“But it hasn’t got any songs.”
I’m sure that most people who have watched the current BBC TV production of ‘Les Misérables’ were perfectly aware that it was not going to have any songs, and of course that the original novel by Victor Hugo does not have any songs. Nevertheless, I find the allegation that some viewers have not enjoyed it for that reason to be very interesting. If it is true, then almost certainly they had come to the current drama by way of the very popular musical, which was premiered (in French) in 1980, was a huge theatrical success in English and was made into a hugely successful film in 2012.
There is a school of thought which regards the original source of any story as somehow better than adaptations. I have some sympathy for this when the adaptation is poor, or strays a long way from the original. However, a good adaptation can provide an entry point to the original, or at least provide a convenient way to enjoy an important story or make it better known. (After all, how many people read the ‘Iliad’ in the original Greek? And wasn’t it originally, as so often, an oral tale?)
So, to ‘Les Misérables’. So many people whose opinion I value (yes, that may well include you) raved about the musical that we went to see it. It was visually spectacular, but just didn’t move us. For me, a musical has to have some sort of justification for the songs. ‘Sunny Afternoon’, the Ray Davies musical about the Kinks, of course has their original songs. ‘The Greatest Showman’, the story of circus impresario P.T. Barnum, is essentially in the context of a show with music. However, despite my efforts, most musicals don’t move me: I include opera in this. The music is great, the songs can be great, but the whole concept doesn’t work for me. So it was for the musical ‘Les Misérables’.
(By the way, do people other than me still say “raved about”?)
However…… as I mentioned above (do keep up at the back there) an adaptation can provide a good entry point to an original. In this case, although the musical didn’t encourage me to read the original novel, I thought I was probably missing something, so was eager to see the six part BBC TV production.
Of course, having six hours to tell the story enables much more of the original novel to be used than the two hours 40 minutes of the film musical, especially when the characters don’t have to break into song every five minutes. The production was written by Andrew Davies, who has done some very impressive classical adaptations. In an interview, he said he had made the chronology of the original Victor Hugo novel and had removed the digressions. Without having read the original and with one episode still to go, I would say that he and the cast and others have done a fine job.
It’s a tale of redemption and obsession. It has a lot of misery in it- the clue is in the title- and one certainly gets a very good idea of the appalling condition of the poor in 19th century France. However, humanity shines through. The plot is told clearly. After the first two episodes one was in no doubt of who everybody is, and how they begin to relate to each other. I thoroughly recommend it, unless of course it has aliens landing in the final episode. (Although that might be fun.)
Andrew Davies has a reputation for “sexing up” classical texts. Mr Darcy’s wet shirt in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is often cited as an example. I’m not convinced this is fair, but then again, I don’t fancy Colin Firth. I didn’t really spot the alleged sexing up of ‘Les Misérables’.
So, having enjoyed it so much, in a spirit of adventure I started to read the original novel. It is, of course, a translation from the French; so the version I read was not really original. (In general, as I believe I may have written before, I try not to read translations, because there is so much to read in English and so little time to finish it all.)
It’s long. The Penguin Classics version is 1232 pages. That in itself wouldn’t stop me, but…. The first hundred pages is, to my mind, rather boring back story, not chronologically the beginning, just the sort of thing Andrew Davies clarified. The prose in the translation I tried (not Penguin) is what I can best describe as beige. The plot moves glacially. I am sure I am missing some literary points, but, dear readers, I have stopped.
I strongly believe that you should not struggle to finish a book if you are not enjoying it or do not believe it’s doing you some good. (See Unfinished Books.) I was not enjoying Les Misérables, I don’t find it positively life-changing and I don’t need to read it for academic purposes. You may, of course, differ, and I wouldn’t want to discourage you.
I would, however, recommend the BBC adaptation as a great introduction and a great way to enjoy the story in its own right.
That is, of course, unless those aliens land in the last episode.
Footnote 1: Interesting point for pedants? “Premiere” seems to have lost its grave accent (as in première) when it passed into English. “Les Misérables” retains its acute accent, no doubt because it is a title.
Footnote 2: Other adaptations of ‘Les Misérables’ are available.