Honestly, adaptations are tricky. I’m very particular. I don’t mind if a film diverges from a book some, but I want there to be respect for the material, I want it to be a work of art itself, but I want it to reflect the themes and most of the plot of the original. This is why it is almost always better for me to have watched a movie before reading the book. I hate the first two Chronicles of Narnia movies because I feel that they took out all the charm of the books and left us with wars filled with children. Yet the third movie I could forgive because although they changed some of the plot, the central story of Eustace was unchanged. The Children of Men I love because it actually delved deeper than the book, giving us the sense of misery and loss that every person experienced.
I never saw the Broadway performance, but I listened to the soundtrack, and it didn’t seem to be taking its subject very seriously. At least, not serious enough for my taste. I watched the 1998 film and it was slight. And why shouldn’t it be. Admittedly, the novel is bloated (it spends a hundred pages on the battle of Waterloo to introduce a couple characters), but an 800 page novel deserves more than a couple hours.
The film is almost everything I could hope for. First of all, surprisingly, it is fast-paced. I guess I expect a five hour movie to be full of slow visuals, but this film has a story to tell, a long story, and they get to it. It has the feel of a silent melodrama like Sunrise or 7th Heaven, except the plot is more intricate and it has many more characters. It really feels like a miniseries. Each of the three films have their own theme, but there is a continuing story as well.
And the well-told story is one of my favorites. The last time I really delved into the story was watching the 1998 film. That was right at the beginning of my work to help the homeless, to create homeless community and to improve everyone’s life. I don’t know how much I was influenced by Hugo’s work, but I realize that my ideals in beginning this work is remarkably similar to Hugo’s vision.
A single saint can change the world. One act of sacrificial charity with compassion and wisdom can redirect another person. And an extreme act of generosity can reproduce generosity in others. Yes, I will admit that these are some of my goals. I’ll even admit the hubris that I am attempting to be a “saint” in Hugo’s sense, in order to change the world through generosity. Not enablement, mind you, but generosity. And not that I have arrived as some "saint"-- as God and my wife would gladly confess-- but that has been my goal for a while.
What I have done over the last 17 years is not become a saint like Jean Valjean, but to surround myself with these saints. People who sacrifice themselves for the ungrateful and wicked. People who were wicked themselves—drug dealers, thieves and whores—who are now focused on helping others.
Watching this film—experiencing this marvelous story of the making and unjust persecution of a saint—has made me realize that we have gone further, in one way, than the hyper-dramatic tale. For we have made a community of saints.
As for the movie itself? I was a bit disappointed in the final third. It slowed down some, and the scenes at the barricade weren’t as compelling for me. Overall, it was marvelous and I would watch it again despite the length.
But I will never forget two amazing performances. Of course, the lead performance of Harry Baur was perfect, and he gave a quiet depth of the main character that I have not seen elsewhere. But one performance I will remember is that of Charles Vanel as Inspector Javert. He doesn’t play it comic or overstate the judgment at all. He is a police inspector, doing his duty, making the necessary judgments that is necessary for his work. He isn’t actually a judgmental person, the way that most portrayals show him. Instead, he is a normal, rational person with the natural judgments we all have. The performance is brilliant and I wish they had given Vanel more time in his final scene to spell out his internal contradiction.
Overall, Les Miserable is a wonderful mix: inspiring, exciting and spiritually insightful. 4.5/5