Monday, 24 December 2012

Les Miserables or Why the book isn't always better than the film

As I mentioned the other day, I had been frantically reading Les Mis in order to finish it before I saw the movie. Unfortunately, I saw the movie yesterday, with 200 pages still to go. But 200 out of 1300 isn’t too bad, so I’m quite happy, all things considered. So now, having read most of the book, watched way too many videos of the musical on YouTube, and seen the movie, I am in a position to judge which is superior.

To begin with the book, it is bloody long. 1300 pages of long, interspersed with, among other things, a forty- page description of the Battle of Waterloo, a thirty-page history of a relatively unimportant convent, and a forty-page character sketch which Hugo assures you “in no manner concerns, even in the remotest degree, what we have to relate.” Every scene of action or dialogue is bookended by a treatise on philosophy, history or politics, given either by one of the characters, or shamelessly by Hugo himself. (He also indulges in some shameless self-promotion of his family, with asides totally unrelated to the plot, such as this “….for the space of two hours, the heroic Captain Louis Hugo, the uncle of the author of this book, sustained alone with his company of eighty-three men every effort of the hostile army.”) The book basically reads like Victor Hugo decided to write a novel, wrote everything that came to his head for the next ten years – political thoughts, character sketches, backstory, etymology of his characters’ names, the occasional piece of genuine plot – and then gathered it together into a vaguely chronological order, and by some sheer fluke managed to get it published. Other books leave the readers with lingering questions to inspire them to write fanfiction. In any other novel, you might be able to ask yourself – Why did Cosette’s father leave Fantine? Has Enjolras ever been kissed? What is the etymology of Valjean’s surname? But not in this novel! Any thought Hugo ever had regarding his novel, you’re going to know about.

That's much more like it, Marius.
It’s difficult to say whether the expansive, rambling and occasionally incredibly implausible plot of the book is better than the cut-down plot of the musical and the movie. The Eponine-Marius-Cosette love triangle, which really annoyed me in the novel, is greatly improved. Book-Marius has nothing to his character except love for Cosette, and is only interested in the barricade as a way to die when he thinks he’s left her. He’s also an emotionally abusive boyfriend. (“I give you my most sacred word of honor, that if you go away I shall die.” Not on, Marius. Not on.) Musical-Marius is a passionate revolutionary who struggles to choose between his girlfriend, and his friends on the barricade. His relationship with Eponine also changes from a random girl who loves Marius basically on sight to a good friend who provides a genuine  alternative love interest for Marius. In this respect, the writers of the musical did a much better job that Hugo.

On an aside, Hugo wouldn’t know how to characterise a female character if he found one floating in his tea. One day, Cosette looks in the mirror and decides that she’s beautiful. The next: “She at once acquired the whole science of the bonnet, the gown, the mantle, the boot, the cuff, the stuff which is in fashion, the color which is becoming, that science which makes of the Parisian woman something so charming, so deep, and so dangerous.” Yes, Victor Hugo, this is exactly how being a girl works. When she sees a bird making a nest with its mate, she feels “the deep restlessness which a nest gives to a maiden.” Yes, Hugo, all girls work like this, too.

This is sadly the best picture I can find.
He is really much prettier than this.
On the other hand, the revolutionary students, who are some of the best characters in the book, in my opinion (and also some of the few realistic ones), are nothing more but faces in the movie. You miss out on a lot of the rapport between them, and I don’t think you get nearly as much understanding of the fact that as well as being passionate republicans, they’re also just a bunch of friends who like to get drunk and talk politics. I felt like I didn’t get a chance to get to know them before they all died (because remember: everybody dies). I didn’t actually have this problem the first time I saw the musical, before reading the book, but once you know the names of all the revolutionary students, you feel really sad when they only mention the names of two of them. (But don’t worry, because Grantaire is a babe). 

Basically, a movie can’t possibly provide the same depth of character a book can. It can characterise better, as in the case of Marius and Eponine, but it can’t really characterise more. You can fit as much into a book as you want. In a movie, you’re limited by the amount of time people are willing to sit in a cinema before their eyeballs fall out. But that also means that a movie has to streamline and tighten plot, and to keep on topic, which I don’t think it would have hurt Victor Hugo to do just a little bit more.

At the end of the day, the book is too long, but the movie is too short. (Honestly, it would probably make a great TV series). On the plus side, when you read a book, you get to choose which parts you pay attention to, and which parts you skip, whereas if you watch a movie, someone else does the choosing for you. And honestly, I really enjoyed the Battle of Waterloo. I feel educated now. Overall, though, it’s probably best to take book, movie and musical as a whole. The book has deeper characterisation, more complex plot, and will provide you with a thorough grounding in the history of France. It also takes weeks to read. The musical has better characterisation, amazing songs, and lasts for under three hours. And the movie? The movie has Grantaire’s face.


  1. Haha great review! I have yet to experience the full book or the movie, so this helps me set my expectations... Very interesting.