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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 2

Apr 30, 2019

I was really interested in how HUMAN the Thénardiers were when we met them tonight. In the book making them monsters has its own advantages (and helps us understand the trauma of being a child misérable), but it makes it hard to see ourselves or people in the real world in them. But the actors must have gotten a handle on their motivations, because they’re both true to the book and seem believable as human beings (albeit terrible ones) here.

They did a few interesting things with Fantine here (in addition, of course, to Lily Collins’s amazing performance—such a gut-wrenching role in any form!) The broad, relatively bare landscape where she and Cosette were traveling reminded me a bit of Jean Valjean’s dream, and less abstractly, really highlighted how difficult it would have been to travel like that alone, on foot, with a small child. When she arrived in Montreuil-sur-mer, the focus on the gutter was interesting—both the English expressions that involve being “in the gutter” and the real function that that gutter served—that of a sewer—are foreshadowing for the character.

I wasn’t thrilled to see how Jean Valjean and Fantine’s relationship was made so direct when she was working in the factory. An important part of her being fired in his name but without his knowledge is that his moral principles are applied in a way that becomes immoral when it causes harm. Here, he becomes like Javert: he applies a “law” to the point of forgetting kindness and humanity. But I did appreciate that they kept the sources of “information” about her intact—the public scribe and the Thénardiers—and its character as unreliable rumor that Mme Victurnien seems to want to believe.

I’m also not sure where we’re heading with messing up Marius’s timeline. He should be old enough to go by himself to see his father when he dies, and I’m not certain this could plausibly have the same emotional effect on a child this young....? Even though it does come to him in person in his father’s last words.

And of course, Fantine’s “descent” was excruciating here—more quickly than in the book, but more viscerally. (Who here, other than me, has a dentist appointment soon??) Lily Collins was outstanding (did I say that already?), and thanks to a bit of modern technology, we did not get to forget about those missing teeth, and felt the full irreversibility of that choice. It was strange that all of the suggestions—or maybe just the one suggestion, that Fantine either ignored or misunderstood the first time—came from the public scribe. In the book, he’s just a vessel—for her information, and then for a whole bunch of wine that gets her info out of him. But here, he acts a bit as her confessor, and then pushes her into the abyss in this way, which is unsettling.

For me, having her spit on Madeleine as soon as he arrived on the scene changed things quite a bit. In the book, of course, this happens after he insists she be freed, making it a reaction not unlike the one I so enjoyed last week, Jean Valjean’s anger at the Bishop’s mercy. Mercy is hard to accept, and both of those moments express that. In addition to which, we should remember that that scene was drawn from Hugo’s life, with Hugo in Madeleine’s place—except the spit, which was fictional. Hugo had the woman he rescued spit on “him” after he rescued her, taking the glory away from himself, and in a way, accepting (indirect!) responsibility for her being in that state in the first place.

Finally, we’ll have to wait until next week to see how this adaptation concludes the Champmathieu affair, but I was alarmed to see Jean Valjean let Javert resign, and not stop him—this Jean Valjean is a bit less skilled than in the book—he loses his cool easily, has a bit of a temper, and in this case, seemed to get wrapped up in himself before he could stop Javert from resigning. I bet Javert isn’t going to wind up off the police force, so I wonder how they explain that....

As for the Tempest in a Skull, that’s always a hard scene for an adaptation, as it all happens in Jean Valjean’s head. I can imagine a spectacular series of hallucinations that might convey it, but we didn’t do that here tonight (just as we didn’t last week with Petit-Gervais). I was, however, intrigued by the coin burning into his hand like the stigmata—interesting touch.

Looking forward to seeing where we go with this next!!