Les Miserables – One Fan’s View of Why the Movie Didn’t work
I’ve seen “Les Miserables” on stage at least a dozen times. I have, I think, four different versions of the show on CD, including the original French cast recording.
I think it is important to understand that up front because I’m intimately familiar with the show. That kind of deep knowledge of the source material can be a detriment when approaching a new adaptation.
I’ve seen the film Les Miserables twice now. Once I saw it in a friend’s living room and now I’ve seen it on the big screen. The big screen improved the film quite a bit but I still came away frustrated. I badly want to love the movie but I don’t. I love some moments from the movie. I love some performances from the movie. Too much of the movie, however, held me at arm’s length.
Rather than picking at each issue like a scab (yes- Russell Crowe completely failed to give Javert any kind of edge), I’ll focus on one part of the film, it’s difference with the play, and why that change was senseless and foolish.
Of course, the part I’m going to focus on is the very end of the film so it is only fair for me to say there will be spoilers about both the film and the play. You have been warned.
When Valjean dies in the play, the two spirits who sing to him are Fantine and Eponine. In the film, it is only Fantine. I know this sounds like a little thing but the dramatic impact is huge.
Valjean dies in the presence of Cosette and Marius. Both of them are alive because of Valejean’s intervention in their lives. The characters in the play who most cared for Marius and Cosette (aside from Valjean himself) are Eponine and Fantine.
When Fantine and Eponine sing a duet to Valjean, they are, in effect, thanking him for saving the lives of their loved ones. By removing Eponine from the equation, the impact is blunted. Especially when you get to the line “to love another person is to see the face of god.”
In the play, Eponine sings that to Marius, Fantine sings that to Cosette and Valjean sings that to both of them. The ending of Eponine’s story is sacrificed and she is replaced by the Bishop who saved Valjean in the beginning of the film.
And then. Grrrrrrrr!
Valjean dies. Even in the film, I found myself tearing up at Valjean’s death. Happens to me every time I see the play.
Yeah, I’m a pansy.
Then the reprise of “Do you Hear the People Sing” starts. Quietly at first but slowing building to a rousing crescendo that practically demands the audience give the show a standing ovation. I fucking hate standing ovations because Minnesota audiences give them to everything. They stood for “Chess” and that show was horrible. They also stood for “Sunset Boulevard*,” which was worse.
Not that I have strong opinions about anything. I’m right about this though, “Sunset Boulevard” is a terrible show. Nobody should ever give that show a standing ovation.
I may find standing ovations annoying but I sure as heck stand up at the end of Les Miserables. The music practically forces you out of your seat.
What makes that moment work is the focus on the music rather than elaborate staging. Now I know a movie is not a stage play and you have to make changes.
However, for a film that had been surprisingly intimate to that point, the decision was to go to an enormous crowd shot on a gigantic barricade and the emotional result was a scene that lacked any emotional resonance. First of all, Valjean and Fantine aren’t on the barricade with the other characters who have died. They are looking at it. It sets them apart from everyone else.
The approach completely killed the song for me. It was too busy. It was filled with flag waving and thousands of people who I’d never met and a barricade that never once appeared in the film until that moment. I didn’t want to stand up. I wanted to say “what the fuck did that have to do with the rest of the film?”
It didn’t feel genuine. It didn’t fit with the rest of the film.
And it’s a shame because every other issue I had with the film would have melted away if that finale had been nailed.
I still like the film. But I so desperately wanted to love it.
I’ll tell you what, though. Next time the show comes through town, I’m going to see it. Guaranteed.
And I’ll probably give it a standing ovation just because it isn’t “Sunset Boulevard.”
*For the record: my mom gave me tickets to that show and I’m really grateful she did. I don’t regret seeing “Sunset Boulevard” at all. I just wish it was a better show.