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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!

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Les Misérables on PBS, episode 1

Apr 30, 2019

Opening at Waterloo, in a HUGE visual spectacle would be Hugo-approved. He saw Waterloo as an entryway into the novel, whereas a lot of adaptations (understandably) leave it out. And making one of the first few spoken lines be Pontmercy’s “It’s all over” was an intriguing choice—for Hugo the Battle of Waterloo was just that: an ending that was really a beginning.

Really interested in the choice to put this in chronological order. Although, the chronology is a bit wonky—if the first scenes in Paris were supposed to be late 1815, after Pontmercy came back from war (in June) and recovered, and Jean Valjean’s scenes in prison were simultaneous to that, then he got out of prison a year later? He should have been released 4 months later, in October 1815. And Tholomyès left Fantine, as the book makes abundantly clear, in 1817. It doesn’t matter a lot in the grand scheme, I suppose, apart from that situating Jean Valjean’s release in 1815 was not an accident, and I don't quite see what's gained here by disrupting the timeline.

I think this adaptation added a lot of texture to Tholomyès’s character. We recognize something familiar about him in this, which is less the case in the book. Here, he’s a type that we can feel like we’ve met—and against which we’ve warned, or should warn, every young woman we know! I found I reacted quite viscerally to him here, which is good.

They established Javert’s character well here. Showed him standing on the edge, looking down at the men in the quarry and, in one shot, only watching them by implication—they weren’t in the shot, and all that was behind him was the water—which, of course we remember representing the masses in the book, in the man overboard metaphor, etc. He doesn’t see the individual humans he’s guarding, just the phenomenon of them. And then, of course, his speech to Jean Valjean was built on lots of lines from the book.

On the other hand, I’m not at all sure about the firing squad scene. It makes a point, but I don’t think 1) Javert could have simply called for such an execution on his own authority, or 2) that execution would have taken place by firing squad. I don’t know for sure, but it seemed off to me. But it was VERY effective to have that scene, where Javert was eyeing Jean Valjean in particular, juxtaposed with Gillenormand’s line (in the next scene) “Order is restored,” referring to the monarchy. Even if the firing squad scene wasn’t historically on the up and up, it was an effective way to show the violence of “restoring order”—another notion that Hugo would definitely sign off on, particularly after the start of the Second Empire. (“L’ordre est rétabli” -- “Order is restored” is the title of a section of his poetry collection Les Châtiments, which was dedicated to his ire against Napoleon III and the Second Empire.)

It was interesting to see that people distrusted Jean Valjean not only because he was a stranger and looked poor, but also because he was so strong. His strength made the people in the street in Digne all the more afraid of him. This adaptation emphasized that dynamic—that the only thing he has to offer as a worker is a liability socially.

I thought Jean Valjean’s reaction to the Bishop was really good. In the sense that it was bad. In other words, most adaptations don’t let you see Jean Valjean as angry and resistant to the Bishop’s kindness—he’s hungry and needs a place to stay, and mostly keeps quiet during dinner. But not here—here, we get to see how difficult the Bishop’s work is in getting through to him. Jean Valjean has reason to be hostile, even against someone like the Bishop. And then again, when he gives him the candlesticks, his first reaction is anger—in the book, he reacts negatively to this at first too. But adaptations often don’t take the time to unpack the fact that we like the Bishop, but Jean Valjean does not. That takes time and nuance to establish.

I was, on the other hand, disappointed in the scene in the Bishop’s bedroom and the scene in the field outside of Digne. LOTS of potential in both of those scenes for a visual medium, but this adaptation left most of it on the table, just showing us Jean Valjean from the outside, and advancing the plot. We didn’t get to see the visions he saw and work though them with him, which would have let us into his inner life in an interesting way.

They also gratuitously dropped Fantine’s group in Paris from two fours to two threes—making the “galloping horses” carrying the men away quite a bit less apocalyptic. That was unfortunate.

But overall, very interesting so far, and quite enjoyable to see more detail about Fantine’s story in particular, as well as get a sense of Marius’s background. The choice to straighten out the timeline is interesting—makes for more movement as we jump from story to story. And it’s all been visually rich and fascinating. Looking forward to next week!