have you seen it yet? among our family and friends you don’t even have to name the movie. i’m guessing we’re different from a good portion of the population. then again, based on box office numbers, maybe not.
the first time i ever saw les miserables was a broadcast of a staged version of the play (not the musical) on pbs back in the late 1970’s. i’m not sure whether that broadcast was new at the time or just a broadcast of a previous production. we watched it at my sister’s house in berkeley, ca, six of us huddled around a 19” black and white television.
the story stuck with me. i tried to read the book but somehow never really got around to it.
fast forward to the late 1980’s when the first traveling production of the show came to philadelphia. an acquaintance of c’s who was somehow connected to every show in town offered us free seats. they were second row all the way to the right of the stage, lousy seats, but still c and i sat there in stunned silence after seeing the show. we bought the sound track and listed to it for years, in fact, i remember painting the entire downstairs of our house with that soundtrack playing. sometime after that we saw the show again, this time with perfect orchestra seats. again, just amazing. years later we took the kids to see the show, but i was never quite sure whether they enjoyed it or if it stuck with them.
les miserables opened in london in 1985 to lousy reviews, some objecting to the very idea that great literature would be reduced to a musical stage show. maybe they didn’t actually see the show because les miserables leans more toward opera or early american musical theatre than frothy musical. and what better basis for a stage show or musical or movie than great literature?
now the stage show has been transformed into a movie and the reviews have begun. plenty of critics have panned the movie:
“after 2½ hours, the movie’s become a bowl of trail mix — you’re picking out the nuts you don’t like and hoping the next bite doesn’t contain any craisins “– wesley morris, boston globe
“the initial grandeur — which impresses as it’s a 180 from [director] hooper’s past work — begins to curdle into something histrionic, bombastic and overly extravagant.” —rodrigo perez of the playlist.
all three of ours and their significant others have seen the movie, which has led to some very spirited discussions. of course, our discussions have focused primarily on the musical aspect of the movie, which answers the question: what happens when you put four musicians/music teachers, one drum corps performer and one theatre major/performer in a room together to discuss a musical movie? i’ve learned a lot about sound manipulation. no one listens to me when i talk about acting.
again, regardless of critics, audiences are showing up in droves and coming to see the movie more than once. (the holy grail for hollywood, the reason why most movies are aimed at young teenage boys who watch action blockbusters multiple times)
i would go see it again in a heartbeat. c and i have already decided that this is a movie to own in our permanent collection. the soundtrack, not so much.
and, not surprisingly, people have tried to politicize the message of les miserables:
“that transformation occurred through the virtues exemplified by the novel’s central figure, jean valjean, the reformed ex-convict who remakes himself as a businessman, factory owner, and mayor of a small city. in the best traditions associated with modern conservatism—pursuing profit, productivity, middle class respectability, local community service, and even religious redemption—valjean offers the right prescription for shaping a kinder, gentler society. since that failed rebellion of 1832, building businesses changed the world for the better, not angry mobs mounting the barricades. tomorrow did come, but it was through les biz rather than through les miz.” – michael medved.
i think michael is a bit of a small thinker who missed the rather larger, looming themes of hugo’s work. upton sinclair put it best in his thinking on the book:
“so long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
personally, i think audiences respond to the show for one very simple reason: there is some part of the story that rings true to each and every one of us. change and transformation, basic human rights, justice and injustice, and most of all forgiveness and love.
victor huge put it best: “to love another person is to see the face of god.”