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Les Miserables The Movie: Purists Beware

It may be up for four Golden Globes and is the subject of Oscar buzz, but the movie version of Les Miserables is different from the Broadway musical. For fans of the musical, the movie’s alterations may only serve to ruin perfection.

 The author at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Image by George Cassutto
Copyright 2012
Used by permission

The Broadway play Les Miserables has been billed as “the most beloved musical of all time.” Among members of my family, this tag line may be taken as gospel. As for myself, only Jesus Christ Superstar and Fiddler on the Roof hold a higher place in the pantheon of Broadway plays. In the case of both of those personally beloved musicals, the movie versions stayed true to the stage production, and in some ways, were superior to them, enshrining the music and the characters of the production forever on film, and in today’s technology, in digital format. The movie version of Les Miserables has much to live up to, and any major changes to the score or story better be justified because for many fans of the musical, you just don’t mess with perfection.

For the uninitiated, Les Miserables is set in post-revolutionary France, and is based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name. The book, the play, and now the movie, tell the story of convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his life-long pursuer, the obsessed police agent Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean saves the child Cosette, the daughter of a dying factory worker, Fantine (Ann Hathaway), from the dastardly innkeeper couple, the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). The story then advances to Paris, when a young rebel student, Marius, (Eddie Redmayne) falls in love with the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). A group of Paris revolutionaries attempt a coup against the French king, and it is these events in the streets of Paris that make up the backdrop as the decades-long conflict between Valjean and Javert plays itself out among the love triangle between the street urchin Eponine (Samantha Barks), Marius, and Cosette. Confused? Read the book first.

The transition from stage musical to film production will be difficult for some fans of the Broadway version. 
The original Broadway musical, composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, contains no spoken dialogue. The entire story is told through such well-known ballads as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Bring Him Home,” and “On My Own.” The movie score adds new songs, changes the lines of existing songs, and compresses action by moving elements of the story’s timeline around so that audience members that might not know the inner workings of the plot might more easily understand the complex web of events and relationships between characters. In another move that might upset those familiar with the Broadway version, the actors sang their parts live while taping the film, so they are making acting choices and inserting emotions as the movie was filmed rather than in a soundtrack laid down before the action was taped. This formula results in a more emotional presentation by the actors on film, but lines that should be sung end up spoken. Additional spoken dialogue, though minor, was added to provide a more coherent story. If you think you know the score to Les Miserables, think again.

In a regular drama, the lead actors of Les Miserables would have done well in an action movie. Hugh Jackman, best known for his role as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise, performed as well as any actor playing Jean Valjean on or off Broadway, though purists may be critical of his choice to speak several of his character’s well-known lines (“Who am I? I’m Jean Valjean!”). Russell Crowe’s voice lacks the fullness of baritones who have been cast as Javert, and while he hit his notes, he lacked consistency in the obsession that drives the character of Javert, and in turn, provides the backbone to the entire story. An even more important weakness of Crowe’s performance comes when he sings the lines leading up to Javert’s suicide off a Paris bridge. Crowe lacked all emotion and simply sang the words. The error may be more directorial than dramatic, but a more seasoned musical actor would have brought Javert’s obsession to a maniacal frenzy. Instead, it looks like Crowe is just singing another pop song from a musical.

There are fans of this musical that will cry as they watch the movie not because they are identifying with the love or death portrayed therein. Les Mis purists may cry because a work they see as near-perfect has been tampered with, adulterated, and ruined. They fear that newcomers to the music will see this movie version as the gospel, unaware of the Broadway play’s superior score (as they see it). More forgiving viewers will recognize that film and stage are different media, and each requires its own imagination and creativity when bringing the characters and the story to life. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil took their own liberties as they adapted Victor Hugo’s classic novel for the musical stage. Director Tom Hooper has taken similar liberties to make the story more palatable, more understandable, and to give his actors something with which they can work to communicate their individual themes. If purists can look at the movie as a separate medium, different yet just as beautiful as what they have come to love on Broadway, they may be able to forgive the motion picture for its trespasses, and come to appreciate it in the fullness of time the way they have the stage production.

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