The Story Told Three Ways

The dramatic story of Les Misérables was brought to life by the well-known French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, who also created The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831. Les Mis originated in the format of a French historical novel in 1862. Since then, the story has transformed into what is known as the second longest-running Broadway musical in the world and has even made its way to the big screen.

Victor Hugo

Although I have never read the original text of Les Misérables, I have obviously seen the film (slightly over a dozen times). I know the runtime is around the three-hour mark; therefore, I can confidently say that the novel is most likely not a quick read. After doing a little research, I found my hypothesis proven to be true. To this day, Les Misérables is singled out to be one of the longest (and greatest) novels ever written. The novel is approximately 1900 pages in French (the English translation merely cuts off 400 pages) with a total of 48 books and 365 short chapters — usually lasting around a couple pages each. A novel that large must have been extremely hard to follow. However, the musical version is a tad easier to grasp ahold of. With music composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Les Misérables tells the impressionable story of an ex-convict who breaks his parole and ventures on a mission for rebirth of his miserable life after nineteen years enslaved in prison.

Jackman as Valjean on left and Wolverine on right

Moving forward, the drama filled movie-musical made its debut around the U.S. on Christmas Day 2012. Directed by Tom Hopper, the film is based off the story from the hit Broadway musical version of Les Misérables. The film includes the original outstanding musical pieces found in the Broadway production and one hell of a cast. In the opening scene, we are introduced to the main character, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). I almost didn’t recognize Jackman at first because the role of Jean Valjean is absolutely nothing like most other characters he embodies. Especially from his most famous role as Wolverine from the X-men series. The differences in Jackman’s appearance in Les Mis in contrast to X-men turns my brain to mush because I simply cannot comprehend how they’re played by the same person. It’s mind boggling to see him transition from such a large, husky character to a peasant made up of only skin and bones.

As mentioned before, Jean Valjean is an ex-convict, but for what crime one might ask? He stole a loaf of bread; which apparently was a huge deal back then because he did nineteen years for it! I recall sitting in the movie theatre on Christmas Day (opening day) with my family, and during a serious scene my brother leans over and says, “Is all of this over a loaf of bread?” I went from bawling my eyes out to laughing hysterically over his comment because it’s completely true! The just of the plot is that Valjean (also referred to as prisoner #24601) is released on parole but then breaks it. A couple of years go by and a police inspector, Javert (Russel Crowe), accidentally bumps into the new and improved Valjean and becomes obsessed with him and basically dedicates his life to putting him back behind bars. Let’s rewind for a second. After Valjean breaks parole (an extremely intense scene might I add), he cannot find work because he doesn’t have papers (aka he’s “on parole”). With nowhere to go and no work, one could infer that Valjean is regretting his decision. However, one night the Bishop of Digne (played by Colm Wilkinson, formerly known as the original Jean Valjean from the Broadway musical) offers him a place to stay. Valjean accepts the kind offer but returns the favor by stealing the Bishop’s silver. He is caught by the police and brought back to the church. The Bishop surprisingly tells the officers that he gifted Valjean the silver, therefore he has done no wrong and should be released (talk about luck). After the police leave, the Bishop adds two silver candlesticks to Valjean’s sack, blesses him, and expresses that the silver is to be used to make an honest man out of himself. From that day on Valjean is a completely different man. Fast forward eight years, Valjean makes his living as a factory owner in Montreuil. There, a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) gets thrown onto the streets because she asked for a raise because she has a child she needs to send money to. That shit does not fly back then. Next up, Javert (Russel Crowe) makes his appearance and recognizes Valjean after he lifts up a cart to save a man it had fallen on top of. The action reminded Javert of a time where he sent Valjean to retrieve a large flag pole that had fallen. However, a random peasant is falsely accused of being Valjean and leaves the real Valjean with the choice to stay silent and be damned to Hell or confess and be taken back to prison. He goes back to his time with the Bishop and decides he cannot let an innocent man go to jail for him. He reveals who he actually is and then lives his life on the run from Javert. During this time, he adopts Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (the older version played by Amanda Seyfried), from an innkeeper (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter). These guys bring a little humor to the film as they rip people off and steal their things. They have a daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks), who we see later become madly in love with a man named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Unfortunately, he falls in love with Cosette and it’s all just one big messy love triangle. Oh, did I mention that the French Revolution is also taking place? Eponine pretends to be a guy so that she can be with Marius and ends up getting shot and then they sing a real sad duet together in the rain. Javert continues to hunt Valjean while Valjean continues to run. A lot of people die and it’s just a lot to grasp ahold of, I can’t lie. All in all, the story is absolutely beautiful if you manage to get into it like I did.

Les Mis is nonetheless a work of art. It holds a distinct feature that singles it out from similar musical films. Hopper did something out of the ordinary with the film’s vocals that gives Les Mis a uniqueness unlike any other. Usually in movie-musicals, actors lip-sync to a soundtrack that was pre-recorded during the making of the film. That is not the case for the vocals heard in Les Mis. Each piece was intentionally recorded live. Pianists performed live accompaniments that were played through the actor’s earpiece on set. Hopper explains in an excerpt from The New York Times,

I just felt ultimately, it was a more natural way of doing it. You know, when actors do dialogue, they have freedom in time, they have freedom in pacing. They can stop for a moment, they can speed up. I simply wanted to give the actors the normal freedoms that they would have. If they need a bit for an emotion or a feeling to form in the eyes before they sing, I can take that time. If they cry, they can cry through a song. When you’re doing it to playback, to the millisecond you have to copy what you do. You have no freedom in the moment — and acting is the illusion of being free in the moment.”

Little Cosette

I couldn’t agree more with Hopper’s decision. The live vocals enhance the production of Les Mis in a way that can only be described as breathtaking. Each scene feels so vividly real to the point where your mind forgets that you’re watching a movie. You make connections with characters, begin to sympathize with them, feel what they’re feeling. Take Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” scene, for example. Hathaway takes on the role of Fantine, a young single mother who just needs to make money to provide for her child, Cosette, who is living with an innkeeper (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter). After getting fired from her job at a factory, Fantine sells her teeth and even her hair to be able some sort of money for her little girl, but it’s not enough. Sadly, she becomes so desperate for a form of income that she turns to prostitution. Fantine’s chilling “I Dreamed a Dream” scene takes place after a night with a customer. Once he’s had his way with her, he leaves and Fantine is left lying there lifeless. Her mind is overflowing with thoughts of happier times, frustrated with the confusion over how her life turned out this way, wondering where she went wrong and questioning what she could have done differently. I would have to argue that Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the most powerful scene in the entire film. It’s physically impossible to hold back the tears. The amount of emotion portrayed in this song could silence a room of stockbrokers. The effects of performing the song live allowed Hathaway to connect with each lyric and bring forth the emotions that Fantine would have been feeling during that time. The lyrics are extremely intense and vary between emotions, which Hathaway takes advantage of. The shifts in her vocal range help us determine the feelings present and make sense of the story being told. In addition, Hathaway delivers each lyric with a painful amount of emotion; so much that viewers can hear the legitimate pain in her voice, the anger, the confusion, the frustration. Then continuing on through her facial expressions and body language. Although we have to give credit to Hathaway’s phenomenal acting skills, the decision to record the vocals live was the final puzzle piece that fits everything together and takes the experience of Les Mis through the roof. Now, that example was merely a taste of this movie. The effects of the live recordings carry on throughout the entire three hours. You will giggle, feel anger, surprise, empathy, sympathy, and every emotion that’s in between. One moment you’re laughing until your stomach hurts and suddenly you’re eyes begin to feel red and puffy as you’re reaching for the tissues.