Ok, so I felt sick last night, a cold that made a last ditch effort after I over exerted myself digging out dead shrubs in the yard. (yes it was foolish). And lying in bed with a fever of 102 I scanned the tube for something to watch. Behold, the 2012 movie version of Les Miz, something I had not seen. Nor had I seen the theatrical version , but many of the songs were familiar to me. People said it was a good movie, and though I had not seen the show I had read the book. Good choice.
Bad choice. For those who don’t know “Les Miserables” is one of the longest books in the world -1500 pages in English and 1900 in French (those French!). Upton Sinclair called it "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world." It is similar in size as well as date to “War and Peace.” Having read both, and eager to recommend them both, I can now conclude that the stage and screen version of “Les Miserables” is a failure. Here is why.
Victor Hugo wrote it to describe in detail and consequence, “the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night,” displayed not simply by individual characters but by fictional case studies. He demonstrates how they interact and interlock – one creating the other, and all sustained by an imperious government bent on preserving order at all costs. Valjean’s story cuts across them all, but Fantine and Thenardier and Marius and all the rest have their own stories as well, complete stories that describe in immense detail how society drives them to choices between bad and worse. It is an immense novel because he is trying to take it all in. Very much as Tolstoy was trying to render all of Russia in “War and Peace.”
The show and movie tell one story, though. Because of that we meet Fantine but do not learn her full story. We deal with Thenardier but never see his complex connection to Marius. Gavroche is a major character in the second half of the book, long before the uprising. While the cat-and-mouse of Valjean and Javert propel the plot, the plot is not the point. And that is all the show can do.
Mind. I do not mean that the show is bad in itself; it simply fails as a presentation OF the book. By reducing it, of necessity of course, to a single plot, the philosophical basis for the book, its raison d’etre, is lost. For those who never read the book it comes down to a relentlessly miserable and maudlin tale that makes the whole thing into a melodrama, which is precisely not what the book presents. Those elements are there in the book, but the purpose of the book always comes through because of its complexity and length, and thus redeems the sentimentalism from mawkishness. The show and movie cannot because those media are not ‘big’ enough to contain a book.
There are some theatrical versions of books that do work. Bernstein Hellman’s Candide is excellent, but that book is simpler and obviously shorter. And it was never a big hit. Few theatrical musicals come from books actually. Of the most popular, the “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Wiz” and “Tobacco Road” have their direct origins in books. So maybe I should not be surprised.
The huge success of “Les Miz” is actually unusual for a musical based on a novel. Perhaps if I had not read the book first I would have like it more. That said, I do hope some who enjoyed the show went on the read the book and discovered there was an even richer experience there than in the theater.