Les Misérables: From Birth to Revolution

Les Misérables (musical)

Les Misérables (musical) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most anticipated films of the year was Les Misérables, which became a riveting success catching hearts all across the world.  When I walked into the theatre I wasn’t unsure what to expect; the trailer had aroused much emotion from within me, but I still wasn’t too clear on the plot or the context. The three act film was a gorgeous work of cinematography and it only felt right that it should have been adapted with a musical in mind. But, how did this historical musical on inequalities, redemption and love come around? Like Les Misérables itself, the story’s evolution comes in three parts: political novel, powerful musical and provocative film.

I Dreamed a Dream:

The novel, Les Misérables was first published in 1862 by the author Victor Hugo, who was also the writer behind The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Surprisingly, when the novel was first released, although it gained a wide publishing campaign and it was a sell-out, it wasn’t that admired by the critics to the same extent that it is today. No wonder it took Hugo seventeen years to put quill to paper as with its five volumes and three hundred and sixty-five chapters, Les Misérables (in the English translation) is a staggering 1,500 pages. Now, that is a hell of a lot of editing! Fellow author, Upton Sinclair had explained that Hugo’s meaning behind the novel was symmetrically parallel to the plot; to speak out against the social divide in society. Hugo was a well-known Republican activist so the themes of rebirth and change mirror the actions he believed society needed to follow.

It is a surprise to learn that the two leading male consistent characters in the novel: Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, were based loosely on the same man in history, Eugène François Vidocq. His link to Valjean makes sense as he shared many attributes with the character as he: saved the life of an employer trapped underneath a cart, rescued a sailor on the Orion, stopped a prostitute from being arrested for assault and, most notably in the plot, he was an ex-convict turned businessman. Strangely, it also makes sense that he influenced Javert too as he created the very first private detective agency and, more credibly, he was the founder of the Sûreté Nationale in 1812, basically the Paris police force, which rules became the fundamentals of Scotland Yard and the FBI.

Hugo also received inspiration from his everyday experiences. He witnessed the climatic June Rebellion on the 5th of June, 1832. Whilst he was writing in the Tuileries Gardens he heard gunfire from Les Halles and he decided to follow the noise. Barricades were covering this area in the city and he found himself taking shelter between columns as gunfire was shot by both opponents for fifteen minutes.  Also, his inspiration for why Valjean became a slave came around when he witnessed a male being arrested for stealing bread on the 5th of June, 1832.

Castle on A Cloud:

Who would believe that a good idea was to turn an emotional deeply thematic 1,500 page novel into a stage musical? French songwriter, Alain Boublil, did. He was the first person who had the idea that a musical adaptation would work well when he was in London watching the Oliver! Musical. He explained that: “As soon as the Artful Dodger came onstage, Gavroche came to mind. It was like a blow to the solar plexus. I started seeing all the characters of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—Valjean, Javert, Gavroche, Cosette, Marius, and Éponine—in my mind’s eye, laughing, crying, and singing onstage.” I’ve inserted this quote because I found it quite ironic how in the film Gavroche had reminded me so much of the Artful Dodger. I even came out of the cinema saying how it was funny that the film was meant to be set in France, but here we have a mischief boyish character who sounds more Cockney than the average East Ender.

Boublil focused on the lyrics and teamed up with composer, Claude-Michel Schönberg who created the music and after two years they had released a two hour concept album. Their work was used by film director, Robert Hossein, in the first stage production of the musical in September 1980 at the Palais des Sports in Paris. This original production then inspired an interpretation by London’s West End. Cameron Mackintosh produced the English version with it being adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, where it opened in October of 1985 at the Barbican Arts Centre in London.

One Day More:

Now we move onto the climatic development of the lot: the film adaptation. Only three years after the Les Misérables musical debut in London did talks of a film adaptation come about. Alan Parker, who had experience in the musical film business with Fame in 1980, and would go on to have successes in the historical drama genre with Mississippi Burning (1988) and Angela’s Ashes (1999), was considering to direct the film adaptation in 1988. Although, this did not result to anything as in 1991 Bruce Beresford was confirmed to be the film director for an adaptation with co-producers Cameron Mackintosh and TriStar Pictures. This project failed however, and it wasn’t until 2005 that there was again interest in the film feature. The DVD release of Les Misérables: 25th Anniversary Concert confirmed that an adaptation was on the cards when producer Eric Fellner persuaded Mackintosh for the film rights in 2011 and had William Nicholson write a screenplay.

With a story contrived with history and with a cult fan following it meant that a good director had to make sure that the film would not be a let-down. That is when Tom Hooper, the director of The Kings Speech (2010) comes in. He was offered to take on Marvel’s Iron Man 3 for his next project, but he instead turned it down for our Les Mis. With him on board it was only a matter of time before actors attacked to squeeze into any role they could get their paws on. When watching the younger version of Cosette in the film, I thought her to be identical to Evan Rachel Wood. It turned out that the actress was in the shortlist to play my favourite character in the film, Éponine. I think she was going on for the wrong part! The film has currently one three Golden Globes, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture and it is nominated for nine BAFTA Awards and the Best Picture for the 85th Oscars.

So there is the story of how Victor Hugo wrote a 1,500 powerful novel, which became a musical adaptation and in turn a film as its third stage in its revolution. There’s no doubt that Les Misérables is going to continue gripping audiences around the world. What’s next for the franchise? A Les Mis theme park? Only time will tell…