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Welcome to the website for "The Les Misérables Reading Companion," where you'll find all the episodes of this podcast about Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, plus extras relating to what I've discussed there. 

This page is a work in progress. Come back early and often for updates!

The comment function on this page was giving us trouble--comments disappearing, that sort of thing--so I've shut it off...

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Les Misérables on PBS, episode 4

May 6, 2019

OK, so let’s just get this out of the way: THERE IS NO BROTHEL SCENE IN LES MISÉRABLES. Also, Éponine is not in the business of free peep shows to the neighbors, and Hugo worked very hard to make every interaction between Marius and Cosette pure as the driven snow, even down to their thoughts about each other. In short, I did NOT dig the tawdry efforts to unnecessarily sex this story up.

There. Now we can move on.

Two things I thought this adaptation did exceptionally well tonight were the politics and the ambush. The political context of Les Misérables, as we’ve discussed on the podcast, is a complicated one, and it can be difficult for adaptations to work all that exposition in. This one has done what’s necessary in that area relatively seamlessly, such that Marius’s conversations with Gillenormand, when they have their falling-out, and with the revolutionaries in the café Musain can happen very much as they do in the book (until it becomes about the brothel, for some reason--that reason being, apparently, that we want to insult TV audiences by assuming they can’t pay attention this long without a little sexy-sexy--but I said I’d move on….). The ambush, too, worked much as it did in the book, and it was cool to see that action scene play out--it may as well have been built for the screen, but adaptations sometimes shorten it up, and it was nice to have time to get it right, in a six-hour adaptation.

The one flaw in the ambush wasn’t really in the ambush itself, it was in what they’ve done so far with Jean Valjean’s character. Part of what’s impressive about his show of force in the book is that he is generally quiet, gentle, generous, and taciturn, and his ability to dominate the Patron-Minette gang creates a contrast. By making him grumpier and more prone to outbursts of anger here--which he has been all along--what he did in the ambush was just another one, and it took away its punch.

And, relatedly, I’m finding myself quite bugged by the shift in character motivations around Cosette, Jean Valjean, and their relationship--it changes both characters, but, again, chiefly Jean Valjean’s. If he is the one who decides to leave the convent, deciding to offer her choices before she demands them, then he is being, again, thoughtful, generous, selfless. Here, it’s her idea--which is interesting in a way, and gives her a kind of agency that the character in the book is capable of, but rarely gets--but Jean Valjean’s repsonse is kind of appalling: he sets out to spite and punish her, showing her, on purpose, the worst of the world that she wants so badly to see, intentionally upsetting her so that she’ll wish she never wanted freedom or knowledge. That’s hardly the Jean Valjean we know.

I can sympathize with wanting to find a way to avoid shading the edges of incest the way the book does. That’s WAY uncomfortable. But I can think of two or three better ways than this.

I also think we lost something in the openness of this Jean Valjean with Cosette about her mother. In the book Fantine becomes very nearly unnameable, especially as Cosette reaches adolescence--because her story is to horrible, or because her sacrifice is too sacred, or both. Having Jean Valjean and Cosette talk openly about her is so 21st century, first of all, but also, it banalizes the story--which is exactly the reason it’s treated as a holy story in the book. This, too, might be related to giving Jean Valjean a reason other than really nervous-making jealousy to not want Cosette to meet boys, but I think the cost is too high.

Motivation continues to be an issue with Javert, too--he shows up so implausibly often in Jean Valjean’s path that it’s tempting to explain that by creating the obsession we’re seeing here, where he’s still thinking about him when he hasn’t made a peep in 10 years (like, 6 or 7 years, really). But that’s just not how it works in the book. Javert is the embodiment of the Law, and the Law will never release Jean Valjean. But it’s not obsessed with him, exactly. It’s just in the nature of the Law to be a relentless problem for someone like him. That’s a bit literary, but I think a film could do it.

Still, I loved seeing Gavroche, and Mabeuf, and the Friends of the ABC tonight. I think we’ve got each of them right, so far, and as with the exposition around the politics and the ambush, I’m grateful for the time we have here to include them. Hope we’ll see more of them next time!