Les Misèrables, the 1862 French novel by Victor Hugo, is perhaps best known in the United States for its 1980 adaptation by Schönbergas a sung-through musical. While the original musical continues its runs on Broadway and West End, adaptations of the enduring story in other formats and media continue to emerge. The 2012 film adaptation of the musical, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway, cast the musical further into the public light and reinvigorated interest in the messages of the original novel that had been published 150 years earlier.
While the contemporary audiences in each case – the English-speaking world in 2012 versus post-Revolutionary France in 1862 – are wildly different, the common characters, storylines, and themes in both versions have helped shape our conceptions of redemption, revolution, and the struggles of the working class and those facing poverty. The 2012 film, though it faced criticism for its slimmed-down description of the historical French political environment and its removal of secondary characters, still holds true to the original message and artistic intent established by Victor Hugo (Gossard).
The original Les Misèrables story was set during a time of great change and upheaval in the early 1800s in France. It was set against the backdrop of the Bourbon Restoration in France, beginning with the downfall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, including the 1830 July Revolution and overthrow of King Charles X, and concluding during the June Rebellion in 1832. Much of the book’s plot occurs in the two-year period following the July Revolution, as Hugo describes the events and feeling that fomented to trigger the June Rebellion. The reader gains an acute sense of the struggle of the working class in Paris following Charles X’s abdication in 1830 and during the recession under Louis-Philippe, Charles’s successor (“Revolutions of 1830”). Hugo uses events of the novel to cast this period of discontent and turmoil in the shadow of the Battle of Waterloo and the second defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Hugo’s characters are motivated and defined by economic and social turmoil in Paris following Napoleon’s defeat, and their individual struggles form a composite that helps the reader understand the broader political and social context of the era (“Napoleon I Emperor of France”).
Hugo realized at the time that his novel, only thirty years separated from its bloody and controversial subject matter, would be quite revolutionary for its target audience (Langness). He took pains to portray French history with accuracy and realism. While Hugo incorporates some dramatic elements into his characters, we still gain an accurate contemporary account of an unpleasant period in French history (Langness). His novel was a commercial success but was received poorly by critics, who derided him for his lack of sensitivity and his eagerness to dramatize the events of the revolutions and even his sympathy for the revolutionaries.
It is unfair to expect the 2012 movie, clocking at under three hours and describing events two centuries old, to achieve the same historical effect on its audience as a 1,500 page book describing events of the preceding three decades (Patterson). Yet where it lacks in detail and in explicit historical context, the film seems to succeed in identifying and imparting the same core messages that Hugo conveys with his novel. Viewers may not understand the specific historical triggers of the 1832 June Rebellion at the film’s emotional climax, but they can understand the sentiments of the characters and their obvious desire to overcome from their struggle (Gossard). Hugo never aimed to write a book purely on history; he aimed to use the history of his country and his city as a means to address universal themes like the suffering of working class under tyranny, the struggle of morality versus immorality, and pursuit of both love and redemption (Langness). Hugo was not unaware of his skills as an author, and he tried to present a story that would stand the test of time by addressing challenges that individuals continue to face around the world (Hugo 2).
Hugo’s character of choice to guide the audience along in this timeless story is Jean Valjean. The story opens as Valjean is released from prison in 1815, the same year as the Battle of Waterloo. He has been imprisoned since 1796 for the theft of a loaf of bread (Patterson). He ultimately encounters the Bishop of Digne, who urges him to abandon his criminal ways; Valjean later assumes an alternate identity as M. Madeleine, becoming a successful businessman and factory owner in the story’s second half. The audience also meets Fantine, who works at Valjean’s factory, and her young daughter, Cosette, who lives with the Thenardier family (Hugo). In these individual stories of these characters, Hugo wanted to emphasize and A-B-C structure in which a character’s origin (A) is fixed, but their journey through life (B) and their eventual destination (C) corresponds to an equivalent evolution of their souls (“Les Miserables”).
The movie did a great job of reflecting this change by lacing characters and events with even momentary appearances throughout the course of the story; the movie continually references itself to underscore the importance of these journeys to its audience. Fantine’s character, portrayed by Anne Hathaway, returns as a vision years after her death as Valjean is making his final prayer before his own death. After this, he and Fantine walk into the street and sing “Do You Hear the People Sing” once more. This text of “there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes” emphasizes that the struggle of the individual ultimately serves a higher purpose for guaranteeing the freedom of future generations.
Although Fantine’s character does not have much screen time in the movie, Hooper still establishes her struggle in trying to provide for Cosette. The scenes with Fantine’s hair being cut and tooth extracted are vivid. The song, “Lovely Ladies” underscores this sexual imagery and descriptions of prostitution with an insistent rhythm, making the viewer feel as uncomfortable and as violated as Fantine. Hooper’s use of intense and dark imagery that follows precedes Fantine’s song “I Dreamed a Dream.” Here, Fantine details the evil she has experienced and the innocence she feels is lost. Moreover, she says “life has killed the dream I dreamed,” foreshadowing her eventual fate before the end of the story. Here, the film chooses to focus on the turmoil that Fantine undergoes rather than her extensive backstory as described in the novel. Despite this departure from the source material, the viewer is reminded that her primary concern is her daughter Cosette as Jean Valjean arrives to take Fantine to the hospital. The depictions of the character’s struggle are different, but both methods achieve Hugo’s vision of conveying the importance of struggle and sacrifice for the betterment of future generations.
Hugo also strives to illustrate that anyone can undergo fundamental changes and that sometimes terrible circumstances are opportunities to grow in disguise. Napoleon’s fall overlaps with Jean Valjean’s release – Valjean must spend the rest of the story recovering from his own fall from the graces of society. Other characters like Fantine and Javert must also face questions of what is moral and even lawful, especially in desperate times. Marius faces a new beginning after his father’s death, transitioning from a Royalist to a Bonapartist and supporter of the former emperor. As Hugo describes, “a tremendous step had been taken. Where he had previously seen that fall of the monarchy, he now saw the advent of France. His orientation had changed. Where the sun had set, the sun now rose; west was now east. He had about-faced” (Hugo 572). Marius looks at the future of French government and a constitutional monarchy with a little more optimism, reasoning to himself that – as individuals can change – even the government might change and one day become a republic.
The original novel is commonly lauded as one of the greatest works of the nineteenth century. It is a massive work of both breadth and depth, and a film adaptation was, for decades, not considered feasible because of the scope of the work required to remain faithful to the plot (McCarthy). Yet the 2012 film adaptation shows that even a shortened adaptation of the novel, in a different medium and in an entirely contemporary environment, can impart a similar and emotionally charged response (McCarthy). The compelling nature of the Les Misèrables story – the relatable struggles and hopes of its characters – is what endures and serves to bind the modern adaptations with the original novel. The abridged modern adaptations of Les Misèrables are often presented in different artistic ways, but the strength of the story as Hugo originally crafted it provides a foundation for continuity that overshadows any differences. The story is what matters most.
Godechot, Jacques. “Napoleon I Emperor of France” Encyclopedia Britannica. 22 July 2016. Web. Accessed 15 December 2016.
“Revolutions of 1830” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2016. Web. Accessed 15 December 2016.
Gossard, Julia. “Les Miserables: A Historian’s Review” 40 Acres. The Alcalde. 16 January 2013. Web. Accessed 14 December 2016.
Langness, David. “Les Miserables at a Century and a Half” Paste Magazine. 18 December 2012. Web. Accessed 14 December 2016.
Patterson, Troy. “Why is Les Miserable So Long?” Slate. 18 December 2012. Web. Accessed 14 December 2016.
McCarthy, Todd. “Les Miserables: Film Review” The Hollywood Reporter. 6 December 2012. Web. Accessed 14 December 2016.
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Great Britain: Penguin, 2016. Print.
“Les Miserables” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 14 November 2016. Web. Accessed 14 December 2016.
Les Miserables. Dir. Tom Hooper. Universal Pictures. 2012. Film.