Just about a zillion years ago I read a story about stolen candlesticks in an English book in middle school. I remember the main character’s name, Jean Valjean. Now I know that was just an excerpt from the classic book by Victor Hugo (1802–1885), Les Miserables. If you read on digital media, the book is very affordable since it is offered FREE. The book was published in 1862 and endures in many forms: book, E-book, movie, and musical.
I just watched Jon Stewart on The Daily Show as he interviewed Anne Hathaway, an unforgettable, haunting Fontine in the recently released movie. Jon quipped that he usually only cries at Mets games, but . . . without saying it he alluded to having shed a few tears. Lisa and I enjoyed the movie, shed a lot of tears and simultaneously felt emotionally crushed and uplifted. It is a powerful story, powerfully told through dialogue and song in the movie. Lots of Oscars, Golden Globes and other awards are likely.
Now I have to go back and read the book. There are few short stories from English Literature classes that I still remember. Why do I remember Jean Valjean and the stolen candlesticks? The emotional power of this story of a convicted man who steals silver from a church and is caught by the police is compelling. The priest who befriended and protected Valjean also protects him from the law when he is caught. That act of love, forgiveness and humility changes him forever.
Hugo used the personal stories of friends, acquaintances and events of the times to craft the many subplots in this 1,500 page book that carefully moves from very dark places like prostitution and hunger to the joys of love and camaraderie. He intended it be transformative and it is. As a musical, some of the incredible actors sing better than others, but all of them capture your heart. Hugh Jackman explained in an interview that they sang the final versions of each song as they filmed the action, not dubbed in later from a studio setting. Anne Hathaway told Stewart that she sang one song for eight hours trying to find just the right feel. The fourth take from early in the day is the one that appears in the movie.
When books are made into movies, I usually like the book better and wonder at the choices a screenwriter and director made in subverting the choices of the author. Hugo is not around to complain, but movies like this will drive many of us back to the original text, not to be a critic, but to fully understand the nuance behind the story. The emotional power of the movie reminds me that there is a deeper experience in the book to be enjoyed.
Lisa, my wife, has seen Les Mis performed many times on stage and sings along with enthusiasm when she plays the soundtrack from the stage play. Using an inordinate amount of restraint in the movie, she silently mouthed every word through each song. I liked some of the songs but did not love them before seeing this movie. Now my throat swells with emotion when I hear even a few notes of One Day More. I am there on the ramparts in the streets of Paris cheering for freedom from the oppressive monarchy.
Great books live on for centuries through remakes in movies, musicals, and games. And in so doing, this one allows Victor Hugo to live on as a great storyteller of his time. If you need a good cry and liberation from your own problems, go to the movies soon and see Les Miserables. Or download the book for free and lose yourself in one of the world’s greatest works of historic fiction.
– Tim Merriman