Les Miz diehards! Are you terrified Tom Hooper won’t “get it right”? Than watch this non-musical adaptation of the novel. It’s not exactly bad – the shots are pretty, the acting’s decent, and the plot shrewdly streamlined – but its flagrant simplifications are a disservice to the bleak original. After this, Hooper will seem like Scorsese.
What is it about Les Misérables that gets its fans into such a tizzy? Is it the melodramatic romance, the tragic revolution, the noble self-sacrifice? Whatever the magic combination the original and stage versions possess, though, is sadly missing here. From start to finish, director Billie August has erected a textbook example of how a Hollywood treatment can ruin a good thing.
At its heart, Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson), a Frenchman who was sentenced to nineteen years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. A kindly priest soon sets him on the path of righteousness, marred by the constant pursuit of Police Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush).
The original Victor Hugo book, weighing in at two thousand pages, features dozens of characters and a labyrinthine plot. Instead of preserving the original structure at the cost of some lesser details, this version sacrifices both plot elements and entire characters in order to savor the details.
On the surface, this decision would appear to benefit the main storyline. Valjean’s unexpected parenthood of Cosette (Claire Danes), daughter of the fallen woman Fantine (Uma Thurman), can have much more screen time when Cosette’s cruel caretakers, the Thénardiers, barely make an appearance, and their piteous daughter Éponine doesn’t exist.
But the screenplay does a poor job of managing its dearly bought time. Like any melodrama, the “umph” of the story is in the characters’ emotions: the love of Fantine for her child, the guilt of Valjean over his past. Yet instead of exploring the depth of their angst, the script becomes bogged down in tedious exposition. The characters spend so much time rehashing their exploits that there is barely a moment of silence in the first hour of the film. Whatever happened to “show, don’t tell”?
In addition to making the narrative painfully clear, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias has reduced--if not eliminated--the characters’ moral ambiguity. Javert is not a public servant blinded by his devotion to the law, but rather a villain who believes he is the law (played with predictable smarminess by Rush). Marius (Hans Matheson), Cosette’s beau, is not a starry-eyed student swept up in his friends’ revolutionary fervor, but the iconoclast leading the charge. The script even dwells on Valjean’s newly fabricated illiteracy to reinforce his simple saintliness.
Yet despite these purist protests, this is an entertaining movie. The recreation of 1830s Paris is nothing short of gorgeous, complete with intricate costumes, lavish set decoration, and elaborately produced scenes, including a state funeral procession with hundreds of extras. The talented cast does a satisfactory job of breathing life into their expurgated characters. And while it is a sad shadow of the novel, this version is probably more appealing to many people, as it is so much more straightforward and accessible.
In the end, though, it just doesn’t feel like Les Misérables. The original saga doesn’t sugarcoat the brutality of life – it magnifies it. Perhaps this unflinching outlook is what draws fans in: it’s refreshing to see a story that doesn’t hesitate to denounce the injustice of the world. By tying its story up in a bow, this version Les Misérables no longer champions the miserable. It just sympathizes with the moderately unhappy.
Clearly, the distributors are releasing this DVD now in order to get the jump on the many devotees of the musical who are counting the hours until the Tom Hooper production is released on Christmas. From one Les Miz junkie to another, let me tell you that no matter how badly you need your fix, this Blu-ray is not worth buying. Yes, it is nice to be able to see the exact amount of grime on Uma Thurman’s face, as the picture looks great. It's even fun to gawk at the subtitles in Arabic. But really, you can watch this for three dollars or less online, and there aren’t enough extra features here to justify the $20 purchase.
The lone special feature is the "A First Look at Les Misérables" featurette. Do not, I repeat, do not run out and buy this disc just to watch it. It covers much of the same ground as the multiple trailers and features already available online: i.e., behind-the-scenes clips coupled with enthusiastic cast interviews. The movie will be out in two weeks, people. Have a little self-restraint!