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The Wretched Truth: Les Misérables

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In 1862, French novelist Victor Hugo produced what many believe to be the greatest novel of the nineteenth century, Les Misérables. Its title translating into The Wretched, The Miserable, or The Victims, the novel tells the story of France in its wretched and miserable days beginning in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. The novel follows the lives and interactions of several characters, focusing on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption. With a story of the perseverance and changing powers of love, it was a quick hit in the hearts of the torn French people. The practical application of the morals in the story and the struggles that had just plagued Europe set the back drop for the musical adaptation of the novel in 1980 in Paris. Never really dying out, the Hollywood big shots jumped on the opportunity to make money off of this chilling tale of love and hardship. In 2012 they came out with their film adaptation of the much beloved musical but, with all the modern theatrical techniques, did it really stand up to expectations?

Art is a form of a communication, persuasion, and, essentially, manipulation. Novels are stories that are formulated to give a message believed by their scribers to be necessary to positive development in their current cultural environment. Hugo, surrounded by a cultural environment riddled with the unfortunate circumstances of 1862 French oppression, he longed to help the people discover that the oppression that surrounded them was the opposite of that which he had come to see as essential to the development of a prosperous society. Toward the end of the novel, Hugo explains the work's overarching structure as “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God.” Hugo believed in the power, importance, and necessity of love and compassion. Hugo’s clear illustration of the mystical influence of love and compassion is carried from novel to stage and recently to screen, yet the sharp blade that carried the power behind the message is dulled, chipped, and cracked. One cannot expect perfection, as a recreation cannot present an original declaration with the same conviction and emotion it was first transcribed in, yet one should expect to find traces of the determination to try.

A major flaw in the creation of the performance interpretation of the novel is the inconsistency in the order of events. In the novel there is a strict order of events that shows the change that love and compassion has on the characters in this torn and tattered french environment. This inconsistency in event order distracts from the desperate nature of the backdrop of the events in the story. The film presents the scene at the hospital, after Valjean has saved Fantine from arrest, in a romantic light when Valjean, still acting on the morals instilled in him by the Bishop, is moved to right his wrong by vowing to bring the dying Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, up in the light, and, over joyed by this promise, the ailing woman gently embraces the hands of death. The touching moment last but a second before the over-bearing Javert bursts in and confronts Valjean, they struggle and, after knocking out Javert, Valjean flees in search of Cosette. In contrast, Hugo, playing into the message of desperate and hopeless times, writes a confrontation into the hospital room between Valjean and his oppressor, Javert, that results in the revealing of Valjean’s true identity, and, falling back in shock, the woman parishes. Valjean goes to Fantine, speaks to her in an inaudible whisper, kisses her hand, and then leaves with Javert. This change causes a loss in the hopelessness of Valjean, and makes it impossible for the script to create the situations that follow in the novel.

Unable to now illustrate the recapturing of Valjean, the script skips to the finding of Cosette, and inaccurately tells of the struggle to gain custody at the inn. In the film, the frantic scene changing makes it difficult to understand a scene that is essentially to Hugo’s theme concerning importance of love and compassion. As Valjean and Cosette flee in the novel, they run into Fauchelevent, the man whom Valjean once rescued from being crushed under a cart and who has become the convent's gardener. Remembering the compassion that Valjean showed him in saving him when he was sure of his death as the cart slowly crushed him, he provides them shelter and schooling for Cosette. The frantic nature of the film makes it nearly impossible for the audience to recognize Fauchelevent as the convent’s gardener. There is no clear recognition of Valjean as his savior, causing the message that Hugo spent many hours formulating to be lost.

From the inconsistencies in plot construction to the in ability to accurately provide the character connections, the stage and film productions of Les Misérables lose the intensity behind the message Hugo so desperately longed to convey. The expectations of the film were higher than the bar it reached. The inability to clearly and accurately convey the theme of the novel, robs the creators of their right to boldly announce “based on the novel.” With all the modern theatrical techniques, did it really stand up to expectations? The answer is no.



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