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.

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About Petsnakereggie

Geek, movie buff, dad, musician, comedian, atheist, liberal and writer. I also really like Taco flavored Doritos.

7 responses to “Les Miserables – One Fan’s View of Why the Movie Didn’t work”

  1. IdeasAreBulletproof says :

    I like the analysis. I love the movie, but I need to see it again where I’m less emotionally compromised. I’m pretty sure after Gavroche died, I lost any and all ability to make emotionally sound decisions about it. I do however agree on the point of the bishop and the ending. It was a powerful song but the power got a little lost when they did not join the others on the barricade.

  2. Caden says :

    I have seen every film version of Les Mis many times. I too wanted to love this movie, but I couldn’t. I liked parts of it… and only parts, because that’s all it seemed to be; a bunch of parts connected together with little to no transition while leaving gaping holes in the subject matter. I also hated the ending. That being said, there were moments that blew me away. The opening scene with Hugh Jackman hauling on those ropes was incredible! The logistics to film a live song in those conditions must have been quite difficult. I thought Ann Hathaway did a fine job too. Whoever hired Russell Crowe must’ve been on crack. I guess I was just hoping for more continuity and more substance, you know, like in the other movies. I really did enjoy most of the music, but the score alone cannot make up for whatever else was lacking. I hope to see the Ordway production when Les Mis comes to the Twin Cities.

  3. Roger says :

    What really bothered me the most was the way they reorganized the score in ways that were both unnecessary and, to my mind, detrimental

    Why move “I dreamed a dream” to after “Lovely Ladies”? It moves the song from one last dream of innocence before it is lost to a more self-pitying lament.

    Why switch “Do you hear the people sing” with “One day more”? It makes all of Marius’ lines illogical since they haven’t yet committed to the barricades.

    Why move “A little drop of rain” to before Marius’ message to Cosette has been delivered? It just meant they had to work in Gavroche to perform the same function.

    And I really missed having the ghosts in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.

    • Petsnakereggie says :

      Yep. I agree with you. I thought all of those choices were strange.

      I could have complained about all of it but I decided to focus on just one part of the film that really bugged me.

  4. Ralene Miller says :

    I am in complete agreement with you. I have seen the play multiple times, and every single time it has succeeded in sweeping me away with its power and its raw emotion. I own two different studio recordings on cd and two of the concerts on dvd (including the 10th anniversary dream cast which is my favorite). I’ve seen every movie adaptation that I could get my hands on and enjoyed different aspects of each. I desperately wanted to love this latest movie. I loved the idea of the live performances leaving more room for emotionally evocative performances, the acting choices were interesting, and because it was a film I knew it would allow for some things that you just can’t do on stage. There were bits of the film I did like in fact, but only bits. Overall I found it flat and lifeless in comparison to the play. The music didn’t surge through me like it does in the play, and the changes of the lyrics at key points were distracting and disheartening.

  5. Onefineham says :

    gahh I feel your pain… but I absolutely HATED all the epic close-ups. I didn’t think Crowe’s character was all that bad… but his singing?? mehhhh? I was pleased with Hugh Jackman – obviously not Broadway quality but at least he vocally didn’t totally bomb. Why they couldn’t get a real singer for Valjean? or Javert? Would it have been asking too much to have top-notch voices for a film adaptation of a Broadway musical? The PBS stage vocal version is more pleasing – almost visually as well and it doesn’t even have any of the dialogue.

    I suppose if I were to say anything was good – the opening number I liked, as well as the closing number. At least the director got that much right. Otherwise… meh. Won’t buy it on DVD and will live in the hope that someone else gives it a try and (hopefully) does a better job of it.

  6. Docindocs says :

    I had the same sentiment in wanting to love the film but only liking it. One the of the big moments that bugged me was changing it so the last students ran away from the barricade up into the houses. One of my favourite moments is Enjolras defiantly waving the flag from the top of the barricade and then the shot of all of them draped over the barricade. Firstly, making them out to be cowards and also leaving out that great shot, which is more effective than the huge barricade that was used in the end credits.
    As an atheist, I hated that Dog Eats Dog was completely cut. My favourite lyrics are:
    And God in His Heaven
    He don’t interfere
    ‘Cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet
    I raise my eyes to see the heavens
    And only the moon looks down
    The harvest moon shines down!

    Rusty has said he is a fan of musicals and wanted to be involved in the movie but I still feel there should have been a stricter audition process to find a better Javert.

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