The Second Renaissance of Victor Hugo

Originally published in TIA Daily.

I may be a little late—I spend so much time following political news that I’m often a little behind the times on entertainment news—but I just recently saw the reports that a film version of the musical Les Misérables is in the works. To be sure, this is something has been talked about off and on since the late 1980s, but apparently the new version has signed major stars in the main roles and is scheduled to begin principal photography in March for release at the end of this year.

That news prompted me to think about the original stage musical, which debuted in London in 1985, on Broadway in 1987, and just about everywhere else soon thereafter. This musical had a big presence in my youth. I discovered it at the height of its success—I was in college when the touring production hit Chicago—and shortly after discovering the novels and ideas of Ayn Rand.

There is no coincidence there. I discovered Les Misérables, the musical and then the book, partly because of my interest in Ayn Rand, who was a great fan of Victor Hugo and regarded him as her biggest literary influence. The irony has often been noted that the most ardent contemporary admirers of a Christian socialist author are atheistic capitalists.

But while Ayn Rand and Victor Hugo disagreed on politics, she found wide agreement with him on the much broader issues of their philosophy of literature, their sense of life, and their estimate of the stature of man. She described Hugo as “the worshipper and the superlative portrayer of man’s greatness” and recommended that “If you are struggling to hold your vision of man above the gray ashes of our century, Hugo is the fuel you need.”

Well, if we needed what Hugo had to offer, boy did we ever get it.

Recall the vast scale of the Les Misérables phenomenon. It was a mega-hit in London and on Broadway and spawned touring productions around the world, in something like 50 different countries. (As I recall, this was dramatized in a concert version where the role of Jean Valjean was performed by a succession of actors from these productions, singing in a dozen different languages.) It heralded a new era of innovation in stagecraft, with its huge rotating stage and a set portraying the slums of Paris that transforms itself into the street barricades of the revolution. This is the only time I have ever seen an audience applaud wildly for a set change. It encouraged a mini-revival of 19th-century Romantic literature on the stage, most notably 1986’s The Phantom of the Opera, which I thought had slightly better music but a less profound story. (Phantom, I should note, has already made its way into a very good film adaptation.) And Les Mis, as it is simply called, is still going. It is the second-longest-running production in London’s West End, after Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap, and it was the second-longest in Broadway history when it closed there in 2003. It has since re-opened.

A few years back, when I was working on an overview of the 25th anniversary of TIA, I noticed that this was one of the big stories of our era that Objectivist writers had missed. This was not so big an omission for TIA, because the newsletter’s focus was more strictly political at the time, but it was symptomatic of a wider trend from that era. Articles and lectures by Objectivists tended to emphasize what was going wrong in the world because people had not embraced the Objectivist philosophy, but they tended to lose interest in any story that stopped being a disaster, such as inflation, crime, or Communism, and didn’t spend much time asking what went right. (If only someone would ask that question.) So they also missed the most positive literary and esthetic story of the past few decades.

All of this prompts me to offer my thoughts on the musical, though I have to admit that this makes for something of an odd article. You can consider this a belated review of a musical that debuted 27 years ago, or a premature review of a movie that hasn’t even started filming yet. But Ayn Rand was right. Victor Hugo’s view of man and of life is something we need, and that makes this is a very important cultural phenomenon.

I will take advantage of the vintage of the musical by not worrying too much about giving away spoilers, since the production has been out there in the world so prominently for so many years. If it’s new to you, please be warned and maybe put this article aside until you’ve checked out the musical. The film obviously is not out yet, but the soundtrack is readily available. I recommend the original London production, because it takes advantage of the fact that differences in social class—which are very relevant to the story—can be indicated by differences in accent, while such distinctions don’t really apply in an American context.

Ayn Rand said that the theme of Victor Hugo’s novel was the injustice of society toward its lower classes. I actually think she got this a bit wrong, or at least she got the emphasis wrong. That is the political theme, but the deeper metaphysical theme is that the least can become the greatest. This was the central action of the plot: how a fugitive felon, Jean Valjean, a man most utterly despised by the rest of the world, could become a moral giant. It is also reflected in many of the subplots, for example, how a woman (Fantine) can become a saint by becoming a whore. Fans of the musical will recognize this as the theme of Gavroche’s song, “Little People.”

I learned from Shoshana Milgram that this is what Hugo’s famous (or infamous) 60-page retelling of the battle of Waterloo is doing in the middle of the novel. The climax of that passage is “Cambronne’s word,” in which the last holdout of French resistance is asked to surrender and shouts his defiance with an earthy Gallic obscenity. In this context, Hugo concludes, the lowest of words can become the greatest. Thus, a long passage that is only tangentially connected to the novel’s plot is directly connected to its theme.

(The other explanation, of course, is that Hugo was a great historical essayist and just couldn’t help himself.)

Hugo expresses the theme of Les Misérables in a passage of narration from a chapter titled, “A Tempest in a Skull.” It is a passage that stuck with me, because it tells you everything you need to know about Hugo’s outlook and the goal of his writing. I am on the road right now and don’t have my favorite translation (which is also the best-known one), so I have had to rely on a combination of a more prosaic translation that I found online and my own memory. I have also slightly rearranged these sentences and cut out a few intervening sentences; Hugo needed this kind of editing. So this will lack something in strict accuracy but will express the essential idea, an approach Hugo would have approved of.

There is a sight greater than the sea, and that is the sky. There is a sight greater than the sky, and that is the interior of the human soul. There gods do battle as in Homer, there are dragons and hydras, as in Milton, visionary circles as in Dante. To write the poem of the human conscience, if only of one man, even the most insignificant man, would be to swallow up all epics in a superior and definitive epic.

Jean Valjean is the insignificant man, and Les Misérables is the superior and definitive epic.

But this is not the theme of the musical. While changes in plot and theme are usually a bad sign, in this case, it was the right decision to make.

In her introduction to a new edition of Hugo’s Ninety-Three, Ayn Rand said that the theme of that book, and of Victor Hugo’s work as a whole, was how great men are when they pursue values—not any particular values, since the main characters of that novel are all set against one another, but values as such. That is the theme dramatized in the musical.

It was a very appropriate change of theme. Hugo’s social commentary about the injustices of life in early 19th-century Paris are too remote and obsolete—they have been made obsolete, ironically, by capitalism—and they would not command the viewer’s attention today. So the composers of the musical wisely chose not to attempt to dramatize them. Instead, they focused on the real essence of Hugo’s world view. One thread ties together a disparate group of characters: a hunted ex-convict (Valjean), a young lover (Marius), an idealistic student revolutionary (Enjolras), a drunken cynic (Grantaire, a very minor character in the book who has a more prominent or at least memorable role in the musical), a love-struck street urchin (Eponine). All of them are pursuing very different values, but all of them are distinguished by the tortured loyalty they give to those values.

Even Valjean’s nemesis, the implacable Inspector Javert who hunts him through the streets of Paris, is part of this theme. One of the best songs in Les Misérables is Javert’s ode to “The Stars,” in which he reverently describes his dedication to earthly law and order, which mirrors (in his mind) the cosmic order of the universe. I actually think the musical does a better job than the novel of giving us a feel for what motivates Javert, and it makes his ultimate fate more understandable.

Javert is an antagonist, but not a villain. It is one of the hallmarks of Hugo’s works, and of Ayn Rand’s, that the biggest conflicts are always between heroes. It is a testament to their elevated view of man. We see this in the musical in one of the most arresting pieces, a kind of dueling duet where Valjean and Javert confront one another. The libretto has a good sense for the poetry of Hugo’s writing, and the duet memorably begins with Javert singing, “Valjean, at last, we see each other plain./Monsieur le Mayor, you’ll wear a different chain.” As the heavy, Javert is naturally singing the bass role, and on that last word, his voice menacingly disappears into the lower octaves. The song ends as Valjean promises the dying Fantine that he will care for her child, while Javert promises that he will hunt down Valjean. Both men end with the line, “I swear to you, I will be there.” They mean different things concretely, but in a broader sense, they mean the same thing. They will not betray their values.

There is one recurring character in the novel who is not elevated, a man totally devoid of moral values and thus irredeemable: the unscrupulous inn-keeper turned street criminal Thenardier. In the novel, he is not Valjean’s main antagonist but is more like a recurring nuisance. In the musical, they recognized this and made the brilliant decision to turn Thenardier into comic relief. He is introduced in the song “Master of the House,” in which he makes out as the perfect host at his inn, while he reveals how he bilks his guests, and Madame Thenardier punctures his pretensions in her own inimitable style.

(Some of this is done unnecessarily crudely, even more so the scene where Fantine is forced to turn to prostitution. Blame this on the fact that, while the musical debuted on the English stage, it was originally adapted from the novel by Frenchmen.)

One of Hugo’s greatest achievements as a writer was the construction of his plots, and in Les Misérables, he takes a large and varied cast of characters and draws them all together, unexpectedly, in one climactic event: a failed uprising in the streets of Paris in 1832. The musical understands this part of the novel, too, and uses it to full effect in the song “One Day More.” Starting with Valjean, each of the characters appears one by one to declare that “one day more” will determine their fate, until the entire cast is on stage, singing their hearts out about what the next day means to them—and then the curtain falls on the first act, leaving you breathless to discover what will happen in the second.

The end of the second act, the final song, shows how deeply its creators understood the theme of Hugo’s work. A line used earlier in a narrower context—referring to their political uprising, the students asked “Will you join in our crusade?”—is reprised, but now it refers to all of the characters. The “crusade,” at the end of the show, isn’t just the one value for which a particular group of characters were fighting. It is every character’s fight for his values. It is the struggle for values as such.

I have very frequently been disappointed by films that are adaptations of novels or of real-life events, because so often I discover that the original material or the real events were so much better, so much more interesting, so much more dramatic than the film version. There are a few very notable exceptions where the film is better than the source material, some times a lot better, but this is the general rule.

The reason is that many films are second-handed attempts to ride off of something with proven value. Hollywood is filled with guys in suits (and more than a few guys with pony tails) who are frightened of the risk of producing a flop, but who don’t have the first-hand judgment to figure out when a story is or isn’t any good. So they try to hedge their bets by glomming onto a proven property. Here’s a novel with a huge fan base, they say, or here’s a real-life event that people seem to be interested in, so let’s appropriate it and cash in on it. But they don’t grasp what was really interesting about the original story, so they don’t know what to keep or what to change, what to emphasize or de-emphasize, and they end up making a muddle of the whole thing.

Les Misérables was a great exception to that trend. Its creators demonstrated at every turn that they understood the characters, the themes, and the structure of the plot, and they added their own creative thinking to adapt Hugo’s story to a different medium.

The question is whether the movie will do the same. So far, the signs are looking good. They have the advantage of having a story that is already in theatrical form. The task of adapting a story from the stage to the screen is much smaller than the task of adapting it from the page, so there is a lot less that can go wrong. Moreover, the filmmakers have already indicated that they intend to stick very closely to the original musical.

I am also glad to see that the director is Tom Hooper, whose recent film The King’s Speech was quite good and showed that he is able to understand and portray characters motivated by moral values. As to the casting, Hollywood has to draw on a pool of actors who are known to be able to sing, which is not as universal a skill in the movie industry as it used to be. But the results so far look good. They have signed Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert. Jackman is both a good actor and a good singer (I saw a video of him as Curly in a London stage production of Oklahoma, where he was surprisingly good), and Crowe has the bass voice and menacing, bull-doggish demeanor required for Javert.

My only concern is that Jackman is a bit too slender. Valjean’s immense physical strength, built up through decades of heavy labor in prison, is an important plot point, and at one point Valjean is supposed to physically overpower Javert. Somehow, when I envision that scene, it strikes me that the burly Crowe looks like he could break Jackman in half. But both men are excellent actors, so I assume they will find a way to act as if the one is stronger than the other.

As for the minor roles, they seem have found experienced, even renowned Broadway veterans for the roles of Marius and Enjolras. I have no particular use for Sascha Baron Cohen and his puerile “Borat” shtick, but I have to admit that he will probably do quite well in the comic role of Thenardier. Helena Bonham Carter is slated for the role of Madame Thenardier. She’s the wrong physical type (the Thenardiesse, as Hugo calls her, is supposed to be a burly, brutish woman), but there is an unwritten rule that any production of this sort has to have Bonham-Carter in it somewhere.

There has been some controversy over rumors that Taylor Swift (a young and very successful country singer, for those who have managed to avoid hearing about her) will be cast as Eponine. I don’t see what the controversy is about. Swift has a strong, distinctive, and very expressive voice, and her stock in trade is angst-ridden ballads in which a teenage girl pines over the fact that some boy she’s in love with doesn’t even notice her. Which is to say that the role of Eponine might as well have been written for her.

So all of the signs are pointing to a new revival for the literary legacy of Victor Hugo.

In looking back at this history, I realized that it is part of the reason my outlook tends to be optimistic. Many Objectivists seem to have acquired the sense that we are alone in a hostile world, that the ideals Ayn Rand championed have found no answer in a barren culture. But in my youth, I learned a very opposite lesson. I came of age at a time when the Berlin Wall was falling and when precisely the things Ayn Rand admired about Victor Hugo—his larger-than-life characters and their heroic dedication to their values—were taking the world by storm. And they are going to have a chance to do so all over again.



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2 Responses to The Second Renaissance of Victor Hugo

  1. Michael R. Brown December 28, 2012 at 1:03 PM #

    In support of the idea of a Renaissance, a new movie of “The Man Who Laughs” was released on 26 December 2012 in Europe – Gerard Depardieu as Ursus. : )

  2. Phil Shaaw March 3, 2013 at 12:57 PM #

    The story of Les Mis is, however, rather deflated by the ending, where the revolution fails, and…and Marius and Cosette return to Marius’s super-wealthy father, and get married in a super-lavish wedding and party. This is then followed by the climax where Jean Valjean is on his deathbed, and everyone suddenly discovers what a wonderful man he has been, so they gaze at him with woshipful admiration. That death scene was then copied for “Cyrano”.