As with many popular films, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables received a mixed critical response. The movie was guaranteed to garner attention no matter what, using as its source material a beloved musical, itself based on a 19th century classic novel. Critics generally dislike it, while audiences flock to see it. This pattern mimics the musical’s reception, which was not entirely favorable when it debuted in 1985—but Les Misérables has since run continuously, seen by around 60 million viewers.
The experience of sitting through all 160 minutes of Les Mis can feel less like an awards bash than an epic wake, at which the band is always playing and women forever wailing. By the end, you feel like a piñata: beaten, in pieces, the victim of prolonged assault by killer pipes.
Although the soundness of Hooper’s directorial choices is open to debate—his use of close-ups and visible CGI effects are especially censured—there’s not much he could do about the “overbearingly maudlin” effect without rewriting the musical and, in fact, the 1862 novel. The movie, and the musical, are emotionally manipulative and blatantly so. But so is Hugo’s original.
I grew up on musicals and, being a somewhat delusional teenager, I eventually decided that if I could handle “opera lite” like Les Misérables I could handle its source material. For weeks my irritating attempts at dinnertime conversations began with, “Did you know that in the book ….?” Over the years I’ve lost my fondness for musicals—all except one. I can still be caught with my headphones on, gesturing grandly to “Red and Black.”
Considering the subject matter, is there any other way to gesture? Hugo tackled history, politics, philosophy and theology with sincere conviction, and the team of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and librettists Alain Boublil and Jean-mar Natel catches some of that fervor while adding typical musical theater exaggeration. Kyle Buchanan of the Vulture humorously describes this process: “Perhaps the source material was sober and straightforward, but once you add singing and stick the whole production on a glorified Lazy Susan, you’ve got to contend with an additional camp allure that’s unavoidably transformative.” Every time I hear the stark and overwrought contrast between young Cosette (“Please do not send me out alone, / not in the darkness on my own”) and Madame Thénardier (“None of that! Or I’ll forget to be nice!”), I burst out laughing. But it’s a joyful laugh, not a mocking one.
Les Misérables is a 1500-page tome (in English translation). The musical necessarily condensed the story, and although I should throw a bone to the “The book is always better!” crowd, I think it does an admirable job. Whole backstories are referenced in a few lines. “He slept a summer by my side, / but he was gone when autumn came” covers the two-year relationship between Fantine and Félix Tholomyès. In the novel Javert is not present at Jean Valjean’s confession, which takes place in a different city where the unfortunate Champmathieu is under arrest in his stead; Jean Valjean leaves while everyone is shocked, and Javert catches up with him later. (In this, and other instances, Hooper’s movie makes movements back towards the novel.)
A key area of condensation is on Hugo’s interjections. Hugo devotes a whole book (there are 365 chapters in 48 books in 5 volumes) to the battle of Waterloo, digressing from detailed battle descriptions to comments on heroism and memory. One book is on the argot of the 19th century French criminal world; another is on the background of a religious order, the Bernardines of the Obedience of Martin Verga. These sections can be tortuous, but through them Hugo claims the entirety of the novel—with its use of firsthand experience (“the author,” “the narrator”) and often pedantically expressed opinions—as his own.
The movie attempts to rectify this omission, also. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times summarizes, “Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Mr. Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest.” From the early scene of Jean Valjean pacing Bishop Myriel’s chapel to the clarification of his escape with Cosette to the convent at Petite Rue Picpus, Hooper certainly doesn’t shy away from “religious themes.” But theology? There he misses Hugo’s voice almost completely.
The musical tells the story as a choice between two interpretations of Christianity: the mercy of the bishop, instilled in Jean Valjean, and the justice and order of Inspector Javert. Javert throws himself into the Seine because of the seeming incompatibility of these visions: “There is nothing on earth that we share, / it is either Valjean or Javert!”
While this version captures Hugo’s emphasis on mercy, forgiveness and grace, it is inevitably reductive. I find a better counterpoint to Valjean in the innkeeper Thénardier, used in the musical and film as comic relief but in the novel a much more evil and tragic figure. Of his family Hugo writes:
Undoubtedly they seemed very depraved, very corrupt, very vile, very hateful even, but people rarely fall without becoming degraded. Besides, there is a point when the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les misérables; whose fault is it? And then, when the fall is furthest, is that not when charity should be greatest? (744)
This passage hints at Hugo’s theology of social liberation, expressed in the book through the characters as well as his own digressions. First, society is responsible for the degradation of humans, and therefore mercy is not simply praiseworthy, but required. Bishop Myriel, the original conscience of the story, says “The faults of women, children, and servants, and of the weak, the indigent, the ignorant, are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise” (13-14). Jean Valjean repeats, “There are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators” (165). Hugo himself writes of political revolutionaries, “Those who are hungry have just cause” (847) and that “these words, intended for insults—beggars, rabble, ochlocracy, populace—indicate, alas, rather the fault of those who reign than the fault of those who suffer; rather the fault of the privileged than the fault of the outcasts” (1170).
Second, the rich are continuously to blame, “As there is always more misery at the lower end than humanity at the top” (8). Thénardier, in speech “hideously evil and yet bitter as truth,” (798) rails against philanthropists:
Rags not worth four sous, and bread! That’s not what I want of the rabble! I want money! But money, never! Because they say that we’d go and drink it away, that we’re drunks and do-nothings! And what’ve they been in their day? Thieves! They wouldn’t have gotten rich without that! Oh! Somebody ought to take society by the four corners of the sheet and toss it all into the air! (754)
The drunken skeptic Grantaire muses, “Oh, if the good hearts had the fat purses, how much better everything would be! I imagine Jesus Christ with Rothschild’s fortune! How much good he would have done!” (1098)
In response to this “gloomy social edifice” (1176), Hugo’s solution—mimicked by the men at the barricade—is social utopia. He was a staunch progressivist, viewing each development towards liberty and equality as part of an eschatological arc that would create better conditions on earth, completed finally in heaven. Education is the answer.
Destroy the cave Ignorance, and you destroy the mole Crime.
We will condense in a few words a portion of what we have just said. The only social peril is darkness.
Humanity is similarity. All men are of the same clay. No difference, here below at least, lies in predestination. The same darkness before, the same flesh during, the same ashes after life. But ignorance, mixed with the human composition, blackens it. This incurable ignorance possesses the heart of man, and there becomes Evil. (721-22)
And Hugo himself claims that this evolution is what Les Misérables is about:
The book the reader has now before his eyes—from one end to the other, in its whole and in its details, whatever the omissions, the exceptions, or the faults—is the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. (1242)
Humanity’s depravity is the fault of the society it has constructed; when the human race is raised, “the lower strata will quite naturally leave the zone of distress. The abolition of misery will be brought about by a simple elevation of level” (999). Thus, the fates of Hugo’s characters are guaranteed without intervening acts of infinite mercy. Fantine, an innocent working-class woman, falls because of the social forces of poverty and the subjugation of women. Jean Valjean is a lost cause—hardened by 19 years in a place that “permits the irreparable loss of a sentient being” (84)—until Bishop Myriel displays grace and forgiveness. Cosette and Eponine are antitheses. Cosette has a savior in Jean Valjean, while Eponine does not; one ends rich and happily married, the other lives a life of crime and hunger until she dies young. Perhaps most starkly, the convicts Valjean and Thénardier; in the book Valjean is much more depraved at first, even stealing money from a 10-year-boy after his release. But one is lifted into light while the other sinks into unfathomable evil and misery. These figures are partly responsible for their own fates, yet Hugo’s message is not condemnation, but pity, understanding, compassion and self-sacrifice, even unto death.
I prefer the first half of the musical; many of the tune repetitions of the second act seem lazy or overdone. But one of my favorite moments in the entire production is the last two minutes, and I eagerly anticipated how Hooper would set the refrain of “Do you hear the people sing?” So, after enjoying the film, I was devastated by the last scene: revolutionaries brandishing weapons on a supersized Parisian barricade.
This is not the end goal for Hugo, nor the musical. By keeping its eyes on violent overthrow and material misery, the film misses an opportunity to portray the sincere hope centering Hugo’s utopian beliefs. Hugo was no disinterested Frenchman: he wrote Les Misérables in exile, avoiding Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire government. But the musical’s militaristic yet optimistic finale includes new lyrics that locate the 1832 June Rebellion in the totalizing movement toward paradise on earth, tying what was in Hugo’s view necessary bloodshed and the specifics of French politics to a social progressivist eschatology typical of the 19th century. The goal for Hugo is earthly peace—“To bring the duel to an end, to consolidate the pure ideal with the human reality, to make the right peacefully interpenetrate the fact, and the fact the right, this is the work of the wise” (826), culminating in heavenly perfection.
The musical echoes this: the entire ensemble walks out to stand behind Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine, in regulated rows with empty hands. Instead of “the song of angry men” who warn that “the blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France,” they deliver a hymn with its eyes on paradise.
Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night,
it is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
there is a flame that never dies:
even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
in the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share, they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that we bring when tomorrow comes.