Les Miserables: The Long Masterpiece
“We can only suppose that its new life as a musical – and what an appropriate fate for that most operatic novelist – will help to bring Les Miserables to the attention of a new generation of readers, reminding them perhaps that the abuses Hugo catalogues are still alive elsewhere, awaiting their own chroniclers in the brave new world of the twenty first century.” – Peter Washington, Introduction
There are few novels which one can consider true masterpieces and among the greatest pieces of writing ever written. These include The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Complete Sherlock Holmes and Complete Stories and Poems. However, there are some momentous epics such as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Les Miserables, which despite their length are well worth the investment. So why should you consider making Les Miserables your next novel investment?
What is Les Miserables?
Les Miserables, as a novel, is far grander than its worthy adaptations (of which the 1998 film with Liam Neeson and the stageplay are the finer works). It is not the simple tale of Jean Valjean escaping from Inspector Javert. Les Miserables is so much more. The novel is a love story. It is the love story of France as well as a romance between men and women. Les Miserables is a tragedy, a catalogue of the miserable citizens of historic France. Victor Hugo’s work is also a historical chronicle, a mapping out of the cultural landscape of one image of time. However, above all it is a literary masterpiece.
Victor Hugo may have his failings in this novel. At times he falls into pompous verbosity, rambling on about subjects which appear to lack relevance to the story. However, what he has achieved in this novel is nothing short of remarkable. This is literature at its finest, a book recording the suffering and beauty of humanity and reflecting upon it in language which is both complex and simple despite translation. Speaking of translation, this version by Charles E. Wilbour appears quite excellent (if old fashioned). And therefore anyone interested in reading this work is encouraged to get a true unabridged version. Reading the abridged versions will only ruin the charm of the story and perhaps your understanding of the story itself.
There are many themes throughout Les Miserables. Most people who know anything of the story will know that at its simplest Les Miserables is a tale about the convict Jean Valjean. Valjean is one of the great characters of literature. A character so fleshed out for the reader as to be almost real. It is also the tale about how Javert, inspector of police, hounds him across different times and locations to bring Valjean to legal justice. In many ways Les Miserables is a story therefore about the cycle of history and how the past rises up to chase the future. However it is also one of the greatest stories of grace versus the law.
By grace versus law, this is the idea of a man being given a second chance, contrasted with the legalistic view that a man must pay for his crime regardless of his changed moral circumstance. Legalism would have every reformed good man destroyed, and this is what I think Les Miserables portrays so very nicely. Jean Valjean seizes the chance for redemption, however Javert refuses to believe that any man sentenced as a convict could possibly become heroic. It is this refusal to believe that drives the conflict of Les Miserables and leads to grace versus law becoming one of the major themes.
Tom Hooper’s Film
Tom Hooper’s adaptation of this book, or rather the musical adaptation to the screen, is controversial. It is emotionally moving, brilliant production, excellent makeup, great sets and camera sequences. There is room to argue that criticisms of Russell Crowe as Javert are a touch unfair. Particularly given those critics were drawing comparisons to the stage musical.
The soundtrack here is a particularly powerful piece of music. And although seeing the musical on stage is more impactful for a variety of reasons, the film score powers Tom Hooper’s work.
The magic of the musical adaptations are how they point out aspects of the novel’s narrative in new ways. They highlight how the book is about the idea of religion, law and grace. The film in particular also reveals further depth to how Hugo created a story all about the outcasts of society, all those individuals trodden upon by law and the upper echelons. The harsh conditions of the state lead individuals to commit crimes within the novel. The suggestion therefore is that anyone in a position of power has a moral responsibility to help the disadvantaged.
The Stage Musical
The stage musical is moving, visually astonishing and better than most other musicals before and after it. The musical is a magnificent epic, where one event flows into another. Each event leading to its final tragic conclusions. There is a sense that hope can be renewed in bright young love. A love free of the destructive corruption of the past.
Each musical theme flows into another, mimicking the novel’s themes. A heroic lament, for example, is first used for a heroic moment. Later, the same theme is used for one of the villains. This clever twist highlighting through music, the spirit of heroism and villainy contained in the novel.
If you enjoy the story of Les Miserables as a novel and have invested in the momentous task of reading this work, then the stage and film adaptations are must-see viewing. They are grand pieces of art, which capture the spirit of the novel’s narrative into wonderful viewing experiences.