I'd like to spank the Academy

Les Misèrables (2012)

Les-miserables-movie-poster1Directed by Tom Hooper

This was one of the posts that I lost when I lost my flash drive. As much as I hate rewriting things that I’ve already written, I won’t have a hard time rewriting this one. I have a lot to say about Les Misèrables in general, the musical and this movie version of it in particular.

When I went to study in London about ten years ago, I wasn’t planning on seeing the stage version of Les Misèrables. The touring coming comes to my town often enough, and I wanted to see things I wouldn’t have the chance to see at home. But then I saw a poster of the cast, and the man playing Enjolras was really attractive (I might use the term “super hot” if I weren’t trying to be taken seriously), so I let my friends persuade me to go with them. I knew many people who had seen the musical and thought it was the best thing ever, and I had read an abridged version of the book before I saw the play and seen the movie version from the 1930s and knew that there was fantastic material to work with, so I was expecting really good things. I was really disappointed. I kind of wish I could find the scathing essay I wrote about it. I told my friends that I didn’t really like it, and that got spread around the entire group I had come with, kind of like in the claymation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when they find out that Herbie doesn’t like to make toys.  (“Melanie didn’t like Les Misèrables!”) I got a lot of weird looks after that from people in my study abroad group, but I didn’t care. I got that same kind of look when I told people I had no desire to see this movie because I didn’t much care for the musical, kind of a mix of shock and disgust. I was never planning on seeing this movie. Stupid best picture nomination. I wasted three hours of my life to see a subpar version of a subpar play.

So what’s the story? Convict Jean Valjean is released from prison. He steals some silver from a priest, who tells the police that he gave Jean Valjean the silver. The priest then tells Valjean that he has to turn his life around. Valjean does so, changing his name so that the stigma of having been a convict won’t follow him throughout his life. However, Javert, a policeman who worked at the prison, recognizes Jean Valjean for who he was, and Valjean must go on the run, taking the daughter of a factory worker with him.

The Good: Les Misèrables has some truly beautiful music. They may not be all completely memorable, and some are hard to tell from others (when I’m not actively listening to them, I always get “Bring Him Home” and “On My Own” mixed up), but they are beautiful nonetheless. I have never forgotten “Castle on a Cloud,” which I learned over twenty years ago in school, and “Stars,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” always give me goosebumps.

There was some decent acting. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both did fine jobs as Valjean and Javert, respectively. Crowe does especially well as Javert, who is perfectly convinced that the law is always right and simply cannot reconcile justice and mercy. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks both gave excellent performances as women torn apart by the way French society works. Aaron Tveit and Eddie Redmayne were very good as young revolutionaries Enjolras and Marius, and although I think they took up too much time in the movie, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were perfectly cast as the comic relief-bringing Thènardiers.

The costuming, production design, and makeup were all admirable. Early 19th century France was brought to life thanks to those elements. I always like seeing a historical movie that doesn’t only involve wealthy people. It always makes me happy to have people acknowledge that a)poor people existed, and b)that poor people had different hairstyles, homes, and clothes than wealthy people.

The Bad: I don’t whose idea it was to have the actors sing live instead of lip-synching and putting in the songs later, but it was a bad idea. This movie would have been so much easier to watch if there hadn’t been so many cringe-worthy notes. I think the only person who pulled off all her singing with no problems was Samantha Barks, who played Èponine.

I have never understood the ending. It makes no sense to me to have all the people who have died throughout the movie/Jean Valjean’s life would be together in one place singing about the same thing. All those various people weren’t fighting for the same future, exactly. Also, if Heaven is a barricade as the finale hints, I don’t really want to go to Heaven.

The Ugly: Amanda Seyfried should never have been cast in this movie. Her singing is terrible to the point of distraction. She does have the right look, but I’m sure there are other innocent-looking blondes who could have sung the part much, much better.

Most of the other reasons I didn’t like the movie have to do with the weaknesses of the musical itself. Way too much time is spent on the Thènardiers at the expense of other things from the novel that would have made things make more sense. I wish a bit more time had been spent on the bishop, for example; that felt kind of glossed over. I hated that Javert didn’t recognize Valjean because of his face, but because he was strong. I can understand that people change after twenty years, but I’m sure that Javert had met other strong men in prison before. There was nothing really special for Javert to recognize him. (In the novel, in case you’re wondering, Valjean acts like a human jack to get carts off of men. That’s not something you see often, and makes a lot more sense. Not sure why that was changed.) I was annoyed by Marius and Cosette’s literal love at first sight. They did nothing except see each other, and suddenly life wasn’t worth living without each other? There are other little bits and pieces like that throughout the movie that just add up to me being annoyed with the whole thing.

Okay, now I get to talk about how the book compares to the movie. Since seeing the musical ten years ago, I have read the unabridged version. It’s not perfect. Victor Hugo needed a friend to tell him that when your characters are racing through the sewers in a life-and-death situation, you don’t need to cut from the action to give an entire history of the sewers of Paris. But one amazing, amazing thing that Hugo did do was give everyone a history. The first fifty to one hundred pages are not about Jean Valjean at all, but about the bishop, who, we learn, has given up all of his privileges and only keeps enough of his salary to keep himself fed. The rest he gives to the poor. The only thing he kept was his silver, so when he not only allows Jean Valjean to keep the plate, but also gives him the candlesticks, it’s a huge deal. The students all have back stories, so we care a lot more when they die so uselessly. The Thènardiers are not funny at all. They show the corruption and evil that can happen in poorer classes. They are menacing and horrible. Also, they are the parents of Gavroche, which gets skipped over in the movie completely. There are more connections which make everything that happens much more meaningful. I realize that not everything from a 1500 page book can make it into a three-hour movie, but that’s why making  Les Misèrables into a musical was just a bad idea to begin with. My final advice? If you haven’t seen the movie already, skip it and read the unabridged book. If you have seen the movie already, read the unabridged book. You will be amazed at the depth of feeling.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actress in a supporting role (Anne Hathaway); best achievement in makeup and hairstyling; best achievement in sound mixing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actor in a leading role (Hugh Jackman); best achievement in costume design; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original song (“Suddenly”); best achievement in production design.

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