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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. 

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Les Misérables on PBS, episode 5

May 13, 2019

I think we all learned a lesson tonight: Hugo didn’t know that cinema would be invented within a half-century of when he wrote Les Misérables, but he did write for the stage, and if he’d known about cinema, he would have wanted in. So when adapting him, in action scenes and interactions between characters, just get out of his way.

The most effective scenes we saw tonight, in my opinion, were those that looked the way Hugo wrote them: Cosette finding the letter (as she was afraid of being in the house with just Toussaint--nice keeping that detail in), the scene between Gillenormand and Marius, the image of Mabeuf atop the barricade, the powder-keg scene, Éponine’s death. Also effective was the way they portrayed the general situation in Paris in the spring of 1832: the unrest and feeling that something big was coming, and the cholera epidemic, which most adaptations leave out--juxtaposing teen romance, revolutionary idealism, and violent gastrointestinal upset is, after all, a tricky business. But here, I think we really got a good sense of what was going on in Paris at the time.

But. BUT. There are a few choices that are being made consistently here that are becoming bigger problems all the time.

The first of these is in the relationship between Jean Valjean and Cosette. This was an issue at least last week, if not earlier: Jean Valjean seems angry with her for her desire to be freer and know more about the world, and this adaptation is suggesting that his feelings and unreasonableness are the only things keeping her from running free. Here, she seemed to think that too--and, in a cringe-worthy teen-movie moment, she declared “I hate you!” as a result. Now, I know that the nineteenth-century restrictions on women are hard to portray--they’re just underlying assumptions, something everyone would have known without discussing. But even she didn’t put all of that on Jean Valjean. Meanwhile, his protection of her in the book has two sources: his knowledge of how easily she could end up like her mother--which would not have been remotely unreasonable--and the fact that she is all he has, and he doesn’t want her to leave him alone in the world. But this never expresses itself as anger toward her, or the kind of aggressive exposure to the world that we saw last week when he intentionally took her to be horrified by the men being transported to the bagne. In the book, it’s always a kind of wise and tragic resignation, that I wish we got to see here.

Related to that is Jean Valjean’s tendency toward ill-temperedness and meanness in this adaptation, which is deeply unfair to his character. Tonight, that showed up when he met Gavroche. In the book, Jean Valjean is kind to him there, and gives him a coin for his trouble in delivering the letter. Here, he forcefully takes the letter from him and frightens him off--not at all unlike what he did to Petit-Gervais. The Jean Valjean in the book would not have aggressed another tween boy without serious emotional consequences. Here, it’s as if that seminal moment outside of Digne is just….gone. If we can remember it for 1000 pages of the book, I think we can remember it for 4 hours of TV--follow-up to the insult to TV audiences that was last week’s brothel scene, I guess.

And of course, we still have Javert’s unreasonable obsession with Jean Valjean--to the point where he brushed off the threat of insurrection, only interested in pursuing this petty criminal from a decade earlier--even to the point where he assumed Jean Valjean would be the insurrection’s leader. Maybe this is meant to be thought of as symbolic--if it were, as the Law’s relentless pursuit of Jean Valjean as one and the same as its support of the status quo and power structures in place, then thinking of Jean Valjean as a prime example of what’s going on at the barricade is not entirely wrong. Hugo would have called them both workers in the upper mine, and imagining Jean Valjean as the head of that work crew would be fair enough. But we don’t seem to be operating in those sorts of symbolic ways here--in any event, I haven’t seen anything to signal that we are. Instead, it seems like an effort to simplify Javert, to explain his relentlessness as specific to Jean Valjean, rather than as a feature of the inexorability that he represents--that is, this obsession seems like it’s here to avoid the symbolic meanings of the character in the novel. I find that to be an unfortunate thinning of what he’s all about.

And on a somewhat more personal note, I was quite disappointed by Éponine’s scene in front of the rue Plumet gate. It stripped her of her power. She screamed almost immediately (whereas, in the book, she never had to) and what scared the bandits off (3, not 6) was a dog barking, not even her. She did eventually tell her father she wasn’t afraid of him, but only after the danger was over. This is another scene that is excellent as Hugo wrote it--not sure why we couldn’t see it that way here…. I’ll just have to keep waiting until someone does it justice.

But I will give this episode credit for keeping the various plotlines intact and in sync across a part of the plot where the novel is at its most complicated. That’s no easy task, and other than some funkiness with the overall timeline early on, the chronology of multiple-plot structure has been very well managed here.

We’ll conclude next week, with lots of plot to go--looking forward to it!