I promise this will be my last mention of “quality versus content”! This is not a book review.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, especially in its unabridged form, has to be one of the most tedious works of fiction ever written. It is weighed down by so much dead wood that it is astonishing that it ever became known, let alone becoming a Classic. I have read an abridged copy,though not as abridged as some editions, and I can honestly say that it was, in many respects, one of the hardest reads of my life! There were several times when I very nearly conceded defeat. Did I read it because it was a Classic? No. For a dare? No. I read it because I had fallen in love with the movie starring Frederic March as Jean Valjean and the hit musical, thanks to the video of the Dream Cast performance. In other words, I wanted to know more, and understand the story better. I can honestly say, for once, that I’m glad that I could only find it as an abridged edition!
Remarkably, given what the full book must be like, the story transcended the faults and several movies have been made of the story. Personally, I believe that the 1935 movie, with Frederic March, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Rochelle Hudson, John Beal, Marilyn Knowlden, Frances Drake and directed by Richard Boleslawski, is the finest of all, and sets the benchmark by which all others must be judged. If you haven’t seen this movie, I strongly recommend that you do so, if you can find it. I know that it’s available on DVD from Amazon UK, in a double pack which includes the 1952 movie as well.
In addition to the fascination of film makers with Les Misérables, there is the world famous, blockbuster hit of a stage musical, by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer, and produced by the inimitable Cameron Mackintosh. My meeting with this came about through an excerpt included in a variety show on television. That brief piece had me hooked and I was quick to get the video of the Dream Cast performance (October 1985, 10th Anniversary Concert). I watched the video to destruction! In the process, I managed to hook my family on it too, despite some early resistance from some. My daughter, Emma, became such an addict that she produced a tribute excerpt of the musical while with a local amateur stage group, for their annual variety show – the excerpt being a huge success. I may be a touch biased but Emma sings I Dreamed a Dream (Fantine) superbly. But I digress! The fact remains that an immensely tedious novel became an unforgettable musical with millions of fans around the world. Sadly, Emma’s wonderful section is the only stage performance I have seen, or will ever see.
Now, Les Misérables has again made it to the Silver Screen. At the end of 2012, the film version of the stage musical was released following a long period of anticipatory excitement amongst fans, and some trepidation. The movie stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway, directed by Tom Hooper, and again produced by Cameron Mackintosh. This production is, my honest opinion, magnificent! It is true to its stage origins in quality and content but enhances that with stunning sets and acting performances that are far beyond expectations. This film must surely join the stage show, the 1935 movie and the book as a Classic. If you haven’t seen the movie – I cannot recommend it to you highly enough.
The conclusion? Despite the indigestibility of the full original novel, the story lives on. Some brave person saw the fundamental worth of what is an epic tale with powerful characters, and elevated the perception of the novel’s worth for others. How this came about, I have no idea. I have personally had spectacular successes and dismal failures in books I have recommended to friends and family. The Classic status of Les Misérables is a spectacular success for somebody who saw beyond the weight of words. The story and the characters are immortal.
- Les Misérables (2012) (canadiancinephile.com)