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Les Misérables (1935)
A Decent Movie, but a Bad Adaptation
I had read many good things about this adaptation of my favorite novel...so invariably my expectations were crushed. But they were crushed more than should be expected. The movie would have been a decent movie if I had not read the novel beforehand, which perhaps ruined it for me.
In any event, for some reason they changed the labor camp at Toulon to a ship full of galley slaves. The scene at Bishop Myriel's was fine. In fact, other than the galleys, things survived up until the dismissal of Fantine. Because we do not want to have bad things happen to a good woman, she does not cut her hair, sell her teeth, or become a prostitute. The worst she does is run into the mayor's office and spit on his face. Bamatabois is entirely eliminated. Because having children out of wedlock should also not be talked about, Tholomyes is Fantine's dead husband, rather than an irresponsible dandy. Valjean is able to fetch Cosette for Fantine before the Champmathieu affair, so they reunite happily, yet another change. Then comes the convent, which is a pretty difficult scene to screw up. Thankfully, it was saved. After this three minutes of accuracy, however, the movie again begins to hurtle towards Classic Novel Butchering.
As Cosette and Valjean are riding through the park, they come across Marius giving a speech at a meeting. About prison reform. When he comes to hand out fliers to Valjean and Cosette, he says the one line in the movie that set me screaming at the TV set. "We aren't revolutionaries." I could hear Victor Hugo thrashing in his grave. OF COURSE THEY ARE REVOLUTIONARIES! They want to revolt against the pseudo-monarchy that is in place in favor of another republic, you dumb screenwriters! It's a historical FACT that there was an insurrection against the government in 1832.
At one point Cosette goes to give Marius a donation from her father for the reform movement and meets Eponine. Except...not Eponine. Or at least not the Eponine of the book. This Eponine appears to be a well-to-do secretary girl working for the prison reformers (who are working out of the Cafe Universal as opposed to the Cafe Musain). Not to mention the audience is already made to dislike her thanks to her not-period, low-cut, tight-fitting dress and her snooty mannerisms.
The prison reformers (Lead by the most poorly cast Enjolras that I have EVER seen) decide that handing out pamphlets isn't good enough anymore. So they're going to build barricades. I don't know about you, but I have never heard of reform movements tearing up the streets and building barricades and attacking government troops. About three hundred people (it was not supposed to be so many) start attacking the National Guard and building a bunch of barricades, etc. Eponine does die for Marius, thankfully.
The rest of the movie is sort of accurate, except that Javert's suicide again seems hard to understand thanks to his minuscule screen time and odd character interpretation. The movie ends with Valjean watching Javert jump into the river. This is again inaccurate because Valjean would never have let Javert drown. He saved the man's life earlier, why let him die now? Then there's the whole skipping of Valjean's confession to Marius, his deterioration, and his redemption on his deathbed with Marius and Cosette by his side.
Overall, I can blame the script mostly for the problems. While I am glad Enjolras and Eponine were at least present in the film, they were terribly misinterpreted, as was the entire barricade scene. The elimination of Fantine's suffering prevents us from feeling too much pity for her. That Cosette knows Valjean's past from the start messes with the plot a good deal. I did not even see Thenardier, and Mme. Thenardier only had a few seconds of screen time. The same with Gavroche. I did like Frederich March's interpretation of Valjean a lot, however, which was one of the redeeming features of the movie. On the other hand, Charles Laughton, for all his great acting in other movies, seems to have missed the mark with Javert. The lip tremble, the unnecessary shouting, and his acting in general all just felt very wrong. He also, like many Javerts I have seen, did not appear at all menacing, something required of the character.
Again, this film would probably feel much better if I had not read the book. I would not recommend it to book purists, though. I would also say that the movie would have been a good adaptation for the time had not the infamously accurate French version come out the year before.
Les Miserables (1952)
A Very Miserable Experience
As a huge fan of the book and the musical, I have made it one of my priorities to see all of the movie versions of Les Miserables that I can. I can officially say now that this version is probably the furthest from the book, except perhaps the 1998 version. I cannot blame the actors, but I do blame the screenwriter and director for this slaughter of a classic.
The movie was okay up until the judge sentenced Valjean to ten years in the galleys. Valjean doesn't go to the galleys, he goes to TOULON, a PRISON CAMP where he does HARD LABOR. I could forgive this however, except that the movie only went downhill from there. The incident with the bishop is fairly similar...save that the dialogue seems to have been taken almost word for word from the 1935 version and that Mme. Magloire appears about twenty. Valjean is somehow able to buy a pottery plant after his "brilliant" idea to have everyone work on what they are best at. So much for glass beads. At this point he meets the entirely nonexistent Robert, who becomes a close friend that lives with Valjean for the rest of the movie. Why did they decide to make up characters, WHY? It was wholly unnecessary! Well...it would have been if they had stuck to the book. The way this script was going it was probably necessary.
Fantine, of course, does not sell her hair. Or her teeth. Because apparently audiences of the 1950s do not want to hear about such things. In fact, she looks quite good for a woman living on the streets. Fantine is not a prostitute either, because it's bad to promote prostitution as a way to survive when you cannot support your starving child any other way. And, because everyone has to believe that good things happen to dying people, Valjean goes and fetches a not-so-young-looking Cosette, who is reunited with her not-so-sick-looking mother. Bear in mind that this sequence is not shown, eliminating the Thenardiers entirely, as well as images of a malnourished Cosette. Apparently everyone is well aware Fantine is going to die, yet they go about their day ever-so-happily.
They end up at "The Convent of the Child Mary" because Petit Picpus is too hard to say. The sequence of meeting Marius in the convent is rather random, as is Marius' later accusation of Valjean being in love with Cosette. This IS NOT TRUE. Why? Why do so many directors and screenwriters think he's in love with Cosette? It's not TRUE. Anyway, Marius, not seeming overwhelmingly disheartened when Valjean won't let him marry Cosette (and also says they're leaving for England), ends up at the barricades. It's not really ever explained why there's a barricade in the first place. There just is. It's just a bunch of random people (and by that I mean, about five times as many in the book. It's 40, not 200) So Valjean intercepts Marius' letter to Cosette...which says something to the effect of "Your father is a jealous, horrible person. If I live, you should run away and elope with me." Totally opposite, of course, from the "I'm going to die, and I love you" letter that should be sent. Valjean seems to go to the barricade more to convince himself he's unselfish than to save Marius.
Then comes the sewer chase. The sewer chase upset me for one reason, and one alone. There was a skull on the sewer ledge. Just a skull. Not even a skeleton. Because so many people go down into the sewers and some how decapitate themselves such that their head remains on the ledge and their body floats away. It was so CORNY! I laughed very hard when I saw that skull. It also appears to be a flashback to the 1935 movie, where there was one present in those sewers as well.
Thanks to bad character development and a bad script in general, Javert's suicide seems entirely uncalled for. And Valjean watches. And the movie ends. And I start to cry and laugh simultaneously.
I am very upset at the plot changes, as well as the cuttings of Enjolras, Eponine, and the Thenardiers. I am upset that Valjean was a brute with few redeeming qualities throughout the movie, and that they did not show his confession to Marius nor his death. I am upset at the horrid characterization of Javert, who was among other things short, rotund, and non-menacing. I am upset that Fantine looked perfectly fine and got to see a thirteen-year-old Cosette again. I am upset that Marius was an unattractive, 35-year-old man without a background story to help you understand his character. I am upset at the addition of "Robert" into the story. I am upset that absolutely no one in a movie about the poor and miserable was poor and miserable except the galley slaves. In fact, Gavroche may have been the only character whose original attitude and appearance remained the same, though many of his scenes were cut entirely and he served more as a messanger than anything.
Some other unexpected defects in this wretched movie were the costumes. The costumes did not look at all like the clothes of 19th century Parisians, except for the National Guard uniforms. The hats, in particular, were very wrong for the time. It was saddening that no one did any research on this kind of thing.
The trailer advertised it as "A movie as great as the book!" The people who created this trailer must have never read it.
Les misérables (2000)
The Best Adaptation I Have Seen
Of the movie adaptations I have seen, and I have not seen the 1934 French version, I must admit that this is the best one yet. I thankfully watched the six hour original French miniseries and loved it, despite not being able to understand more than three words every ten minutes. Pity they have yet to subtitle it.
Gerard Depardieu is near perfect for Valjean in stature and voice, albeit I wanted to smack the script writer for deciding he was obsessively in love with Cosette. Christian Clavier was a perfect Thenardier; he was slimy, cruel, and self-serving. My only bone to pick concerning him is the way he was attempting to kill people right and left (Valjean and Marius to be precise) in moments where he wasn't supposed to if we're going by the book. Veronica Ferres was of the perfect build for his wife, but she was just a little too pretty, and attempted to make out with her husband on at least three occasions. Charlotte Gainsbourg was a nice change of pace for Fantine. She was generally very mousy and truthful to the novel, except that despite going to a denture and wig maker, she only sold her hair, not her front incisors like she is supposed to. I must also say that Asia Argento was the spitting image of Eponine, save for that dress of hers, which appeared far too expensive for a dirt poor family, whether or not it was torn in places.
I personally was not happy with John Malkovich's portrayal of Javert. The way he annunciated very slowly and monotonously EVERY SINGLE WORD, made the movie and the dialog drag. Being that I also did not understand exactly what he was saying, it was twice as boring. Enrico Lo Verso was also horribly miscast. He was far too old, and had a rather frightening smile, to say the least. Someone really needed to do something concerning his hair as well.
I also have to comment on Steffen Wink as Enjolras. Though the successive movies seem to move alternately closer and further from the novel's depiction of him. This was perhaps the closest yet, though it still was not truly the character. Wink smiled and laughed way too much, and did not seem totally engaged in and serious about the insurrection. But at least he was blond and believably young-looking this time.
The actual plot of the movie stayed closer to the novel than any of the other movie adaptations I have seen. I was particularly fond of Eponine's death scene. It is definitely worth the $20 you pay on Amazon to get the French version, if only to watch Asia Argento die. It's very dramatic and heart wrenching, and was the only scene in the entire six hours that made me cry. Even in barely being able to understand what she said, I could hear in her (apparently dubbed) voice and see through her expressions that she regretted a great deal of the bad things that she had done. The theme of redemption permeated the scene. The blood effects actually seemed realistic as well.
There were some senseless alterations, however. For one, why was Gavroche living with Marius? And did anyone notice that Gavroche was the same age when Valjean brought little Cosette to Paris as when she was seven or eight years older? And why did we have to change the bead factory to a fabric factory? It's such a USELESS alteration. And why was Fauchelevent fighting with the National Guard when he's supposed to be dead? And why doesn't Mme. Thenardier die in jail like she's supposed to? And why, to be my nit picky purist self, did they build the barricade outside of the Cafe Musain instead of Corinthe? And why, even in a six hour long miniseries with added scenes not in the book, could the screenwriter not find time to put in the end of the barricade scene, Enjolras' death in particular? His character and his death are symbolic and support one of Hugo's major themes in several of his novels: the idea that someday perfection and progress will come, but they cannot happen with the world in its current state. And yet, somehow, in all of the movies, his character plays a very small role. The closest was in the 1958 French version that kept his death scene identical, even if it barely developed his character the rest of the time.
In regards to technical issues, the only one that stood out to me concerned Asia Argento. At first I thought I was imagining it, but the closer I looked, the more I noticed her lips did not sync up with the audio. I suppose she must have been speaking English or Italian and was dubbed in French, but the fact that it was noticeable was very disappointing. As much as I loved her appearance and her acting, perhaps it would have just been better to have a French actress in the role. However, despite the sloppy dubbing job, her dubbed voice was particularly well chosen.
Overall, despite my aforementioned list of annoyances, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and I recommend it to anyone who has a thorough knowledge of the story and can deal with not understanding all of the dialog. Otherwise, you might end up very, VERY confused. I know nothing about the English version, but at half the running time, I find it hard to believe it would be nearly as good.