Les Miserables: From Stage to Screen

les mis movieI have fond memories of sharing tissues with a girl from Denmark in a Broadway theater as we both cried over Eponine and Marius’ duet, A Little Fall of Rain. I did not know her name, we were complete strangers, but we had one thing in common. We both loved the musical, Les Miserables.

Les Miserables on Broadway

For those of you not familiar with the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, Les Miserables is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel. It tells the tale of Jean Valjean, who was sentenced to hard labor as a galley slave for stealing a loaf of bread. This story of redemption, revolution, justice, duty, and love was set to music in 1985 by  Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg. It has won eight  Tony Awards (Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Director, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Best Set Designer, and Best Lighting Design), toured around the world and performed in 21 languages.

Yet this beloved musical has never been made into a movie. Why? Well, first of all it is long. It was a miracle of science to transform Hugo’s 1300 page book into a 3 hour stage show. But a 3 hour movie?

Also, the show is all singing and the lead character, Jean Valjean is on stage in almost every scene. How could you possibly make a movie out of this show without making major changes and making enemies of the millions of Les Mis fans? Where could you find the right actors who can also sing?

Les Miserable The Movie

Les Miserables combines three of my favorite things (a good love story, musical theater and Hugh Jackman) all into one fantastic ball of wonderfulness.  The movie version of the Tony Award winning Broadway hit, opened on Christmas Day, with an all-star cast, including Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne.

Set in 1815 France, Les Miserables opens with an almost unrecognizable Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and a hundred other prisoners, pulling a massive ship in the driving rain. The song Look Down conveys the misery of their condition.

Tom Hooper, director of The King’s Speech has taken on the task. Needless to say, my anticipation was high. Like I say I have fond memories of seeing the show on Broadway, as well as four more times on stage and reading the unabridged version of Hugh’s novel. I have lost count of how many times I have listened to the soundtrack (Les Miserables Complete Symphonic Recording), so yeah…I know ALL the lyrics.

When I heard that they were making a movie of my beloved Les Mis, I was worried. I thought back to the fiasco of A Chorus Line movie (eek!),  the unfulfilled promise of Tim Burton’s Sweeney  Todd and countless other movie musicals where the director tired to expand the or otherwise ‘jazz up’ the stage version to fill up the big screen.

Fortunately, director Tom Hooper knew better. The changes he made to the lyrics and to the plot were often additions for the original novel and were quite minor. Also Boublil and Schoenberg wrote a the supplemental music and an additional song, called Suddenly. (Got to have something for that Original Song nomination.)

This is my review of Les Miserables. There are spoilers and lots of them.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean

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This is the part of a lifetime for Jackman. It not only calls upon his acting talents, taking him from a retched prisoner to a businessman, town mayor and to a loving father. But he also sings some of the most beautiful and most moving songs every sang on the broadway stage.

You know what a fan of Hugh’s I am. Wolverine, not withstanding, Hugh Jackman is a multi-talented performer and Les Miserables prove it. His performance of the touching What Have I Done,  gives you insight into the transformation of the harden convict to the man of redemption.

Hugh Jackman is almost unrecognizable as Jean Valjean, the convict sentenced to 19 years as a galley slave for stealing a loaf of bread. He goes from a convict with horrible teeth and a really bad haircut to a respectable businessman, and ages almost 20 years over the course of the movie.

Hugh carries most of the movie on his back, since Jean Valjean is on almost every scene and sings a good part of the score.

In songs like ” “Who Am I” and “Bring Him Home” Hugh proves that he is much move than a pretty face (and some amazing muscles).

Javert

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I am the law and the law is not mocked

In the opening scene, the convicts sing “Look Down” as Inspector Javert looks down on them both physically and morally.

A man with extremely strict moral code, Javert’s view of the law allows no room for repentance or redemption. Russell Crowe would not have been my first choice as the relentless Inspector Javert. His voice is not the strong baritone that I heard on my soundtrack, but he carried off the role very well by the strength of his acting.

One of my favorite songs in the show is Stars. Javert sings about his pursuit of justice and his adherence to a moral code that is unbreakable. The scene of  Crowe standing on the precipice of a Paris roof top, looking out into the city for the escaped convict, Valjean more than makes up for his lack of vocal ability.

Fantine

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I dream a dream in times gone by, when hope was high and life worth living

What makes the movie version different from the stage version is the emphasis on the actor’s emotions. Like I said, almost all  of the dialogue is sung.  Tom Hooper made the revolutionary decision to film the actors singing their roles live, instead of lip-synching to pre-recorded soundtracks.  And unlike every other movie musical in history where the actors prerecorded their songs and lipscyned to the songs on screen, Hooper had his actors perform their songs live on set, adding in the full orchestration in post production. The results are breathtaking.

In Fantine’s I Dreamed A Dream, Anne Hathaway sings about this young girl’s disappointed hopes and dreams with such emotion that I was not the only one in the audience who was brought to tears.

In fact, I think Anne should go a head and start shopping for her Oscar dress, because her performance as Fantine is sure to get her a nomination.

Cosette, Eponine and Marius: The Love Triangle

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A little fall of rain can hardly hurt me now...”

Set against the backdrop of social change, poverty and revolution, a love triangle develops.  The little girl on all of the Les Mis posters is Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. She grows into a lovely young woman, played by Amanda Seyfried. Her love duet with Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) is sweet and tender. You can even see a butterfly fluttering on the fence as they sing A Heart Full of Love, with poor street urchin, Eponine in the background, singing about her unrequited love for Marius.

Get your tissues ready when Eponine, played by Samantha Barks sings On My Own and A Little Fall of Rain. Samantha played the role of Éponine in the West End production of Les Misérables and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables at the O2 Arena in 2010.

Grab another tissue for Eddie Redmayne’s teary-eyed Empty Chairs and Empty Tables. I had no idea that he could sing, but he has a really good voice. I don’t generally like gingers (redheads), but he is kind of handsome. I will keep my eyes on his future films.

Comic Relief

Les-Miserables-thenardierLes Miserables has its share a tear-jerker moments. But there is a bit of levity in the form of Madame and Monsieur Thenardier, two of the most retched, dishonest and despicable people ever to grace the stage or screen. The worst inn-keepers in the France are played to perfection by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter.

This is one area where the movie excels over the stage version. The facial expressions and little nuances, especially from Sasha Baron Cohen make Thenardier more than just a characterization.

Other Supporting Parts

You will also take note of Aaron Tveit, who plays the leader of the student revolutionaries, Enjolras. You will want to sing along as he leads the revolt with Do You Hear the People Sing?

Young Daniel Huttlestone is at the same time mischievous and endearing as Gavroche.

Sets and Cinematography

Danny Cohen’s cinematography was stunning, aided by the authentic full-sized sets that were built just for the film.

The production team, including the costume designers, make-up artists and set designers paid such close attention to detail that you felt as though you are in 19th century Paris. With Hooper using the close-up lens so freely during several of the solo performances you could see every pore and all of their dental work.  I have to wonder how many sets of rotten convict teeth they made for this movie.

Even so, in certain scenes like Redmayne’s Empty Chairs and Empty Tables, it was quite effective as you see the tears swell in his eyes.

The Final Word: I loved it. In fact, I saw it three times. Was it perfect? Maybe not. For a die-hard Les Mis geek like me, it would be hard to make the perfect movie.

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About Clara Mathews

Clarabela (Clara Mathews) is freelance web content copywriter, professional blogger and Hugh Jackman fan. In addition to writing about her love of movies at JustChickFlicks.com, Clarabela is also a regular contributor to DignityZine.  Follow Just Chick Flicks on Facebook.