The “Les Misérables” Adaptation

Back in January, I wrote a long article (now up on the new site) about the news that a movie version of the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was about to begin filming. At the time, it was too early to offer anything but the vaguest speculation about how the film would turn out, so that article ended up being more of a retrospective on the meaning of the original novel and its musical adaptation.

If you want to know why I think this story is so important, both to me personally and to the culture, start there. See also my more recent observations on how Les Mis is the closest thing we will ever get to that elusive chimera, the “liberal Atlas Shrugged.”

At any rate, we now have a lot more to go on than just speculation about the film adaptation. In recent months, we got the first trailer for the film,

which has also been showing up as a TV ad.

And just a week or so back, the producers released an “extended look“—about four and a half minutes long, with behind-the-scenes interviews with members of the cast.

If you haven’t seen them already, take a few minutes to go watch those videos. I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, let me offer a few observations.

So far, the film does not look as good as I had hoped. It looks a whole lot better.

Two things impressed me about these excerpts. First, the “extended look” makes a big point about how all of the singing was recorded live by the performers on-set, as opposed to being pre-recorded in a studio and lip-synced for the cameras, as is usually done. As Eddie Redmayne (a stage actor who performs the role of Marius) explains, a pre-recorded score requires the performer to “make all of your acting decisions” months beforehand, rather than being able to react naturally to his co-stars and the action on the set.

But this is just subsidiary to the other thing that struck me from the videos: this is a true adaptation of the musical to a new medium, from stage to film.

The acting styles of stage and film are very different—opposite ends of the spectrum, in fact. On stage, you have to act “bigger.” Your gestures, your facial expressions, your voice—all of them have to be exaggerated enough to be seen and heard at the other end of the theater. So you’re acting for people who are 40 feet (or more) away. In film, by contrast, you have to act “smaller” —much smaller. The audience is not as close to you as they would be in real life. They’re much closer. During a close-up, your face is going to be 15 feet high on the big screen. So the barest, subtlest of gestures—something that would be utterly lost in a stage performance—can be powerfully expressive on film.

In this version, it looks like the performances are going to take full advantage of this subtlety, and that carries over into the singing. Some observers have been struck by the “fragility” of Anne Hathaway’s voice in “I Dreamed a Dream,” which features prominently in the trailer. I noticed the same thing, and it’s fragile in a good way—a way that is appropriate for her character at that point in the story. But it is not the way you would sing on stage, where you have belt out a tune for the folks in the cheap seats. It is the way you would sing for a film audience, which can hear the barest whisper. I got a similar impression from Hugh Jackman’s description of how he is performing his singing role.

Compare this to the 2004 film version of The Phantom of the Opera. It was quite good, but it was basically just a filmed version of the stage performance. There was little difference in the costumes, the staging, the singing, or the acting, so there was nothing new that I got out of the story by seeing it in a new medium.

By contrast, this film clearly intends to take full advantage of the subtlety and range of film acting. From what I can tell so far, this looks like it will bring us performances that are richer, more subtle, more intimate, and more emotionally powerful. Which, for the audience, hardly seems fair. We just don’t stand a chance.

When I wrote about the film in January, my main hope was that “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.”

You can see what I mean when I say that this film looks like it’s going to be better than I expected. It looks like they haven’t just taken the stage version and filmed it. They have fully adapted it. It looks like I will be able to say about the film what I said about the musical: “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 film is scheduled to hit theaters on Christmas, so we’ll know for sure in a few months. In the meantime, enjoy the tantalizing samples we’ve recently been offered.

 

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