Victor Hugo Is Alive and Well in Les Misérables


The Barricades in Tom Hooper's Les Misérables
The Barricades in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables

Despite the prodigious amount of ink that has been expended praising the 2012 film version of Les Misérables –this writer among those critics– it seems there is one aspect of the movie which still bears some inspection. And that is the uncanny and articulate way in which the Tom Hooper film captures the substance, the style, and the spirit of Victor Hugo’s novel.

The stage version of Les Misérables is more than twenty-five years old now, has been a landmark on the West End and in New York, and is apparently even looking to another 2014 revival on Broadway. Surely, that in itself is a tribute to Claude Michel Schönberg’s score, Alain Boubil and Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics and book as well as to the enduring power of Victor Hugo’s story.

Hugo’s novel published in 1862 is a sprawling epic narrative whose present takes place from 1815 to just after the Paris uprisings of 1832.  Yet, in its digressions and sweeping discourses on history, the novel goes back to the French Revolution and to the Napoleonic Wars and even references on occasion subsequent events including the successful 1848 revolution and the milieu of late 19th century France over which Hugo presided as an eminence grise.

Hugo’s novel which encompasses some 1200 pages often surfaces on high school and college syllabi in various abridged versions, but is probably rarely read in its entirety.  (This writer does recall tackling it in the original French as an undergraduate.) In 2008, however, Julie Rose’s vibrant and poetic translation gave new impetus to revisit Hugo’s masterwork.

The majesty of Hugo’s novel, despite its long digressions and idiosyncratic editorializing, lies in his taut, propulsive narrative, his brilliant visual details, and in the psychological depth of his characterizations.  The epic sweep of the book presents a challenge particularly to the stage version of Les Misérables, though perhaps less of one to the cinematographer.

The miracle of the musical is that it truly captures, in most ways, the essence, the intent, and the impact of Hugo’s book.  The libretto of the stage version manages to convey the long journey of Jean Valjean from his twenty years in penal servitude, through his various self-reinventions, to his ultimate redemption on the barricade and in his love for Cosette. Remarkably, all the major events and characters of the novel appear in the musical.  Some of the minor characters such as Tholomyes, M. Mabeuf, Mme. Gillenormand disappear in the interests of dramatic economy, but the essential plot points and persons are all there.  (Even Valjean’s escapes in the musical play, while there are a couple fewer than in the novel, parallel exactly those of the novel.)

In terms of realizing Hugo’s book, the film of Les Misérables brings to the challenge certain advantages of the cinematic medium.  Foremost is the realism possible on camera.  The movie’s creative team chooses a mix of atmospheric outdoor locations that add scale to the drama and complement these with an elaborately detailed, historically accurate rendition of the streets of Paris constructed in London’s Pinewood Studio.  Moreover, the ability of the film to enlarge the chorus and use legions of extras adds to the epic magnitude, as does the grand scale of the opening galley scene, the addition of General Lamarque’s funeral, or the thrilling barricade scenes, which do not have to rely on the stylization necessary on stage.

The flip side of Hooper’s epic film approach is the intimacy that is also possible on screen, and this is a tool he exploits with revealing and emotionally wrenching close-ups throughout the movie, especially in his single take musical moments. This bold decision, made possible by the actors’ live singing and their virtuoso performances, is even more of an accomplishment if one considers that Les Misérables is completely sung through with recitative and set pieces which could become awkward opera in close-up if not handled with the inner intensity of the actors.

The aspect of the film which approaches most closely Hugo’s novel is that of character development.  In numerous interviews the cast and crew reference the fact that Hooper urged them all to go back to the complete novel in their preparation, and when there were questions of motivation or background details needed they were to be based on the book.

Perhaps it is worth examining a few of these choices more closely to illustrate this point.  Valjean in both the stage version and the film is the focal point of the tale, and thus his character draws most heavily on the novel.  The film allows the audience to experience the brutality of his early suffering more intensely, thereby making his transformation more moving.  The same is true for Fantine’s fall into the very graphic depths of prostitution and despair. Or tiny details like establishing that Eponine and her family are next door neighbors to Marius in his poor student days and having her throw herself in front of the soldier’s gun to save Marius, as she does in the novel.

The film fleshes out Gavroche by placing him in the vivid milieu of the Place de La Bastille; on his first  entrance, he emerges from the crumbling Napoleonic monument, the massive elephant, in which he makes his home and threads his way through the teeming crowds of rich and poor singing his song.  Hugo who devoted a whole chapter to the miseries of the Paris gamin would surely have been content with Daniel Huttlestone’s spunky combination of sprite and fearless impudent, whose abuse and suffering make him oblivious to the bullets which claim his life.

Similarly, the Thenardiers are also brought closer to the sinister characters they are in the novel.  On stage Master of the House often becomes nothing more than the requisite Act One cockney song and dance comic relief.  As played in the movie by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, they become more the grotesques – their humor unctuous, their behavior outrageously off-putting, their moral compass totally lacking.

However, it is in the character detail of the film’s Marius, Cosette, and the students of the ABC Café, especially Enjolras, that the movie comes closest to capturing the literary essence of Hugo.  Marius occupies a very large portion of Hugo’s novel.  His history is the most important subplot of the book, which traces him journey from wealthy orphan desperate to prove worthy of his father, to his student days where he chooses poverty and revolution, to his headlong fall into love, and his eventual return to his privileged roots as Cosette’s husband.  Hugo spends a great deal of time helping the reader understand Marius’ conflicts, his idealism, and his struggle between personal happiness and the greater societal good.

One of the major divergences of the musical from the novel is the courtship of Marius and Cosette.  In the novel they set eyes on each other in the Luxembourg Gardens, and while it is love at first sight, it is many months before they first speak to each other and steal a kiss in the garden, and this interlude allows Hugo to paint a vivid psychological portrait of the blossoming of young love with all its joys and torments.  In the musical events are collapsed into a Romeo and Juliet-like rapid sequence of meeting, pledging their love, and narrowingly escaping death.  The film Marius, Eddie Redmayne speaks of the challenge of making the rather operatic convention of A Heart Full of Love come alive within the context of the otherwise realistic movie.  Perhaps, we accept this overblown formula more readily in the movie, however, because Hooper has fleshed out the other facets of Marius’ character.  The film’s Marius is a principal and passionate player in all the scenes of revolution, and Redmayne – perhaps the most compelling Marius of the many stage incarnations I have seen – conveys the youth, virility, recklessness, and conflicting desires of his young hero.  Because he is such a firebrand to begin, when he falls hopelessly for Cosette, we feel even more deeply his dilemma. One of the scenes which the screenplay restores from the book is the moment on the barricade when Marius makes the suicidal threat to blow up the powder keg.  This powerful encounter gives Redmayne’s Marius a backbone and a commitment that link him firmly to Hugo’s hero.

The episode in the novel which both the film and stage versions gloss over is the somewhat priggish response the newly married Marius has to Valjean’s confession of his dark past.  For a modern audience Marius’ Victorian prejudices about family honor would hardly fly, so, instead, the dramatic versions skip quickly to Marius’ comprehension of Valjean’s “saintliness” and the touching deathbed reunion.

Cosette is a more difficult character to enhance.  In the novel she is described in sufficient detail to prevent her being perceived simply as an empty-headed convent girl.  Amanda Seyfried happily is able to impart to the character a sense of intelligence and backbone beneath her lady-like gentility.

In the portrayals of the students, the movie also moves closer to Hugo’s book.  The novelist dedicates more than two pages to describing Enjolras and delineates each of the others with great care.  By using leading West End actors for Courfeyrac, Grantaire, Joly, Lesgles, Prouvaire, and Combeferre, Hooper gives strong and specific faces to each of the young revolutionaries.  He is careful to capture distinctive features of each character:  Courfeyrac who is so fond of Gavroche and so devastated by the boy’s death, for example.  There is  George Blagden’s Grantaire who  is a drinker and a dreamer, a skeptic whose only faith is his love for Enjolras; he is Pylades to Enjolras’ Orestes as Hugo describes them.  In Drink with Me rather than a choral number (with male-female voices in the stage version), in the film each of the students sings lines making it a last communion of individuals. Their deaths are individualized, too, especially Grantaire’s, who like Hugo’s character (who has been in a drunken stupor for most of the fighting) arrives on the scene just as Enjolras is about to be shot, and though a skeptic about revolution is enough of a believer in loving friendship to stand beside his idol.

And then, there is Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras, whose virile, passionate, and steely portrayal of the revolutionary leader would surely have gratified Victor Hugo.    Hugo describes Enjolras as an archangel, frightening in his intensity and luminous in his purity, and Tveit more than any other Enjolras I have seen on stage, is spot on in capturing the contradictions and the éclat of the character.  Not only do Tveit’s lustrous voice (at once silken and clarion) and his physical presence – chiseled good looks and flowing blond hair – suggest the radiance of the character, but as an actor he projects the exact combination of saintliness and savage idealism that Hugo depicts. Hugo tells us that Enjolras applies his uncompromising standards not only to others but to himself, as well, and that from the moment the barricades arise, he is haunted by the knowledge that the students’struggle is doomed.  We see this in the stoop of his shoulders, the quiet but grim look that flits across his features, and the hint of sadness behind his eyes, and we feel his desperation and resolve in the vividly staged battle scenes.

Perhaps the most remarkable deployment of Hugo’s text is in Enjolras’ death.  In the stage version, the death is stylized – he is the last to fall in slow motion, draped over the barricade like the fallen tricolor.  The film captures many specific details of the students’ desperate last moments as they hack their way into the tavern and barricade the remaining escape route, run up the stairs only to find themselves facing a firing squad of soldiers’ muskets.  A point made clearly in the novel is the poignant exchange between the French troops and the students, men who, Hugo tells us, shared same quartier and had more than a random acquaintance with one another.  Making the French commander a recognizable figure throughout the barricade scenes gives his eye-to-eye contact with Enjolras in the death scene greater emotional power.  In the first volley, all the students fall except Enjolras, who seems surprised to have survived.  He stands momentarily  “almost nailed to the wall” (words Hugo uses a little later in the scene).  Hugo devotes several poetic passages that depict Enjolras’ death with almost mythic reverence.  He describes him as Apollo, – his beauty at that moment enhanced by his dignity was resplendent.  Like the Enjolras of the novel who refuses a blindfold, who welcomes Grantaire’s joining him in love and solidarity, Tveit steps across the room to the window, proudly lifts the red banner, and confronts his executioners first with a resolute serenity and then with a slight smile of peaceful acceptance before he is riddled with bullets and falls backward through the window creating an iconic image of the fallen hero that is imprinted indelibly in the viewer’s memory.

Thus, as these examples testify, one more extraordinary feature of the Les Misérables film is its remarkable ability to bring Victor Hugo’s universe to life for a whole new generation.  Hugo’s novelistic style had more than a little of the cinematic in it.  He loved the panoramic at the same time that he paid great attention to detail.  He explored his characters from their external appearance to their deepest psychological insights.  He was able in his style to write with rich, colorful  descriptions, wax eloquently for entire paragraphs or chapters layering one detail upon another, only then to sum it up in one pithy epithet. Hugo excels not only in creating an all inclusive universe, in embracing the epic sweep of 19th century French history and society, but also in being able to crystallize in individual moments and characters the intimate truths of that world.  It is precisely in this grandeur of the screenplay and cinematography, in the majesty of the musical score and its text, and in the ensemble’s brilliant musical and dramatic performances that Les Misérables pays stunning homage to Victor Hugo.

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