[1935/2012] Les Misérables

Film without music is a bizarre experience. It is theoretically possible to edit out non-story musical moments from any film – all that is required is the audio stems and a big mute button. The experience would be cold, mildly alluring, and tremendously disjointed. Film scores, often referred to as “the background music,” are clever editing tools to guide an audience through complex story concepts; musical themes signal to the audience that this character has that relationship with this event. Repeat these musical motifs and there exists a complementary story line and tools to tell it. The themes, tone, and timbre of a film are all usually told through a musical story. There is sufficient cause to praise scores within and without the context of their respective films and there is sufficient reason to know of these composers: John Williams, Howard Shore come to mind. Schindler’s List and The Lord of The Rings are treated as masterful because of the treatment of tone via music.

There is instead a different take with movie musicals – in which the music is the purpose – and the dialogue serves as transitory at best. This is also different from operatic performance, in which the transitory dialogue is the music. The music is almost always cloyingly nice or dramatically silly. There is room for comedic musicals and overdramatic musicals on purpose. Musicals are marketed as universal and inoffensive – even ones that deal in subjects whose accompanying music sanitizes horror or deleterious violence. And parents will take their children to see them because enjoying music is a universal human trait, innate to children and there is no need to explain what music is to a toddler or pre-teen. Their purpose is to entertain, and they almost uniformly do. There is no objective rub with film or stage musicals.

Les Misérables has been seen and not read for over a century, the first of whose adaptations appeared on screen in film’s first foray, J. Stuart Blackton’s 1909 take. Victor Hugo’s marvelous epic tale is historically rigorous, characteristically clear, and obviously adaptable to be acted, directed, and enjoyed. For 118 years, until 1980, Les Misérables was a film trafficked in dialogue, in characterization, in setting, and in continuity. But in 1980, music, now almost ubiquitous songs like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Master of the House” define the story and frame it as an experience whose story is meant to sell the songs. And it has been wildly successful. Les Misérables’ 2012 adaptation was nominated for Best Picture, the film that best represented the world’s pulse for the year. It, however, was not the first version of this film to do so: 1935’s fifth adaptation (of now 17 overall) was filmed and nominated first. Despite the media narrative, 1935’s version is a better, more succinct and narratively sound version of Hugo’s original. It does not have songs (which were written in the late 1970s) and barely a score. But this film captures Hugo’s existential despair better than 2012’s cartoonish take. 

The success of 1935’s Les Misérables has roots in the limited technological ability of the time, so director Richard Boleslawski’s version required the earnestness and commanding presence of Fredric March’s Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton’s Inspector Javert to carry it; Tom Hooper’s 2012’s Hugh Jackman/Russel Crowe combination provided a vessel for the dialogue and lyrics, but ultimately half-commanded the screen, which emphasized theatrics and framing over keen acting performance. The strength of the music carried the later film, but its ultimate sterility fundamentally violates Hugo’s tale of despair and sacrifice. It is a chore to watch all 160 minutes of Hooper’s film. Also, and not to be understated, Russell Crowe cannot sing, nor realistically would Javert have any narrative reason to.

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