Big screen, bigger book
Why Les Misérables can’t replace Hugo’s original.
A friend of mine who works at a bookstore recently told me that the book that she most often has to return is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables; people buy the book one day, and after realizing just how long the tome is, they return it the next. With the release of Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation, readers are finding it increasingly difficult to discipline themselves to slog through the more than 1000 pages of the original book (158 minutes doesn’t look so bad now, huh?). Humanity has progressed from the oral age, to the literary, but our current era is almost a regression to that first stage when stories were told—now they are filmed—instead of read. Is there still a place for books today?
I admit that I was not always enthralled with Hugo’s grandiose style the summer that I read his classic text—and I use the term ‘summer’ loosely, because it was more than four months. Reading Les Misérables is an investment. On the other hand, Les Misérables the movie is dynamic and engaging throughout, and the heart-wrenching songs never fail to bring me to tears. Even so, there are several reasons the book is worth reading.
1. RUSSELL CROWE.
His depiction of Javier is a point and case of why reading still needs to happen in a cinematic world. Many were disappointed by his robotic portrayal and sub-par singing (although anyone would be an anticlimax after Anne Hathaway’s performance). And why are audience members disappointed? It’s different from how they imagined it, and any changes are jarring. Whatever picture Hugo’s words conjure in the reader’s mind, it is pure, personal, and a beautiful exercise of imagination in a world where most things are spelled out for us.
Watching a four-minute scene of Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne’s amorous duet definitely conveys to the audience that these two characters are in love; the song might even inspire some to say “aw…” But Hugo goes big. In terms of pages, this might not always excite the reader who counts how many more until the end of the chapter, but even the best-directed scene cannot convey the same astonishing sense of scale that 50 pages of tiny print can. The literary equivalent of that love scene is dauntingly long, but after surveying it, the reader can guess at how many hours Marius spent the entire night before composing the love letters he delivers to Cossette. This is a much larger testament to the passion of his love than the seemingly effortless knack for spontaneous song that all musical characters possess.
Hugo is annoyingly detailed about even the obscurest characters, but no pain, no gain into the author’s insight. The friends we care about most are the ones we know the most about, have seen grow, and spend the most time with. The same is true of literary characters. Fantine’s fall from virtue is all the more painful when the reader has already invested 30 pages to knowing how sweet and innocent she was before, and experiences the slow but irresistible degradation. Eponine’s tragedy of unrequited love is so much sadder when she’s divulged to the reader so many of her fantasies and hopes that one can’t help but root for her. Sad things happen every day, but the ones we remember and inspire us to make a difference are the ones that effect people—and characters—we know. Let us not forget that the title of this story is The Miserable Ones.
Hooper’s Les Misérables is a fantastic film, but it is by no means a replacement for Hugo’s. Tastes have certainly changed since the nineteenth century, but some things have not. Readers have always claimed to have been too busy, and authors have always been wordy, but the story of Les Misérables has been popular throughout it all and it is important to consider why. What has compelled so many to slog through this literary marathon? You’ll just have to read it yourself to find out. There was a time when authors were paid by the word. But their words were inviting.