A helpful local billboard has informed me that Les Miserables, the touring stage production, will be in town soon (or has already been in town – I forget).
My first thought: “Ugh, didn’t I just see that?”
I did. And whatever hopes I had that the new movie version would salvage the stage production for me were curiously moot, because the things I hate most about Boublil and Natel’s adaptation of Les Miserables are endemic to their adaptation. (Some, but not all, are mitigated in the novel, or at least in its English translation.)
The Top Five Things I Hate About the “Musical Phenomenon” Les Miserables:
1. Jean Valjean.
This is a man who spends his entire non-bread-stealing-or-hard-laboring life trying desperately to atone for…what, exactly?
His “sins,” mortal and venial, can be counted on one hand:
- Stole a loaf of bread. To feed a starving child, which is generally considered justifiable – but if it isn’t, he also spent five years at hard labor to repay said theft. Sin, if it is a sin, absolved.
- Tried to escape from prison. Because prison is brutal, and so trying to escape brutality is generally considered justifiable – but if it isn’t, he also spent fourteen years at hard labor to repay said jailbreak. Sin, if it is a sin, absolved.
- Pinched some silver. For which he was forgiven – officially, by a member of the clergy – and the silver delivered unto him as a gift. Sin absolved.
- Despaired of the existence of God. Which, granted, is a “grave matter” if one is Catholic. But even a grave matter only becomes a mortal sin if one persists in it in the full knowledge that one is persisting in a mortal sin – which Valjean doesn’t. He repents of it and refrains from doing it again. Sin absolved.
- Broke parole.
Valjean’s parole violation is the one sin (or crime, anyway) for which he never atones, even when he is given the direct and specific chance to do so. But all his other good-doing in the story isn’t done in order to atone for breaking his parole. It’s the other way round. His breaking parole is done in order to facilitate all his other good-doing. Huh?
It’s not merely that Russell Crowe fell woefully short on the vocals, or that the movie adaptation’s subtle rewriting of the lyrics of “Stars” shoved the story’s entire theology off the rails. It’s that we’re asked to believe Javert is the “bad guy” when in fact he never does anything bad. On the contrary – Javert’s dedication to the rule of law, rather than the rule of men with their individual exceptions based on personal whims, is itself a deeply American, and French Revolution-ian, ideal.
Because Javert is a law enforcement officer, we might expect him to abuse his power; “bad guy is a cop abusing his power” is a recognizable trope. We’d expect this especially if Javert had a particular grudge against Valjean – although there’s no evidence of such a grudge.
But Javert never abuses his power. His pursuit of Valjean isn’t a rogue project by a cop gone bad; it’s Javert’s job to catch parole violators, among others. Javert thinks people who break the law deserve whatever the law prescribes for transgressions; that the law in play in Les Miserables seems to us unduly harsh is not Javert’s doing. Javert is a guy whose job is to ensure that those who do the crime do the time, and he’s committed to doing his job. He’s a law-enforcement hardass. That’s it.
There’s a sense in the stage production that we’re supposed to hate Javert because he’s a hypocrite. But where, exactly, is his hypocrisy? When Javert and Valjean face off in the hospital immediately after Fantine’s death (Valjean having just announced that he did in fact break parole, but not having just turned himself in to pay the piper for it), we learn that Javert “was born inside a jail.” The implication is that he’s hypocritical for having been born “with scum like [Valjean]” but seeing himself as an upright law-abiding dude nonetheless.
But this isn’t how it works. Being born in a jail is not, itself, a crime. Javert has nothing for which to atone, because he personally has done nothing wrong – the circumstances of his birth are neither criminal nor within his control. You know what is a crime within someone’s control? Breaking parole. The thing for which Javert is trying to hold Valjean accountable, which is Javert’s role and responsibility. Sure, Javert is relentless about it, but there’s nothing inherently evil about being obsessed with doing your job and doing it right.
We’re not asked to hate Javert because he’s in the wrong; we’re asked to hate him because he’s got a stick up his arse. Sorry, but if a dude’s actions are upright, I can’t hate him just because he’s not the kind of guy I’d invite to a dinner party.
This giant pile of moist self-pity drags down the entire middle of the show. GO AWAY.
4. Marius and Cosette’s romance.
There is no possible interpretation of this “romance” that can save it – it’s the single most incomprehensible event in a show full of incomprehensible events.
Boy sees girl across a crowded street. Boy sings a duet with girl through the barrier of a
balcony garden gate. Boy and girl sing a duet about the agony of being cruelly separated, despite not actually knowing anything about one another except their names. Boy miraculously fails to die of sepsis after being hauled through the Paris sewers with open wounds. Boy and girl get married, despite still not actually knowing anything about one another except their names and that boy apparently has a magical immune system. And this is the happy part of the ending.
Seriously? If Romeo and Juliet taught us anything, it’s that shotgun teenage marriages never end well.
5. “The Man.”
The events of Les Miserables take place during the Paris Uprising of 1832, also known as the “June Rebellion” – but you wouldn’t know it from the stage and screen adaptations, which are fatally vague when it comes to identifying who the hell these kids are playing war against. Stirring popular anthems aside, it’s hard to identify with “the people” when you have no idea who’s got them all hot under the cholera.
One Thing I Do Not Hate About Les Miserables: Cow Farts
Despite these things, Les Miserables isn’t all bad, and neither is the film version. I was particularly pleased that the film managed to include my personal favorite character, Vachelevent. He’s the elderly gentlemen whom Valjean saves from a squishing under the loaded cart and who later conceals Valjean and Cosette within the local nunnery, where he’s the gardener. I just can’t help but love a man whose last name is basically “Cowfarts.”