Les Misérables in Film, Theatre, and Anime
This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the opening of the musical Les Misérables at the Barbicon Theatre in London. Since its premiere, it has gone on to surprise many of its original critics by becoming one of the most celebrated musicals of all time. As of October, 2015, it has been performed professionally over 51,000 times, been translated into 22 different languages, won over 105 major theatre awards including an Olivier, 8 Tonys, a Grammy, and 5 Helpmann Awards, made 47 recorded albums, and the school version is the most produced high school musical in the US, UK, and Australia. 1 This unprecedented success is due, in part, to the source material: the novel Les Misérables written by Victor Hugo and published in 1862. The success of the musical and film is also not surprising given the success of the novel.
This article explores the staying power of this famous novel through its own popularity as well as reincarnations in film and onstage. Ultimately the success of the novel is owed to the universality of the human condition embodied by the well-developed characters which Hugo created. While Hugo and the novel had very specific politics, outlined in the first section, the story of Jean Valjean’s redemption transcends politics and culture, as outlined in the second section. Meanwhile adaptations of the novel such as the 1935 American film version, the 1985 musical theatre adaptation 2, and the Japanese anime version, entitled Shōjo Cosette, have been appropriated for their audiences.
Hugo and the Human Condition
Given the international success of his novel and its descendants, Victor Hugo would have been proud of how many people have been touched by his story. After his book started to be translated and spread around the world, Hugo wrote to his Italian publisher saying:
“You are right, Sir, when you say that Les Misérables is written for a universal audience. I don’t know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy was well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbor slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds… do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps” 3
Hugo and his work were part of the Romanticism movement of the Nineteenth Century; a movement which is defined by Harvard professor Francis Fergusson as a genre in which “artist prophets” like Hugo expose the inconsistencies of the bourgeois culture which defined itself by rigid, close-minded thinking and social constraints. 4 To a Romantic like Hugo, titles which we use to define ourselves such as race, class, gender, nationality, etc. are illusions which distract us and hide our truer selves. This theme is evident in the fact that a criminal like Jean Valjean is not defined by who he is, but by what he does. Likewise, Fantine is defined by her motherly devotion and not her status as “whore.” This theme is also present in the fact that there is no place in Hugo’s world for Javert, who represents the bourgeois establishment and lives according to the codes of their absolutist, “reasonable” ideology.
Thus, Hugo’s radical novel, complete with personal memoirs, literary “red herrings,” ramblings on morality, contemporary tabloids, and a more detailed account of the Paris sewers than anyone asked for, was seen by many as a mirror reflecting mankind. 5 This view was even shared by those who disagreed fervently with Hugo’s politics.
After the success of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (Hunchback of Notre Dame), his new novel Les Misérables was highly anticipated. Hugo helped fuel this anticipation by releasing a vague statement to the press from his publisher stating, “What Victor H. did for the Gothic world in Notre-Dame de Paris, he does for the modern world in Les Misérables.” 6 Posters were spread all over Paris featuring characters from the novel while people literally fought in the streets to get copies. While the book was criticized for everything from its sentimentality, to its “socialism” (even being banned by the Vatican), no negative review could stop the novel from becoming a populist juggernaut even in the most unlikely of places.
Because of Hugo’s strong anti-slavery stance, who would expect Les Misérables to become wildly popular in the American South, during the middle of the Civil War? Nevertheless, the novel made its way into Confederate bookstores as a Southern reviewer states:
“Indeed, for M. Hugo, the abolitionist, we entertain a sincere pity… He calls himself a philanthropist, he is warring, much after the manner of Don Quixote, for the regeneration of humanity; and believing that the negro is his brother.” 7
This statement reflects Hugo’s Romanticism and the way it was in conflict with more mainstream thinking in his day. However, despite this Southerner’s need to correct Hugo on his “ignorance,” this reviewer cannot help but love the novel; following this criticism of Hugo’s politics by asserting that,
“The picture of the workings of a mind [Jean Valjean], tossed between the Scylla and the Charibdys of Good and Evil, and painted in this part of the pages of Fantine stands alone and without parallel in modern literature. It is a grand and luminous vision of the interior of a noble soul-it is the core of a great heart revealed, turned inside out.” 8
I would argue that it was the Southerners’ own circumstance which made them understand misery in the way that Hugo’s characters do. One Confederate Soldier speaks to this notion in his account of the devastation which the South experienced towards the end of the Civil War when he writes:
“Everywhere, you might see the gaunt figures in their tattered jackets bending over the dingy pamphlets — Fantine, or Cosette, or Marius, or St. Denis, and the woes of Jean Valjean, the old galley-slave, found an echo in the hearts of these brave soldiers, immersed in the trenches and fettered by duty to their muskets or their cannon …. Thus, that history of ‘The Wretched,’ was the pabulum of the South in 1864… It was no longer the book, but themselves whom they referred to by that name. The old veterans of the army henceforth laughed at their miseries, and dubbed themselves grimly, ‘Lee’s Miserables!'” 9
Thus, long before any film or musical version emerged, Les Misérables had already captured the imagination of the world proving the Romantic ideal that even political differences are nothing compared to the shared human experience of suffering.
We Were Only Hungry
There have been many adaptations of Hugo’s masterpiece over the years beginning with his son’s attempt to make it into a play (which was banned) and several silent film versions. 10 Adaptations have appeared in times of war, peace, prosperity, and recession. Each new version makes its own cuts and changes, as well as its own impact on a target audience who will relate to the sufferings of the characters as the Confederate soldiers did. One of the more poignant film versions appeared in 1935 during the Great Depression.
This version, directed by Richard Boleslawski, opens with Valjean’s trial. In the novel, the trial is presented as a flashback, but the film chooses to start the events chronologically. Valjean’s courtroom monologue reflects the era of the New Deal more than the Romanticism of Hugo’s day, and is spoken in a colloquial American style as Valjean tries to reason with the judge:
“I didn’t mean to steal, Sir. What was I to do? There’s my sister and her family. I’m their sole support. There was no work, and no bread… You don’t know what it means to be hungry. You don’t know what it means to be out of work! I’ve tried and tried! I’ve walked twenty miles a day to find work. No work! No bread! I didn’t mean to steal. We were only hungry I tell ya!” 11
This Valjean is American in style and ideology. Valjean’s use of reason over emotional appeals speaks to the Protestant work-ethic values which are at the base of American morality. He does not care about the dismantling of bourgeois values, the freedom of mankind, or the battle of Good and Evil: he simply wants to work hard and feed his family. The undertones of passion and revolution are not present in this version because in the 1930’s, American leaned more towards social conservationism in the shadow of anti-Communist fears and the wake of the Great Depression, which had been blamed by some on the looseness of the 1920’s. However, even with the film’s deletion of Fantine’s entire prostitution plot-line, this film might be considered radical because of its advocacy for things like higher minimum wages in lines to Valjean as mayor praising him because, “Nobody pays better wages or looks after his work people like you do.” In this way, Hugo’s voice rings through all the sugar-gloss as slavery in the 20th Century is defined as economic oppression. In this version, one can see the ways in which Hugo’s work is adaptable to a changing world.
The world of the 1980’s was a far cry from Hugo’s world (or at least Margaret Thatcher would have liked to think so). Many in the West saw their culture as a beacon of light and freedom compared to the oppressive Communist states. Nevertheless, the 1980’s was filled with, not just international tensions, but economic ones as well. It was not, however, the grumblings of the working class which made the musical theatre version of Les Misérables an international success. It was a combination of clever marketing, foreign investors, and the overall culture of British musical theatre in the Thatcher years which saw the iconic young Cossette logo seen all over the world.
One of the marketing tactics that became incorporated into musical theatre in the 1980’s was the use of logos. Musicals of the 80’s such as Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and Les Misérables often refereed to as “megamusicals” because of their size and grandeur, have recognizable posters. The images were standardized and mass-produced, much like the copies of a printed book. What these musicals have in common is that they are produced by Cameron Mackintosh who also perfected the art of using technology and resources to transplant musicals all around the world with the same standard as they had been produced in London. The exportation of British musicals of the 1980’s was only possible due to the fact that unlike British non-musical plays of the time, which focused on British identity and politics in a post-colonial world, the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the French duo who wrote Les Mis and Miss Saigon (Alain Boubil and Claude Michel Schönberg) were more universal.
Like the 1935 American film version, this musical made vast cuts and watered down Hugo’s politics into the Golden Rule and fights for “freedom.” However, by removing the politics and turning human misery into a catchy song, audience members around the world are allowed to identify with the characters even though they do not share the same kinds of extreme miseries which were common in the Nineteenth Century.
The universality of Les Misérables was tested, and triumphed, most of all in Japan: a culture which had little understanding of things like Nineteenth Century Romanticism or Christianity. Despite the cultural differences, not to mention performance style differences required for a Western musical, Japanese investors from the Toho Company saw potential and Les Misérables opened with much fanfare and the royal family in the audience.
It is not difficult to imagine the reasons that “Les Mis” as a novel and musical found a home in Japan. Daisaku Ikeda, a Japanese religious leader read the novel during WWII at a time when, like the Confederacy, the Japanese were suffering. He explains the reasons he was drawn to the novel, and later the musical: “While striking out at society which would give birth to such tragedy, he envisioned an ideal world where all people could coexist in peace.” 12 Here, Ikeda speaks once more to Hugo’s Romanticism and hints at the way in which, despite the simplification of Hugo’s work for the musical, the basic component still exists in the message: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Hugo’s style is consistent, in some ways, to Japanese styles of storytelling, particularly in Anime. The 2007 Anime Les Misérables: Shōjo Cosette, the fourth anime adaptation of Les Mis, is probably one of the closest adaptations to Hugo’s original novel than any other. Firstly, because the story is presented as a series, there is time in the 52 episode saga to include many episodes and characters that have been cut from film and stage such as Eponine’s sister Azelma. Because the series is geared towards children, certain darker aspects have been cut such as Fantine’s prostitution and Javert’s suicide. However, the order of storytelling, although not chronological, mirrors the novel more as does the emotional pacing and attention to detail. In the final episode, Valjean echoes Ikeda’s sentiments that the world is not perfect, but there is the potential for positive change.
In conclusion, the many, many adaptations of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables proves not only the universality of the novel but Hugo’s Romantic notion that we are all connected as human beings in our sufferings and our dream that “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” -Victor Hugo
- “Facts and Figures” Les Miserables (Official Website). Accessed October 13, 2015. ↩
- I have not included the 2012 film version in this study because many of the same principles of the stage musical apply to the film while the musical’s journey from stage to film could fill a whole other article. ↩
- Behr, Edward. The Complete Book of Les Misérables. New York: Arcade Publishing. (1989). pg. 39,42 ↩
- Fergusson, Francis. The Idea of Theatre: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective. New York City: Doubleday & Co. INC. (1955). pg. 81 ↩
- Behr, 38. ↩
- ibid., 38. ↩
- Rosselet, Jeanne. “First Reactions to Les Misérables in the United States.” Modern Language Notes, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Jan., 1952). pg. 42. ↩
- ibid., 42. ↩
- Masur, Louis. “In Camp, Reading ‘Les Miserables’” New York Times (Blogs). Feb. 9, 2013. Web. Oct. 21, 2015. ↩
- Behr, 42 ↩
- Boleslawski, Richard. Les Misérables. 20th Century Pictures. (1935) ↩
- Young, Jin and Ikeda, Daisaku. Compassionate Light in Asia: A Dialogue. London: I.B. Taurus. (2013)., pg. 185. ↩
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