Les Misérables: a thought in progress

The first time I came across Les Misérables in any form was the Penguin Popular Classics English version, a heavy abridgment taken from an audio book. I sang a few of the songs from the musical in secondary school. I saw the film during my PhD. It is only this summer that I finally got a moment to sit down and read the mighty tomes of the French original. This is not an indictment of alternatives – in fact, I’m quite glad I experienced them in this order. Here I’d like to talk a little bit about why, but mostly the differences and similarities I saw across the English, the film and the original, adding the recent BBC series as a continuation of my interest in the incessant adaptation of the Hugo text. My comments are thus not exhaustive – there are MANY adaptations of this book!

Something that I’ve noticed across the years – and that I’ve often used as ammunition against reading in translation – is that English versions almost always cut out large chunks of historical context. It’s been done with Camus, and it’s certainly done with Hugo (to give you an idea, the original is approaching 2000 pages, across two volumes in the folio edition. The Penguin Classic is a skimpy 10% of this length.). I’ve never been able to decide if this is pragmatic – the editor decided an Anglophone audience didn’t need, or wouldn’t understand, the French historical background – or sensationalist, a move designed to re-package the work into a more bitesize format. We see this all the time with film adaptations.

For me, the most interesting divergence and distortion that occurs across these versions is to be found in the presentations and development of character profiles. I’m not particularly talking casting, here, more elements that have been foregrounded with scripting, stage directions, and narrative arcs. The characters that have stood out for me have been: Jean Valjean; Monseigneur Myriel; Fantine; Javert; Gavroche. You might be thinking, what about Cosette? Is she not the star of the show? I’m not here to talk about Cosette. She’s been talked about a lot, as Bradley Stephens highlights in his excellent analysis, and I’d like to consider a few other characters.

Jean Valjean, in the book is more human, for example, his original crime is more complex than the ‘stealing a loaf of bread’ cited by the film (he broke a window to gain this loaf); his robbing of a child in his post-release fever is erased in the film. In other words, he is elevated to a higher, almost saintly status (and Marius even states ‘your father is a saint’ to Cosette). Interestingly these details are re-found in the recent TV series.

Monseigneur Myriel – in the film, he is seen as benevolent, and even more so in the original (for once, his character has not been magnified through this adaptation). Yet in the TV series, he gains a threatening side in the sequence where, on covering for Jean Valjean’s theft, claims that he has bought the latter’s soul in a much more aggressive stance than the other renditions.

Fantine regains her back story in the TV series, which was almost completely lost in the film. Nevertheless, there is some ambiguity in the timing of the arrival of Cosette in relation to the presence and later departure of her father, Félix.

Javert seems to have a heightened suspicion towards Jean Valjean in the series. Also, when he commits suicide, it is simply into the Seine. The specific placement from the original, maintained in the film, is lost here.

Gavroche is my absolute favourite character, across book, film, and TV series. Sparky and irreverent, he changed the notion (and coined the French term) of street urchin forever. But for me his character loses some of its facets in adaptation. In the book he is much more caring, despite being much younger than portrayed in the film, and especially in the recent TV series. His brief adoption of two children in the street is removed in the film and glossed in the TV series. It is only in the original that the audience is made aware that these two children are in fact Gavroche’s younger siblings, of which he is unaware. Despite his own poverty, he takes them in, feeds them, and houses them in his hiding place in the Elephant of the Place de la Bastille. His caring nature extends to his own detriment, for example, when he steals a purse because he overhears Mabeuf talking of his financial struggles (as readers we are somewhat dismayed that Mabeuf then hands this in instead of helping himself); in another part, he gives away his blanket to another street child, simply because he deemed her colder than himself.

I haven’t done enough research on the subject to know why these decisions and changes were made in adapting this story – and this blog post is simply raising them as points of interest – but I wonder, by way of a conclusion, if it can be put down to presentism. Taken in its most neutral sense, we can see it as adaptation to reflect contemporary societal concerns – something we can certainly see as positive if it improves on the representation of, say, the role of women (recent examples include the new Aladdin, and the forthcoming Little Mermaid, both of which set much better role models than those of my childhood!). But if we are to take a negative stance, these adaptations, particularly if they are adapted, not from the original, but from each other (à la some translations of Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième sexe, which were taken from the inaccurate and frankly insulting English version, rather the French original), the risk will always be of distortion. And if they are the only version to which a person is exposed, what is to become of the legacy of the original?

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