At the end of my review of the original novel, I smugly scoffed at and happily dismissed this year’s film adaptation of Les Mis, without actually having seen it. I now have, and I think it’s only fair to recant (to a certain extent). I have also watched the 1998 straight adaptation of the novel starring Liam Neeson, which I thought would be more up my street. Funnily enough, I preferred the musical.
My main concerns with the musical were what from the 600,000-word novel it would leave out of its two and a half hour running time, and just how miscast it could manage to be, even if it didn’t feature Sofia Coppola. Yes, Jean Valjean is too young and Madame Thenardier is too thin, but apart from that, the only castmember that doesn’t rise to the occasion is Amanda Seyfried, playing Cosette. And that was mainly down to the fact that she has a shrill singing voice, like a goat being gelded.
Hugh Jackman has exactly the right presence for Jean Valjean, though his savagery in the early part of the film can be as much credited to the make-up artist as the script. Russell Crowe might not be the strongest singer in the piece (though he’s better than the gelded goat), but his Inspector Javert is preternaturally angry and self-important. Even Eddie Redmayne manages not to disappear behind his lips for once, and captures the romantic and idealistic side of Marius perfectly.
All in all, the musical is faithful to the novel, in spirit if not always in terms of what makes it from page to stage (or screen, in this case). Fantine is dispensed with in barely half an hour, but that’s enough time for Anne Hathaway to earn her Oscar. Pretty much the entire middle third of the novel has gone, so that Marius and Cosette meet only a few minutes before the revolution. This is the Hollywood idea of instant, magical love. But to be fair, Victor Hugo didn’t do much better – he had Marius and Cosette just looking at each other from afar for over 100,000 words, whilst he got distracted with rants about monastic life and describing the Battle of Waterloo. And the musical makes the final revelation of who saves Marius a lot less convoluted than Hugo managed to do, it must be said.
The 1998 straight adaptation fails on so many levels. It is a largely monotonous, po faced film written by someone who clearly didn’t read the novel until they were hired to adapt it. It veers from slavishly following every story beat in the novel (the first third of the novel comprises almost half the running time of the film) to audaciously rewriting key scenes for no discernible reason whatsoever. The result is uneven and top heavy, rushing the revolution whilst plodding through Jean Valjean’s years since leaving prison but before meeting Fantine. The Thenardiers, so important to both the novel and the musical, are basically reduced to a single-scene cameo.
The only castmember who hasn’t been miscast is Geoffrey Rush, who makes a splendid Javert. He is officious and vindictive, a different interpretation to Russell Crowe’s, but probably closer to how I imagined the character. Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean like Qui Gon Schindler, rushing around to save the world’s wounded with a grave look on his face, and cursed with some truly appalling dialogue that would have made Victor Hugo’s teeth fall out. Marius and Cosette (here played by Claire Danes) are reduced to whiny spoilt brats. And whilst Uma Thurman can’t be blamed for staying in the film too long, she can be blamed for a one-note performance that goes from lethargic to weary and back again.
My biggest problem was with how the scene where Jean Valjean and Javert confront each other for the final time was rewritten. Pretty much everything the novel has to say culminates in that scene, but here it is completely changed to make it more theatrically dramatic. But the result is quite the opposite. As such it typifies everything that is wrong with the adaptation. It is a superficial film made by people with only a superficial understanding of the novel. Even though it doesn’t have any songs, it’s still more of a pantomime than the musical.