I’ve been saying for a while now that I would do a blog on this. So I will do so now in two parts. Let’s start with the backstory. For those unaware, LES MISERABLES, sometimes affectionately known as LES MIZ or LES MIS, is a long, 1400-page novel by Victor Hugo, originally published in France in 1862.
What is the story about? Well, it isn’t so much one plot as a collection of plots, coming together to show a portrait of society’s ills. For example: most people are familiar with the opening episode of Jean Valjean and the Bishop’s candlesticks. Valjean is a criminal on parole from prison, showed cruelty and distrust everywhere he goes. To his surprise, an old Bishop shows him kindness, offering food and shelter, which Valjean rewards by robbing the old man in the middle of the night. He is soon caught by the police but, in a surprising act of selflessness, the Bishop lies on Valjean’s behalf and allows him to go free, lets him keep all the silver he has stolen, and even willingly gives him a gift of two candlesticks. Valjean is shocked by this act, realizing he has been given a rare gift of freedom he does not deserve, and that he has the choice to make himself a better person. For the entire rest of his life, Valjean attempts to cleanse his past and be worthy of these candlesticks.
Now this story I’ve just told you is still relevant today and to our justice system. A) Valjean was first sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. FACT: Today, many individuals are forced to turn to crime due to the environment in which they have been raised as a means to survive. B) Although Valjean is sent to jail for a petty crime, his time in prison turns him into a hardened criminal, worse than he was before. FACT: The cruel world of prison often creates and breeds criminals rather than “corrects” them. C) Because Valjean’s reputation as a paroled criminal causes everyone to distrust or exploit him, he is left with the choice of either being a criminal or breaking parole. FACT: Paroled criminals are victims of prejudice and given little change to properly rejoin society, so inevitably they find themselves returning to crime.
So what happens next? As Valjean starts a new life, we get the plot of Fantine, the single mother who is a victim of circumstance and misogyny, and is forced to become a prostitute to support her daughter Cosette, who as it turns out is also being exploited. A generation later comes Cosette’s own story of falling in love with a law student named Marius, and then there’s Marius’s story of his estranged grandfather. Oh yes, and there’s also a plot about a police inspector named Javert who’s entire worldview is changed within the course of the story. And there’s all the added characters only seen in the book like Petite Gervais and Father Mabeuf. All of this climaxes in the Paris uprising of 1832. As you can see, it’s many interwoven plotlines, with Valjean at the center.
It’s hard to explain why this story has such a universal appeal, but I honestly think that Victor Hugo may well have written the greatest story of the modern era. It feels so modern and examines society and injustices that continue to this day (unfair laws, corruption in the courtroom, prostitution, poverty). I once heard an explanation that actually summed things up very well: Valjean is a superhero. He starts as an everyman with a generic everyman’s name, similar to Peter Parker, he has an origin story that causes him to always have a secret identity, and he has super strength! LES MIZ then is less a story than it is a mythology. Every emotion is so broad, every character an archetype, and so there is always a character that everyone can relate to over the course of the sweeping melodrama.
I first discovered the story when the 1998 film version was released when I was 13. Ironically, this was not a particularly good film and I would probably have forgotten the story had this been the end. Then, later that same year, I saw the Broadway musical and that’s where I fell completely in love with the material. I spent all my high school years playing that soundtrack. Later I also saw a high school version starring my friend playing Eponine. The musical, composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg with lyrics by Alain Boublil is a very faithful adaptation. Many mistakenly think it’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and it’s not hard to see why; it was released high on the heels of his success with CATS and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and had that same bombastic style, though a little more sophisticated. For New York’s musical theatre crowd, LES MIZ had a way of dominating conversation in the ’80’s and early ’90’s. Check out this clips showing the musical’s global appeal:
Throughout that period of super fandom (with my 14th year being the strongest) I would occasionally eye the original novel when I’d see it at Barnes & Noble, skimming through it. It seemed inevitable that one day I would eventually read it, but I was too young then.
Finally, in 2008, a full 10 years after my first encounter, I started reading the book and I finally got the full story. I can’t express what a rich experience it is, and how Hugo jumps around from narrative to essay to history lesson. When people asked me how the book was, I would answer “It’s kinda like reading a Bible. There isn’t one story; there’s a bunch of them over a backdrop of social commentary.” I devoured the book over 4 months.
After finishing it, I put it aside and moved on to other books, including Hugo’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (which is also great) and Tolstoy‘s WAR AND PEACE (which has a lot of similarities to LES MIZ, but less compelling story or characters). But Les Miz always remained in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until maybe a full two years after finishing it that I realized “You know something? LES MIZ is my favorite book of all time!” And so it’s been ever since. With my favorite film of all time being ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and my favorite TV show of all time being BREAKING BAD, all three of these works are strikingly similar. Clearly I have a thing for stories about men who struggle between a life of crime or being a better person, thought interestingly LES MIZ is the only one where the protagonist chooses the right path. Noodles and Walter White both fail.
As far as film adaptations go, I think the best is definitely the 1934 French version. There’s also an hour-long cartoon I discovered on YouTube that’s surprisingly faithful you can watch here. I also watched a little more than half of the 2000 version with Gerard Depardieu, which I hated. But this was the 3-hour English dubbed version of it; I’ve hear the full 6-hour French version is a lot better.
I wonder how poor Victor Hugo would feel if he knew that 150 years after his death poverty would still be a global problem, but his novel would be the basis for horny 16 year-olds writing erotic fan fiction about Valjean + Eponine? I’ll definitely be doing a future blog on the nature of fan fiction in general, but first, join me next week when I can finally talk about what all of this has been leading to: the 2012 film version of the musical LES MISERABLES!