everything.
He is cunning, impressively intelligent, ruthless, and he is absolutely sure that there is only way to live: his way, in total accord with the law. His hunting of Jean Valjean is triggered by the fact that he is the only one who suspected Mr Madeleine is Jean Valjean, a criminal who escaped justice. It’s a philosophical battle for him. The existence of a free Jean Valjean, a free good Jean Valjean, represents a glitch in his world. He cannot tolerate it.
In Les Mis, he is a fool who doesn’t seem to understand what is happening to him half of the time. He already has a problem with Jean Valjean in the Bagne because…???? What happened to him suspecting Jean Valjean all Sherlock style? We literally saw him victimize the guy a few scenes earlier (a thing that doesn’t happen in the book)… he can’t possibly have doubt! What happened to Javert manipulating Jean Valjean with the news of the arrest of 24601? What happened to Javert being so good at his job that is sent to a long term undercover job in the revolutionary movement?
The worst of the worst is the way his suicide is handled. First, with his song on the roof. Yes, look into the emptiness, yes look at the Seine underneath you. Subtle imagery. The thing is, Javert had no prior intention of killing himself; he has no doubt. When Jean Vlajean spares him, his entire system of belief is destroyed. A criminal has just proven him wrong. He has nothing left to do with his life. He doesn’t hold Jean Valjean responsible (like he does in Les Mis), he holds himself responsible. Therefore, he kills himself. He doesn’t continue to pursue Jean Valjean a bit more just for a dramatic confrontation!
Russell Crow’s Javert is as much a disgrace as his singing is.
Here, just as for Anne Hathaway, I nothing to say about the casting. Eddie Redmayne does a fine job. However, I don’t think you can miss the point of a character more than Les Mis misses the one of Marius.
Marius isn’t the bright young revolutionary man…that’s Enjolras, thank you very much. Marius is the bad ally of the cause. Marius has a heroic father that he never knew, but it’s the only heroic thing about him. He is a little bourgeois having everything he needs to live comfortably under the Orléans régime, but he wants more.
So he decides to take part in a revolution, and sort of leaves in the middle because he saw a pretty girl in the street, but then came back to die because she isn’t going to be is wife and he is sad, then survived the revolution and went on living his life perfectly okay because, hey, monarchy isn’t that bad.
No, it has just killed all of your friends. Oh and he forbids Jean Valjean to see Cosette when he learns that the man is an ex-convict. Fighting for liberty, equality, fraternity, yes. Giving the benefit of the doubt to a man who has just stolen bread to feed his nephews? Pffffff. Marius is a little shit, not a young hero.
If you somehow still have doubt about the intended ridiculousness of this character, please be informed that Marius is sure that Cosette is called “Ursula” during a good part of his search for her.
The terrible songs
I am stopping here with the characters, but starting with the songs. Be afraid, be very afraid. This is my list of songs which should be in something even pretending to find inspiration from Les Misérables:
One of my least favorite tropes in a Broadway musical is what I personally called the “Plucky Prostitutes Song”: sex workers joyfully singing about their work to plinky music. Broadway seems incapable of getting enough of those songs.
You can tell me it’s meant to be ironic, except the lines about the horror of the situation are still there…just reserved for Fantine; the other sex-workers seem more than happy to revel in her misery about it. They even look like they are forcing her hand into this line of work.
You want my opinion, it smells of whorephobia. And implied slut-shaming. I hate this song.
Javert is going to kill himself, wink, wink! And he is going to fall! We are so subtle!
Red and Black
Okay, this one is mainly nitpicking. But when you see a French *revolutonnaire* wearing a roundel and starting to sing about color, you are expecting something a bit special. But no, random colors it is.
It’s a bit like if there were a musical about the American Civil War and Lincoln was talking about the importance of freedom and unity in the United States while holding a flag. He starts singing “13… “, you legitimately believe that the song is going like that: “13! The number against autocracy…50! The stars of unity”. (Or however many states there were on the flag at that point.) But instead, he goes “13!… The number of bad luck”. I mean, it’s not wrong, but it’s not very logical either.
Empty Chairs at Empty tables
This song is pretty, well-sung, and quite moving. I like it! The only thing is: it’s Marius that is singing it. The guy who escape death and persecution through his privileges. The guy who decides that monarchy isn’t that bad eventually. The guy who’s married two scenes later in the biggest “I am sad and now I am not!” that I have ever seen.
I could continue on and on about everything the movie misses for hours. I could write about how artificial Jean Valjean’s dilemma songs sound, or about how ironic it is to hear Éponine sing her jealousy for Cosette without any sort of cruel-joke-vibe to it, when you know that in the book Éponine helped abuse Cosette when they were children. I could nitpick about the red flag being as visible as the French one, because Marxism was definitively a thing 17 years before the publication of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. I could also make stupid jokes about random commentary on the French Revolution that are clearly in contradiction with Hugo’s vision.
I could also write about all the songs that are really good and really in the spirit. I Dreamed a Dream, Look Down, and Do you hear the People Sing are truly magnificent. Because there are good things in this movie.
But those cannot save it. Les Mis is weaker than Les Misérables. It is weaker because it privileges the epic over the message. It does so to the point of the movie being built toward the revolution, which is ultimately a failure, and then not knowing how to catch its happy ending in a way that doesn’t feel artificial. It is a grave mistake, especially when adapting books such as Les Misérables, where the epic is a way for the message.
And the movie isn’t enough of a different beast from the book for it to be forgivable.