Apr 30, 2019
I’m going to be commenting on #LesMisPBS here for the next few weeks, so in preparation, I thought I’d say a few words about adaptation. People who like a particular book often dismiss adaptations, à la, “A movie can never be as good as a book.” And that might be true. Most books, and certainly *this* book, are a more immersive experience than a movie, and they have more time to create a complex, multilayered world. Books can repeat themselves more, and take more twists and turns, without testing people’s patience. People generally tolerate a wider range of plots and narrative arcs in books than movies. Books can have more minor characters and subplots because we have more time to get to know them, and can re-read passages to refresh our memories about them. So adaptations usually streamline, eliminate flourishes and duplications, and focus on telling a story in a way that fits audiences’ expectations. But commentary on an adaptation gets really boring really fast if that’s all it says, and I probably won’t spend much time picking at these kinds of decisions. What I try to think about when it comes to adaptations is how the artists involved accommodate the shift from one medium to another. I tend to want adaptations to keep the overall thrust of the characters and story intact, and not to change their meaning(s) drastically without a good reason. (And sometimes there is a good reason.) But within limits, of *course* an adaptation will be different from the original.
But mostly, it’s about this: just as a book can do things that a movie can’t, a movie can do things that a book can’t. (This is a bit of an obvious thing to say, but it’s the point from which most of the interesting comments on an adaptation come from.) So what particular tools are in a movie’s toolbox? Briefly, the non-verbal--things like images, sounds and music. In the case of Les Misérables, this can be a great opportunity, because a lot of Hugo’s narration is visual and auditory, and in ways that are interesting and creative. Filmmakers can not only use his physical descriptions as a guide, but they can (if they choose) emphasize the things that are strange about them. Think of the description of the Gorbeau House, or the Petit-Picpus convent. These places are *weird* in ways that an adaptation could really take advantage of. Hugo is also unusually adept at using what the characters see and hear (which may or may not be entirely real) to tell us something that can’t be seen--when Jean Valjean sees the light pass across the sleeping Bishop’s face, for example, or hears the voices speaking to him during the Tempest in a Skull chapter. Éponine hidden in shadow outside the rue Plumet gate. Jean Valjean in prison “looking up” and “seeing” all of society above him, crushing him. Marius reading about Napoleon’s (and his father’s) exploits and “seeing” them come to life. We could go on and on. Each of these examples is told through the point of view of one of the characters and presented as something they perceive, but its meaning is larger than that. The narrator bypasses the characters to do this sometimes too, calling upon the *reader’s* senses to do the same thing. Some of these are the same descriptions of places that just seem weird at first—turns out, they’re weird because Hugo has prioritized some other meaning over creating a place that seems real. But sometimes it’s subtler than that. For example, in the rue Plumet garden, we have that description where it’s bursting with life, and everything is trying to reproduce. That’s not so weird for a garden in spring, and it gives the place descriptive richness, certainly. But it *also* tells us something about Marius and Cosette that would be unseemly (especially in the 19th century) to say another way.
A good, smart, adaptation, in my opinion, would take advantage of these opportunities to get more of the book into its interpretation. Each of these would take just a few seconds of the film to establish, it seems to me, and those few seconds would do most of what the corresponding passages in the book do. A picture, in this case, really could be worth a thousand words.
Another category that might be interesting in #LesMisPBS, given what the creators have said in the media about it, is how they refer to modern-day issues. I don’t expect much outright anachronism, but they seem to see connections to our world today, so I’ll be interested to be on the lookout for them.