Adapting Les Misérables: Psychological depth and the period drama

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The BBC’s adaptation of Les Misérables has been a huge success, gripping Sunday night viewing for the last five weeks offering the first truly comprehensive dramatisation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel.

Andrew Davies has changed our relationship with the period drama and as a result of an equally epic War & Peace two years ago, and a trilogy of enduring hits two decades before – Pride & Prejudice, Vanity Fair and Tom Jones – he has created works in which the characters feel as rounded, human and as flawed as their original authors intended while making their timeless emotional and intellectual dramas feel contemporary. The success of Les Misérables lies in the psychological truth of the characters with Davies treating Hugo as his most important co-writer.

Reading the novel for the first time aged 17, and countless times since, the scale of this 1,200-page behemoth is initially overwhelming and intimidating. A cast of hundreds with the action taking place across the vast geography of France in a 20-year period as the nation agonised over its recent revolutionary past and a political battle between monarchy and republic which led to frequent, violent confrontation akin to civil war.

Hugo’s multi-stranded narrative follows a group of characters who become unexpectedly enmeshed in each other’s lives as the various subplots draws them all to Paris for one explosive and poignant conclusion that neatly unites history, politics and fiction in what is an exceptional achievement in storytelling. Les Misérables is also an incredibly unusual novel taking a sequential approach to its character-histories, linked only by the protagonist Jean Valjean whose own life story is constructed through his appearance in other narratives – there is a book of Fantine, one of Cosette and a book of Marius, but only in the final section does Valjean warrant his own.

Frequently too, the story is disrupted by Hugo’s many digressions lasting for 10, 20, sometimes 100-pages, taking the reader out into a contextual discussion that showcases Hugo’s views on topics as diverse as a particular order of nuns, the construction of the Paris sewers or the penal system. These can be bulky and distracting but are designed to give a complete picture of the world of the novel, one that helps us to visualise particular locations or to understand why individuals choose to act as they do.

For example, more than hundred pages is dedicated to the Battle of Waterloo, a defining moment in modern French history for Hugo’s generation, yet it is not until the final couple of pages that two characters we know – Thenadier and Colonel Pontmercy – are brought together in a way that reverberates through the story. It is no coincidence that this was the starting point for Davies’s adaptation, a startlingly clever move that immediately set the tone while relegating the central character to several scenes hence, just as Hugo himself chose to do – Valjean is a fully-rounded and quietly heroic creation but he is also a cipher for other narratives, Les Misérables, quite deliberately, does not begin with him.

Few other television writers would be as brave and what Davies has done so effectively is to distil all of that text, those sub-narratives, events and detours into a tidy episodic structure that really for the first time does full justice to Hugo’s spectacular and intricate work. With six hours to play with, Davies has included scenes and vast swathes of the text never fully dramatised before, which for lovers of the richly layered novel is such a thrill. The root of all of this is that Davies simply trusts Hugo to tell his own story rather than inventing his own simplified version, and it is a joy to see the reverence this production has for the source material.

Each week, there has been a recognition that the density of Hugo’s writing is deliberate, that the small moments including the cruel abandonment of Fantine as a practical joke in Episode One, to the criminal events of the Gorbeau Tenement as Valjean is lured into a trap in Episode Four, and the even the tender relationship of Marius’s tragic father watching his boyhood from afar, are fundamental to the psychological shape of the story and what each character chooses or is compelled to do as a result.

Les Misérables is richly captivating, lyrically beautiful at points while also fierce, angry and incredibly moving, but what makes it so compelling is the endless compassion for the poor, the destitute and the wretched. Almost all of the principle characters have their story told in full and Hugo offers endless scope for redemption, no one is ever written-off for having once engaged in criminal acts that prevent them from changing their behaviour, on the contrary we see how often their transgressions are driven by desperation and circumstance rather than genuine depravity. Even the monstrous Thenadiers are softened by Madame T’s devotion to her young daughters (a “she-wolf” in Hugo’s description) and, in Olivier Coleman’s excellent performance, a fear of her husband with hints of domestic abuse, while the adult Eponine and teenage Gavroche redeem the family name with their bravery and self-sacrifice.

Valjean is the most obvious recipient of Hugo’s benevolence, and in spite of the bitterness of his incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread (which the novel makes clear was to feed his sister’s starving children) extended to nearly 20-years by repeated escape attempts, Valjean overcomes past hurts to become a respectable and generous man. Dominic West has been superb in a role that evolves considerably in the course of the novel; at the beginning, finally released from prison Valjean is all the things policeman Javert goads him with – coarse, embittered and quick to reoffend, his short temper frazzled by the suspicion and hostility that greet him.

West’s thoughtful performance conveyed the brutality of Valjean in Episode One, broken-down and almost feral, his whole body thrums with fury, dejection and injustice until the Bishop’s act of salvation creates a fascinating dilemma in the reawakened conscience of Valjean that West conveyed exactly. We have watched his humanity germinate and blossom in the ensuing episodes, and West has well conveyed the commanding factory manager troubled by his thoughtlessly harsh treatment of Fantine, and how his instinct after the Champmathieu affair in Episode Two is always to sacrifice himself to protect others, even at the risk of his own incarceration.

It is his fatherly devotion to the protection of Cosette that has been so warming in a man who has never known the simultaneous contentment and pain of unconditional love. A crucial moment in a dress shop in Episode Four was a wonderful example of screen acting from West as Valjean recognises for the first time that he is about to lose his adoptive daughter to the adult world and, still indulging her enthusiasm, a frozen smile with eyes full of sorrow conveys a moment of real heartbreak for the character, one which significant events in Episode Six will demonstrate means he will always sublimate his personal happiness to the greater good.

The idea that a person cannot be defined by a single act pervades the novel, most notably in the upright and steadfast certainty of Javert whose dogged pursuit of Valjean across the years is shown to be both noble and misguided.  The psychology of Javert is calibrated slightly differently to his nemesis, seeing the world through the prism of law and order, where an individual’s approach to rules and expectations determine character and behaviour.

David Oyelowo’s Javert is a tad less sympathetic than in the novel, and his pursuit of Valjean, the affront his freedom represents to Javert’s quite black and white concept of criminality and justice, has been less well explored, but Oyelowo has shown the dogged determination and fervent disgust for transgressors of any kind that fundamentally shapes Javert’s personality. You see him visibly blanch when encountering Fantine as a prostitute and at the residents of the Gorbeau Tenement, seeing only their actions and not the cause, leaving them with few options. This clarity of thought and of how monochromatically Javert sees the world will be challenged in Episode Six in an excellent opportunity for Oyelowo to demonstrate his skills and how well he understands this character.

Hugo’s endless compassion has been very evident on screen, most obviously in the sympathetic, though never mawkish, treatment of Fantine (Lily Collins), capturing her romantic naivety and the inevitable decline from poverty to shame – and how ghoulishly wonderful to see the teeth-pulling in all its horrid glory enacted by a chilling Ron Cook. Davies has maintained Hugo’s complex presentation of characters so even the students who we finally meet in Episode Four led by the dedicated Enjolras, and the romantic awakening of the dreamy Marius (Josh O’Connor), retain their individuality as well as their collective political fervour which during the superb barricade sections ensures you feel for the grandness of the gesture they are making as well as the smallness of its effect in the overall history of France.

There have been many adaptations of Les Misérables but none of them has felt as complete and satisfying as Davies’s approach, given the space to breath and evolve by the BBC across many episodes. From the interior depth of the characters and the grittier choice of locations, to the way in which the series as a whole has captured the politics, the history, the romance, and themes of social justice that unite Hugo’s vast novel, Davies and his team have told the story with a care and attention that has been impressive and very welcome. While much of Marius’s political and personal transformation as well as the context of the student’s experience building-up to the barricades has been sadly cast aside, Davies only fault has been to be so disparaging of the musical which, though decades old and by necessity a much shorter stage piece, had captured the spirit and feeling of Hugo’s words better than any other adaptation by drawing directly from them for the charming solos and rousing company numbers. It’s easy to scorn musical theatre, but Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s love and reverence for the novel shines through every moment of their composition.

It is the psychological complexity of the characters and a respect for the original author that has made Davies work so successful for so long. So many period dramas just tell the story, using the basic plot but without really creating a true sense of the world in which it exists or any credible sense that the characters are as human as we are. The desperation to prove contemporary relevance leads to rewrites, invented backstories and in the case of Agatha Christie adaptions entirely different murderers. You never feel with Davies’s work that he believes he knows better than Victor Hugo, and the original novel is always the heart and soul of each scene – contemporary relevance is stamped all the way through his productions because these novels deal with the enduring struggles of human nature as pertinent to 1832 when the latter part of the novel is set to 1862 when it was written and to 2019. With one final Episode yet to air, it’s clear that Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Les Misérables will be the definitive one for years to come.

Les Misérables is showing on BBC1 and Episodes One to Five are currently available on the BBC iPlayer and will be available for a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.
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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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