i really do need to read the book

I saw the new Broadway version of Les Misérables a couple of weeks ago. It was excellent — very different staging than before (I saw the original Broadway run when it was about to close), and a cast that ranged from good to excellent.

I also just watched the movie version from the 1990s (it’s an adaptation of the book, not of the musical), which is what I want to talk about today.

(By the way, I have to share this joke I read somewhere: Uma Thurman was in The Avengers, Les Misérables, and a Batman movie. Which would have been an incredible year if she’d done it in this decade, but unfortunately she did it in the late 1990s.)

The biggest problem with the movie was that it focused too much on Valjean vs. Javert. The actors were excellent (Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush), but this leads back to my recent post about heroes and protagonists.

Javert is the antagonist (he’s pretty much the definition of an antagonist), but he’s not a villain (Thernardier is a villain, by contrast). Javert is trying to do good; he’s just wrong about some things (in the musical, the scene when Valjean spares his life and sings “You are wrong, and always have been wrong” may be my favorite moment in the show — Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe nailed this scene in the recent movie, by the way).

In the 1998 movie, however, even Geoffrey Rush’s haircut screams, “I am the villain!” Javert’s superiors and subordinates all dislike him, too.

On the other hand, what the 1998 movie did do, which surprised the heck out of me, was present a really interesting and compelling Cosette. Eponine is absent (alas), but instead we get a Cosette (Claire Danes) who actually acts, rather than just mooning around, and who asserts herself with her father in a very good way. She learns her father’s history much earlier in the story than in other versions I’ve seen, mostly because she insists on it. And it makes a difference that, unlike in the show, she doesn’t just fall in love with Marius and then immediately get separated from him — they are obviously lovers here, over a period of time, and that makes her urgent desire to stay with him something real, as opposed to just an adolescent crush.

(Oh, and yes, Uma Thurman was in the “wrong” Les Misérables, the wrong Batman movie and the wrong Avengers movie, but she’s very good as Fantine.)

The other problem with reducing the story to hero vs. villain (this was also true of the radio adaptation Orson Welles did in the 1930s) is that you remove les misérables (the wretched) from Les Misérables. The musical puts the people of France (suffering, and later rebellious) at the center of the story from the very first scene, and that frames all the individual stories.

Which I’m pretty sure was true in the book.

Which I really do need to read.

(And which is, of course, free for the Kindle. 🙂 )

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