Les Miserables: A Very Short Review

By Brenda Clough

LesMizMusical theater purists are divided on the subject of Les Miserables.  I am a more simple soul.  I adore the musical in all its incarnations.  Yes, it’s sentimental.  Everybody dies, dramatically, on stage while singing their heart out.  And can it be that in the 1800s France had only 100 inhabitants or so, the way the characters keep on running into each other?  Nevertheless I enjoy staged productions thoroughly, and am delighted with the movie version, just out.

All these flaws have carried over from the stage production into the movie.  But luckily all its strengths have come through as well.  An emotional score, a snappy narrative that prunes out all the longeurs of the original novel, and a classic theme of redemption and salvation make this one sure fire.  The movie also adds much grand scenery and sweeping vistas that could never be staged. (Somebody who knows about boats tell me, if what they were doing with that ship at the beginning of the film is even possible of achievement!)

But the most enduring appeal of the work is the theme.  The idea that we can change –that we can become better than we are by an ongoing act of will — will never lose its appeal.  The struggles of Jean Valjean, balanced between rigid moralism (represented by Javert) and lax criminality (embodied by the Thenardiers) is genuinely inspiring.  If you don’t mist up at that final death scene you have a heart of stone.  The movie is also heavy on the miseries of the poor of France, again something that could not easily be shown on stage. Crowds of ragged and grubby peasantry, packed into urban slums — very in tune with the zeitgeist, this attention to the unhappiness of the 47%,and it is to be hoped that ‘the leaders of the land’ can feell that pulse.

In short, if you enjoy the theater production you don’t want to miss this movie.

My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Café.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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Les Miserables: A Very Short Review — 7 Comments

  1. The longeurs of the novel are what made an otherwise somewhat lugubrious story great, for me. What you call longeurs were to me fascinating essays on such subjects as the culture and private language of nuns all locked up together, thieves’ cant, and that mysterious ‘thing’ with all the rats our young hero lived in, I am reasonably sure was the great ‘elephant’ Robespierre had had constructed for the big Supreme Being celebration that flopped. Those floats were left to rot all through the violent changes of the Revolution, Napoleon, and the swingback to conservatism. Then there was the fascinating disquistion on the history of the sewers. Great stuff.

    But the film sounds terrific, too. Just a different angle on the story.

  2. OMG! Is that what the elephant was? It is prominently visible in the movie. the lair/clubhouse of young Gavroche. Another bit that moved from book to film without making an appearance on stage! You must see the movie and let me know what other bits there are like this; there must be many. (I think the tooth extraction of the unlucky Fantine was one.)
    I read the book some years ago, skipping all the more turgid bits, and don’t remember much. At the time it struck me as an uphill work for the modern reader — Dickens might be more accessible. Did you see over on Slate, where they handed a staffer a fat paperback edition of LES MIS and got her to read it and blog about the experience, before the movie came out?

    • No–I seldom get outside of my current wodge of reading list stuff–but I’m not surprised. I first read a cut down version of Les Mis in high school, then again on a train trip some years later, uncut, and I was utterly enchanted. But I do think that a modern reader needs context, and/or a fairly hefty interest in history. You’re right, Dickens, with his broad strokes and caricature characters, is a whole lot more accessible.

  3. Perhaps I shall have to see the movie. I gave up on Les Mis and 11th grade French half way through the year. Too many literary verb tenses, no explanations from the teacher(?), and it may well have been unabridged, too. An inch and a half thick, and fine print, too. No fond memories there.
    But I do have #9, Classics Illustrated, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, in its original printing, I’m pretty sure. On the back, they advertise a selection of five issues for $0.69 postpaid in the US, $0.75 elsewhere, plus 10 cents postage.
    I probably could read that in an hour. 😀

  4. I am reliably informed by those who can read the original French that the Signet translation is not very good — considerably shorter than others. The most recent translation, by Julie Rose, is supposed to be the most accurate to date. There were also a number of issues when the libretto moved from its original French to English; for marketing reasons the English lyricist ramped up the romance and angst, dialing down the political issues and poverty.