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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 6, and comments on the series overall

May 26, 2019

As you may have noticed, it’s taken me a minute to get my final thoughts on this miniseries adaptation of Les Misérables in order--there were a few reasons for that, some more related to general professoring than to podcasting. But I also wanted to take my time and think through what I have to say, both about episode 6 and about the series in general. For the most part, what I have to say about episode 6 pertains to the series in general, so I’m going to take them together.

Overall, this series has allowed us to see a number of scenes that give readers of the book a kind of pleasure of recognition, and that continued in the final episode: the leaders of the uprising asking breadwinners not to hurt their families by sacrificing themselves, Gavroche’s song (including some of the original French lyrics) in his final scene, the fall of the barricade and the final moments of Enjolras and Grantaire, Jean Valjean’s struggle through the sewers, and especially the subsidence, Marius’s visit from Thénardier.

But there are some very serious absences from that list, and therein lies my disappointment. We saw so many other Very Important Scenes in episode 6, and many of them had the same liabilities that have become increasingly troublesome with each episode of this series.

One relatively simple example is that, in an effort to make Cosette’s turmoil visible on screen, it got lost in over-the-top melodrama, and she became a bit too much of a bratty teenager--a disservice to Hugo’s spiritual treatment of the love between her and Marius. In the book, we’re on their side, even though we know it hurts Jean Valjean, and while we understand his caution at people haunting around his house/garden/adoptive daughter, we know more about Marius than he does, and we can’t help but feel he’s wrong to separate them--which he figures out by the end as well. Here, I kinda wanted to send her to her room and lock her in there too. It would, after all, be the only sensible choice for a 19th-century parent whose daughter puts on a bright red dress and goes running through lines of soldiers with her hair down. *clutches pearls*

I will say in passing, before I leave Cosette entirely, that I nonetheless appreciated that she had a brain in this adaptation--she was the one who put all the pieces of the puzzle together and figured out that Jean Valjean was the mysterious hero who had rescued Marius. In the book, she is too infantilized even to witness that conversation. This was a departure, but one that I, with my 21st-century biases, didn’t mind.

The biggest liabilities in episode 6 continued to be the way Jean Valjean, Javert, and their relationship were written. To be clear, this is ABSOLUTELY NOT a criticism of Dominic West or David Oyelowo--both actors were superb, but David Oyelowo in particular did such stunning work that, during Javert’s derailment, I found myself (fleetingly) not caring about the problems with how it was set up. He would absolutely have my Emmy vote (if I got one) for that scene alone.

But the way I see it, the problem with both of these characters and the relationship between them was this: in the book, the psychological place where each character ends up is deeply rooted in larger philosophical issues about what the law, goodness, and morality are, and in how they understand their relationship to those things--issues that are difficult to develop on screen, I’ll grant, but not, I don’t think, impossible. In any case, this adaptation didn’t try--either consciously, perhaps to simplify the story for TV audiences, or out of a shallow reading of the novel--and instead, rewrote the characters’ motivations and psychological profiles to make their end points make sense another way. For Javert, that meant making him obsessed with Jean Valjean in particular, with him as a sort of fetishized criminal whose capture is more important than all others--and so it becomes Javert’s relationship with Jean Valjean, not with law and order itself, that is upended at the barricade, taking away a lot of the depth and significance of what follows.

As for Jean Valjean, this adaptation took away a significant part of how the character speaks to the novel’s central questions by never really transforming him. In the book, he has saint-like levels of generosity and longsuffering, and superhuman strength and guile to apply to them, so that in the end, when he still seems to see himself as a criminal, a misérable, and when all of society--including, until the last possible second, Cosette and Marius--seems to agree, we are baffled, and more than a little outraged. We are left feeling that the whole social structure--you know, law and custom--that makes someone like him end up as he does--you know, in a state of social damnation--IS WRONG. But, of course, Hugo wants us to think that. He told us that in the Preface that I not-so-subtly cited two sentences ago. The feeling of indignation for Jean Valjean at the end is carefully constructed by Hugo to show us precisely this. But this adaptation didn’t want to sit with that feeling, it seems, so it gave us a Jean Valjean who remained angry and dangerous, who had a reason, in the end, to think and to articulate to Marius that it wasn’t safe to have him around. He continued to be someone who was capable of going to the barricade “with half a mind to kill” Marius, just as, during his night at the Bishop’s house, he was torn between crushing the Bishop’s skull and kissing his hand. In the 17 years between his interactions with these two unconscious men, this Jean Valjean apparently didn’t evolve. But the one in the book became an entirely new man, one who could, apart from a bit of misdirection on Hugo’s part that we found mostly unsuccessful, be trusted with the injured Marius’s life. The result is that when Javert pursues this Jean Valjean relentlessly, or when Jean Valjean exiles himself from Marius and Cosette’s life, it seems to make some sense, because it’s not ridiculous to see him as the “very dangerous man” that he was when he left the bagne. But much of what the book has to say about the law, through Jean Valjean and Javert in particular, hinges precisely on that being ridiculous, on there being an almost unfathomable discrepancy between who we know Jean Valjean to be and what he is in the eyes of the law (and of Javert, and to a great extent of Jean Valjean himself).  

In order to do all that in a way that corresponds more to the book, I will freely grant that an adaptation would need more time, especially with the part of the story that we saw in episode 6, and probably with other portions too, to set up these dénouement scenes. The proof of that, in this adaptation, was that a similar strategy succeeded quite nicely in the relationship between Marius and Gillenormand. Where often Gillenormand is written out of adaptations altogether, and if he is included, he’s flattened out into his royalist beliefs to give Marius something to rebel against, here, they kept very close to the pair’s full complement of emotional baggage--the differences in culture between the pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary/Romantic character types, the deeply personal matters of Gillenormand having kept Marius’s father from him, insulted his legacy, and made the end of Colonel Pontmercy’s life so pitiable, and, arguably least importantly, the political differences of opinion. That is difficult to do in an adaptation too, especially for modern non-French audiences that may not be well versed in the politics of the era--but this adaptation took the time and energy, and pulled it off quite nicely. It’s unfortunate that it couldn’t devote the same care to Jean Valjean.

Finally, and perhaps relatedly, Jean Valjean’s death scene felt “off” in a couple of ways, even though it remained affecting. It felt rushed--we lost the slow decline, like a pendulum winding down (as it’s described at one point), that we have in the book. And I was distracted by the unnecessary return to Digne--the choice to bring the story full circle geographically was an interesting idea, I guess, and the location was beautiful, but it didn’t make sense (did the Bishop, what, leave him some property down there or something?), and didn’t fit the overall grimness of Jean Valjean’s death. In his death, just like in the end of his life, we should be left feeling that he was cheated, like fate got it wrong, apart from the tiny recompense that was Cosette’s appearance to comfort his last moments. Instead, he’s retired to this kind of Eden, still working blissfully in the garden, although he knows he will die soon, and his comfort arrived before his decline really began. He seemed to get at least a part of his reward here on Earth. Again, it seems like this adaptation succumbed to the temptation to take the edge off our feeling of injustice at Jean Valjean’s end, where Hugo asks us to sit with it in all its unease.

But the final image of this adaptation did get just a bit of that unease back, because it reminded us of Gavroche’s two little brothers, who made a fleeting appearance in an earlier episode. They are indeed two of the only surviving characters in the novel, and this is the right way to imagine them, when all is said and done. Hugo doesn’t emphasize their continued existence in misère in this same way, but we did of course see, buried in the middle of the barricade sequence--just after Gavroche’s death--them continuing to apply his lessons to survive on the streets. Here, by making that the final image, this adaptation reminds us that the novel’s problems aren’t solved, that Jean Valjean only saved one little orphan girl, and that all of the characters’ other efforts against misère were for naught. So long as these problems shall exist--in Hugo’s century or in any century--this story, in any form, may not be without use.