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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 3

Apr 30, 2019

Some themes seem to be emerging, as we’re half way through the series....

Lily Collins continued to do amazing work tonight, and the headline, I think, was Fantine’s death scene, which was stunning all around. Apart from the metal bar that connects this scene to the one by the Bishop’s bedside in the book, and provides the physical threat here (see below my growing relationship with Jean Valjean as physical threat in this adaptation), it kept very closely to the book, including Javert’s insistence on technical fact and legality being the last straw that Fantine could not support.

As with the Thénardiers last week, I appreciated how human Champmathieu was here. Hugo writes his distressed female characters, his drunks, and his very poor/benighted characters all similarly, with the incoherent floods of words that we’ve discussed in the podcast as signaling a disconnect from reality or an inability to make the world around them into a clear narrative. The problem is that this can make the characters hard to adapt—turning those floods of words into long monologues on screen doesn’t convey what the scenes need. This adaptation has handled this well—boiling down what the characters say, and giving the actors something they can work with.

There were a couple of occasions where I felt changes were made to create opportunities for action—by arresting Jean Valjean in the courtroom to create a bit of action in Montreuil(-sur-mer), and in the scene in the woods between Jean Valjean and Thénardier. I think both of those could have done more interesting things if they had chosen subtlety. Imagine the tension of a sequence where Jean Valjean is allowed by a stupefied crowd to walk out of the courtroom, and has to stay ahead of Javert until he’s done what he needed to do, as in the book.... Or the opportunities for the actors that a gun-free, headlock-free scene between Jean Valjean and Thénardier would have been....

At the root of that, it seems to me, is the ongoing need this adaptation seems to have to make Jean Valjean prone to outbursts of anger. The Jean Valjean we know in the book draws his strength from simply knowing he’s strong, both physically and mentally. He doesn’t have to fight a pissant like Thénardier, and he commands the space in the courtroom once he starts speaking because his force and depth of character shine through. He doesn’t need to shout. I do wish we could see the other version of Jean Valjean.

In having him physically fight Thénardier, we also lost the moment where he gave Thénardier the note from Fantine. That’s surprisingly significant to the plot—Thénardier is one of the only people who knows of his connection to Fantine, and that makes him more dangerous. When he gives him the note, which Thénardier keeps, he has physical proof of that connection, and that hangs (silently, mostly) over all the subsequent scenes between Thénardier and Jean Valjean.

And why did we have to make Jean Valjean’s very significant nine-month delay in getting to Montfermeil into two years?! That seemed quite gratuitous to me, when the nine months between Fantine’s entrusting Cosette to Jean Valjean (Annunciation) and his fetching her (Christmas) were so clear. They’re commonly understood to represent Jean Valjean’s symbolic pregnancy. Maybe here he’s an elephant—aren’t they pregnant for two years?

But nonetheless, the Thénardiers continue to be unimaginably terrible people, which is right. I thought Thénardier’s offer to send Cosette to Jean Valjean's room worked—this is not the first adaptation to do such a thing, even though it’s not in the book, and I think the reason for that is the way it sits beneath the surface in the book later, when Éponine and Azelma are teenagers, and gives an explicit sense of Thénardier’s relationship with everyone weaker than himself. I also appreciated the detail of them almost leaving Gavroche behind. The circumstance there reminds us (although it isn’t exactly the same) of the way the two little brothers wound up abandoned, and this was a nice nod to that.

I appreciated the way Mère Innocente kept her wit, intelligence, and power here. The other changes to the convent were understandable—in the book, he takes a LONG time getting in there, and we have the whole detour with the false burial farce—so I don’t mind the departures from the plot, although I missed seeing Fauchelevent again. But I didn’t love having Jean Valjean kick down the door to the nuns’ chapel at the moment when he should have been standing in reverence of them. We get that reverence back later in a scene that’s quite nice, but that seemed like another cheap action move that cost more than it provided.

I’ll be intrigued to see what we do next. We didn’t see Marius this week, but it looks like he’ll be back next time, as the melodramatic young man we know and love.....