“Les Miserables”: Failed Musical, Successful Book

(All quotes are taken, out of context, from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.)

Tom Hooper’s Les Mis (I will not confuse the adaptation with Hugo’s masterpiece) was UK-released the 11th of January. This film is a bold experiment. What else it is…is hard to say exactly, though others have had plenteous and helpful things to say.

I wanted to love the film, and when I didn’t I wanted to hate it, but liked it too much for that. I suggest the need to consider nuances of music, adaptation, and theme.Les Mis

Right off, let’s name names. Everyone knows Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe were cast for marketability. Three hours of better singing would have been appreciated. These do their best, but we wouldn’t be celebrating the uniqueness of their performances if we only had to celebrate their excellence.

The ensemble balances things considerably. Eddie Redmayne impresses. Samantha Barks has the chops expected of a stage pro. The child actors rule. The elephant overshadows everyone with its Parisian whiteface wooden performance.

I’m helped by Brett McCracken’s previous post. He’s a savvier film critic than I. However, the film struggles musically for two reasons he hasn’t addressed.

First, the musical was always mediocre. I’m with the critics on this. It’s provocative, it’s moving, it’s—dare I say it—written for popular appeal. That isn’t wrong, but let’s not confuse emotional currency, critical awards, or ticket sales with excellence. This performance could be better than Susan Boyle’s, and Les Mis would still be the French proverbial barrel of wine with a spoonful of sewage.

Second, the noble risk of this production stumbles. I love—LOVE—long takes and uncut performances. I LOVE the concept of actors singing their parts live instead of studio-canning and dubbing them. For the big numbers, the dramatic performances in these long takes are terrific. This should have been a magic combination and I wanted it to succeed so very, very badly.

These vocalists sing stage solos as chamber pieces, which requires genius arrangement, but the singers received creative liberty to interpret and deliver. Music that overemphasizes individuality degenerates into self-absorption. Hooper indulged his actors when they needed a conductor, a choreographer, and accompaniment holding them accountable. And Auto-Tuning. Strong acting and post-production scoring can’t resolve this. Sticking microphones to the singers and filming in their faces just exaggerates the faults. There is no perspective, visually or acoustically. It would have to be perfect to succeed.

Anne Hathaway’s performance is just about perfect. She should get the Oscar. The rest is uneven. Hooper wanted emotional depth through music, but his brazen approach, instead of revolutionizing the genre, dives in at the shallow end. Let’s hope someone repeats the musical experiment but corrects the mistakes.

My second contention for nuanced appreciation is that this film is not Victor Hugo’s novel. Neither was its musical before it. The movie isn’t being seriously judged by the source material. Somehow the cognoscenti won’t stand for this with Inklings, but Les Mis Crit is indifferent. This is because no one reads the novel any more.

The musical isn’t a failure because it’s an adaptation. Adaptations need liberty to work in their adapted medium. The Wright/Stoppard Anna Karenina is the most recent daring but successful adaptation. Les Mis cherry-picks, as it should, the 1400-page novel. But in perspective Les Mis : Les Misérables :: Jesus of Nazareth : The Gospels.

For all Hathaway’s triumph, her 10-minute arc is a petite misérable compared to Hugo’s Fantine, whose decade-long descent through loss of love, loss of child, toil, abuse, starvation, prostitution, and tuberculitic death is an utter horror. Likewise for every character, but especially Valjean who is so engulfed in his own hatred and sanctification. Every character is a misérable, and Hugo’s illumination of suffering and grace rivals Tolstoy’s. What West End musical could grasp such an idea?

I’m angry that Les Mis gets pride of place over Les Misérables. Am I being reasonable about this? No. Total failure of nuance on my part. Blast. But it would be just as easy to write The Divine Comedy the Musical.

More reflectively for the final contention, I wonder how deep-set the redemptive hooks are. I get that if we look for good it’s a constructive exercise. Jason Hood finds sympathetic themes. Is the redemption of the film overwhelming? There are troubling implicit themes needing careful work.

There could be a whole article on ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. Has anyone unpacked what this song means and what it does? Necessary exercise.

The line about ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’ isn’t Hugo. None of us would congratulate a student for this as a conclusion. It’s humanist wash on a boy-gets-girl-back-while-savior-dies ending.

Who are the good guys, really? The profligate monarchy? The deposed bloody Republic? No, we stand on the barricade and lift our posthumous voices with the radical socialists. Hugo had no such illusions, and the polis isn’t the point: “What are the convulsions of a city in comparison with the insurrections of the soul?”Les Miserables

I’m more of a snob than I like to be. “There’s always a petard in a seminary fellow.” But I’m not a scoffer the likes of Anthony Lane, whose criticism tempts me. I wanted this film to succeed. In our jaded age, we need good music that stirs deep emotive responses to beauty. It really is something to sit in a theatre when nearly everyone is crying, but performances that stir emotive responses aren’t proof we have beheld the beautiful. Justin Bieber can do that. “Artistic peoples are also consistent peoples. To love beauty is to see the light.”

This film is a good movie and a visual triumph, but I wonder what it might have been. This film is a flawed adaptation of a mediocre musical adaptation of one of the greatest novels of all time. The film might make you cry. The book will change your life. Don’t go see the movie again, start reading the book.

Fr Micah Snell has a day job writing a PhD on theology and Shakespeare at the University of St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. You too can join the very exclusive cadre of his Twitter followers.

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  • http://twitter.com/Keith_Buhler Keith Buhler

    Love this review, and your sober minded deflation of the movie. But you don’t leave it there– you re-inflate the book. It’s on my “To Read” shelf for 2013 (www.readingintentionally.com & http://www.goodreads.com), despite its intimidating size. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but will. I expect to cry, but also will no longer expect to see Beauty on a pedestal in heaven next to Moderation.

    • http://twitter.com/Patered Micah+

      Thanks for the good word Keith. I’m really wound up about this film for some reason, and am still struggling to articulate all that I really think.

      As movies go, it really has a lot to commend it. Much better than what I have seen of the stage version. But if I can tell the singing is bad, then it’s bad, which is just embarrassing. And in the end, it’s Hugo’s world, and we’re just living in it. Perhaps.

  • http://twitter.com/Patered Micah+

    Still arguing with myself about this…

    Is it significant the music so catchy/memorable? There’s something important about how much it’s been stuck in my head.

    Sed contra, non sequitur, imagine if John Woo told his actors take the meticulously choreographed fight scenes and just make them their own?