This post probably doesn’t need to be written. The world is already divided into people who like the musical of Les Misérables and people who don’t. I’ve already written a post about how I didn’t, and after seeing the movie version, I have not changed my mind. Though I have refreshed my memory.
Interestingly, my husband liked it. In one way, that’s good, because it would be kind of a shame to make someone hate-watch a movie with you when it’s two and a half hours long and you’re pretty sure they will like it less than you do. (Really, I did believe the reviews when they said Short Cuts was good, and even though I don’t really love Raymond Carver, we had both liked The Player and I had every reason to believe the movie would not be the pits. In fact, I think we both might actually have liked it if it weren’t for the bikers sitting next to us who wouldn’t shut up. In fact, I think I would watch Short Cuts again. Really.) And it’s a good thing he didn’t see the play, because if he had liked it, I don’t think we’d be married today. Plus, if he hadn’t liked it, he wouldn’t have been willing to watch a two and a half hour film of it with me now.
Les Misérables, the novel, is what, at least a thousand pages long? The standard way to adapt it for the screen, in the mid-twentieth century golden age of film, would have been to get rid of everything except one love interest and Javert’s pursuit (if only because you just can’t have Les Misérables without Javert). The musical doesn’t.
So the first problem with it is that there are way too many characters and way too many subplots. The first act (there should be three, split just before “Master of the House” and between “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing,” though I’m not sure there were) is a hot mess of emotional and musical whiplash. Fantine is out on the street before she’s even really introduced. Valjean is paroled in the first scene, recognizes Javert in the third, and is recognized by him in the fourth—at about twenty-one minutes. Fantine goes from initially selling her hair to the lowest point of degradation—followed a quick death from consumption—in maybe eight minutes, at most twelve. In most editions of the book, it takes close to 300 pages to get to this point. (Most novels published today have fewer than three hundred pages.)
And that last scene seems symptomatic of the problems with the adaptation. In a musical play, you can signal a character’s transition from one way of life, or one way of thinking, to another, through a song. You can even collapse a series of events into a single song, so that when Fantine goes initially to the docks in order to sell a locket, then sells her hair for the unrefusable sum of ten francs, then sells her teeth, then eventually her body, it isn’t entirely bizarre that this takes place all in the course of an uninterrupted, relatively brief sequence (and actually not one but two or three separate musical numbers). This kind of surreal number, where the plot is moved forward through the singing of the ensemble, rather than that of the central character, bears some resemblance to “Tevye’s Dream” or to “Hosanna” in Jesus Christ, Superstar (while neither of those covers quite as much explicit narrative movement as is done here). But you can’t have every single scene move forward in that way, and Les Misérables comes close to trying. And while this kind of scene bears a close resemblance to the standard montage, in a film, it’s kind of unusual to place this kind of montage sequence in the first half hour. And it’s not a montage. A montage might have worked better, but would have met the same complaints Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of Chicago did. The fact is that the film of Les Miz wants to have a show-stopping ensemble number here, something like Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” without moving the focus from Fantine to the other women. And that isn’t possible.
And so the second problem is that the show is simply the worst, most manipulative combination of unearned melodrama and kitsch, a mechanical juxtaposition of unrelated emotional responses. Victor Hugo’s ponderously slow and thoughtful novel is reduced to “sad man, sad lady, angry young men, dead children, marriage, Heaven.” Yes, it is in a way pure. The religious overtones, which are far from subliminal, could be viewed as heartfelt. In French, the lyrics might have approached the best kind of religious-romantic mélange, something like country music, instead of the kind of sloppy mixed-metaphor mongering we actually get. (Mixed metaphors are fun. I’ve written them myself. Shakespeare used a lot of them. But when a poet or lyricist is defending sloppy writing on the grounds that Shakespeare did it, that poet has to be told, “Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and you are not.”) While the translations disastrously match awful, awful writing (“He took my childhood in his stride”?!) with the most prominent, poignant musical episodes, the fact that every single woman’s solo is the same song, a lament about unrequited love with overtones of the divine, could be seen as a dramatic progression and not a fault (if it were possible to remember which character had which song, as you’re leaving the theater). Stories in which a man learns the way to God’s love are not inherently bad stories, even if this is told not shown, and there’s precious little else that happens. It’s easy to see why the story appeals.
But it just does not fit with the music (which I think, even more than I did, would be mostly fine in audio alone). And the film adaptation doesn’t help. Useless as the character of the boy Gavroche is (especially if your Cockney’s kind of rusty), he has some of the best, liveliest songs in the second act; and if they were inconsistent with the emotional tone of the scenes they’re in, they should have been cut entirely. Snipping them to a single stanza just makes the musical flow worse. The tight focus on the faces of the revolutionaries as they sing "Red and Black" only emphasizes that in most productions the narrative interplay of their individual voices can't be grasped. Jackman and Hathaway turn their biggest numbers into feats of acting that ruin them as song. Sacha Baron Cohen is hilarious but shouldn’t have been allowed to take over the story (and should he really be so handsome?) or his scenes with Valjean and Javert.
And the casting is off. Russell Crowe has the build for Valjean, who is supposed to be unbelievably strong for a man of forty or fifty, and Hugh Jackman has the correct build for the mean-spirited Javert. The Fugitive got this right, and Les Miz gets it wrong. I actually didn’t think Crowe’s singing was bad, especially in the first half of the movie. He’s got a fine actor’s voice, nothing special in musical terms, but able to put the lines across. But he doesn’t know who his character is. He’s just a short distance away from the hapless man of God he played, near the beginning of his career, in The Quick and the Dead. He can’t keep a twinkle of divine mercy out of his eyes, at the very moment he condemns his victims, as if the actor were smirking, incapable of comprehending that he’s a bad and unforgiving man, given that he’s certain God is on his side.