Romanticism and Realism

Top Stories of 2012: #5

This is the time I traditionally offer my overview of the top five stories of the year as covered in my newsletter. I can’t say “as covered in TIA Daily” or “as covered in The Tracinski Letter,” because the first half of the year was covered in one, the second in the other. But it’s all really the same newsletter, just under a new name.

This year, I’m going to cover the top stories in a slightly different manner. Two of the top stories will be covered in separate articles, then I’ll count down the top three in one final edition before the new year begins. As usual, I make these overviews available to non-subscribers so readers can get a sense for the kind of coverage of politics and the culture they will get regularly if they subscribe. Speaking of which, here’s a little reminder of our Holiday Sale, which ends soon.

I’ll begin with the fifth biggest story of the year, which is not about politics but about culture. It is what I called “The Second Renaissance of Victor Hugo,” by way of the just-released film version of the musical based on Hugo’s novel Les Misérables.

Yes, I have a review of the film at the end of this article, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, please don’t skip forward to my review. Just go see the movie, which is very good and highly recommended. My review will get into some detail about the performances and the filmmaking style, not to mention plenty of plot spoilers for the uninitiated, so you’re better off not having my comments color your experience. Watch it first, analyze it later.

Why is this film such a big story? As I pointed out in the January 18 edition of TIA Daily, “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…. 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…. 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….

In looking back at this history, I realized that it is part of the reason my outlook tends to be optimistic…. 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.

Is Les Mis going to repeat its success? Already, the film is doing quite well at the box office, and there is a lot of speculation about Oscar nominations, particularly for Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.

I got into a little more detail on the connections between Ayn Rand and Victor Hugo in the August 18 edition of The Tracinski Letter when I explained “Why There Is No Liberal Atlas Shrugged.” Les Misérables, I wrote, is the closest thing. “In fact it might be more accurate to say, not that Les Misérables was a liberal Atlas Shrugged, but that Atlas Shrugged is a capitalist Les Misérables.”

Ayn Rand described [Hugo]’s theme as “the injustice of society toward its lower classes,” which might sound like a good theme for a modern American “liberal.” And yet, though Hugo described himself as a “socialist,” he was no collectivist.

The key to his literary power is his profoundly individualist outlook. Hugo’s work is, at root, a celebration of the power of choice and the individual’s ability to determine his own destiny….

Victor Hugo believed that, when it came to his life and character, Jean Valjean did “build that.”

On September 29, I offered my impressions from the first previews we got of the finished film.

[T]his 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.

On this basis, I cautiously conclude that “the film does not look as good as I had hoped. It looks a whole lot better.” So how did the film measure up to that expectation?

Director Tom Hooper offers us a powerful new version of Les Miserables which is faithful in letter and spirit to the original musical and also to the novel—in fact, he frequently draws on elements from the original novel that couldn’t be presented on stage—while at the same time really adapting the story to take advantage of the medium of film.

More than that, Hooper brings to Les Misérables something that I don’t believe has ever been attempted before, certainly not on this scale: an obsessive commitment to realism which has not been considered compatible with the whole genre of the movie musical. After all, people don’t just spontaneously burst into song and dance as they walk down the street, do they? Usually, musicals have dealt with this by just asking the viewer to suspend disbelief and accept this as a normal form of expression. (Or they have tried to minimize the gap in realism by setting the film in the world of theater, where people really do break into song and dance.) Hooper thoroughly resists this approach. He meticulously ensures that the characters look realistic, down to the dirty faces and bad teeth of the poor. He goes to great lengths to make sure that there is no suspension of disbelief in the stagecraft, so that any action the characters take is realistic, with none of visual shorthand that is required on stage, where two characters are shown standing next to one another, for example, when they are actually miles apart. He insisted that all of the singing be recorded “live,” as the performers were acting, rather than being pre-recorded in a studio and lip-synced later. And most strikingly, he encourages the actors to bring a raw realism to the expression of their emotions, not “breaking character” when they begin singing.

Ayn Rand defined her literary school, and Hugo’s, as “Romantic Realism.” The idea was to show characters brought into grand conflicts by their own choices, values, and ideals—the basic idea of Romanticism—but to show them in the real world and not in some historical fantasy world. Tom Hooper takes that idea to a new kind of extreme, creating a film with the gritty, detailed, fanatical realism we usually associate with Naturalism—but combined with the high drama and Romanticism of Hugo’s story and the emotional intensity and expressiveness of the musical.

The film is carried by Hugh Jackman, whose performance as Jean Valjean is magnificent and ought to win him an Oscar (unless Daniel Day-Lewis takes it for transforming himself into Abraham Lincoln). Anne Hathaway also offers a totally new version of the doomed young mother Fantine, bringing a sense of fragility and raw despair that can be uniquely accomplished on film, where her voice can break and drop into a whisper without fear of being lost before it reaches the back of the theater.

But what really surprised me was how well the Broadway actors did in the medium of film. In some ways, they did better than the Hollywood actors. Hooper chose big Hollywood names for the top roles—Valjean, Javert, Fantine—but mostly drew on Broadway stars for the second tier of characters: Marius, Eponine, Enjolras, and the rest of the revolutionaries. I was particularly pleased, by the way, to see that the role of the Bishop is played by Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from London and Broadway twenty-seven years ago.

The Hollywood actors have a tendency, when they want to convey some particularly strong emotion, to break off from singing and to speak a line, or half a line, of the libretto. It makes sense, I suppose, that when they push themselves to become more expressive, they revert to the form of expression they are most comfortable with. But at times, I got the sense that Hooper and his Hollywood actors don’t fully believe that you can express emotion realistically while still singing. Or rather, they were unwilling to let the music do the work of conveying the characters’ values and emotions.

So while I think Hooper has set a new standard for realism in movie musicals, particularly by having the singing recorded during the performance, this is one area where his quasi-Naturalist obsession with realism ends up conflicting with the stylized Romanticism of the musical.

The Broadway actors, however, were better able to act through their singing, which is the style of expression they are most comfortable with. Yet they are still able to do so with the subtlety and quietness required in the medium of film. I was particularly impressed by Eddie Redmayne, who manages to take Marius, usually considered the least interesting character both in the musical and in the novel, and give him a depth and self-possession that commands the viewer’s attention.

By contrast, Russell Crowe was disappointing as Inspector Javert, mostly because his voice does not come off as particularly strong and is higher than the role calls for. Javert should have a booming bass, partly to convey his menacing strength and implacable moral code, and partly to differentiate him from Valjean, particularly in their contentious duet. But Crowe’s voice seems too high, too soft, and occasionally too pinched for the role.

While I’m lodging minor complaints, I also found myself distracted by Hooper’s penchant for filming the big songs in one long take, with the camera right in the actor’s face in an extreme close-up. I mentioned in one my earlier articles how acting for the screen is different because the actors’ faces are going to be 15 feet tall during close-ups. Well, the actors in this film spend a lot of time with their faces 15 feet tall. But there were times when the scene called for a wider shot to bring in more context to help tell the story. For example, when Eponine is imagining what it would be like if Marius returned her affections, she returns to the bitter reality of her loneliness and sings that “the trees are bare, and everywhere the streets are full of strangers,” which calls for a wide shot to show her sense of isolation on the streets of the big city. Yet Hooper keeps the camera close in on her.

There were also a few moments that made me realize the advantages the stage version has over a film. In my review of the original musical, I mentioned how it exploits Hugo’s brilliant plot construction.

[H]e 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.

This is one of the few moments I felt the film was at a clear disadvantage. In the musical, this convergence of the plot could be accomplished—and had to be accomplished, given the nature of the medium—by putting the entire cast all on the stage together, all singing at the same time, which had a really terrific effect. In the film, it can’t be done the same way, because the characters are in different parts of Paris—the revolutionaries at their café, Valjean and Cosette fleeing from their house, Javert rallying the police to put down the revolution. So this forces Hooper to bring these characters together by cutting frequently back and forth between them—which is not nearly as effective. I found the same thing to be true of the final scene, when most of the cast returns from the dead to ask, “Will you join in our crusade?” This is harder to do on the screen, particularly given Hooper’s somewhat literalist commitment to realism.

While I’m nitpicking, I noticed a number of minor changes in the lyrics, only one of which I can complain about. Early in the film, after giving him his silver candlesticks, the final words the Bishop says to Valjean are, “I have saved your soul for God.” In the musical and in the novel, the line was: “I have bought your soul for God.” That’s stronger, better, and more dramatic, and it’s much truer to Victor Hugo’s style.

I also noticed the omission of one bit of music: Thenardier’s soliloquy in the sewers in which he declares God to be dead and croons, “I raise my eye to see the heavens, and only the moon looks down.” This manifesto of atheism is important to the characterization; it explains Thenardier’s contrast to every other character in the story and why he is the only true villain in the story. Being an atheist myself, it might seem odd for me to say that, but it is important to grasp what atheism means in the context of Victor Hugo’s world view: it means that Thenardier is morally and spiritually empty, that he is a man without values, which is an important contrast to the theme of the story.

All of that said, Hooper brought imagination and creativity to the staging of the story, taking advantage of his ability to move the action to different locations and work on a larger canvas than is possible on stage. I particularly liked the way he presents the outbreak of the revolution and the song, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” For the most part, he amplifies rather than diminishes the power of the story.

As I wrote before, the theme of the musical is the same one Ayn Rand identified as the overall theme of Hugo’s works.

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….

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….

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.

That’s a message, and a view of man, that our culture needs. We got a big infusion of it 27 years ago, and Tom Hooper’s achievement—and Hugh Jackman’s—is to bring that theme to life again with a realism that helps make its message fresh, immediate, and unforgettable.


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10 Responses to Romanticism and Realism

  1. Sylvia Sarno January 3, 2013 at 3:43 PM #

    Great article on Les Miserables.Tracinski provides a complete and well written analysis of this great movie. See this work of art yourself and enjoy. I can’t wait for the DVD to come out so I can own it!

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