Thoughts on Les Misérables

I saw Les Misérables four times on Broadway when it first came out. I have listened to the soundtrack hundreds — if not thousands — of times, and used to be able to sing the entire thing from start to finish.

And yet… I didn’t like the movie.

[Spoilers follow.]

I’m struggling to say exactly why I didn’t like it. The theater production is magic. You get chills from the opening words, you cry when Fantine dies, you cheer when the barricade forms, you stare in wonder as Javert falls from the bridge. An epic story unfolds on a tiny stage, and your mind rushes to fill in the blanks. You add the hordes of French troops firing on the revolutionaries. You add the stars in the sky above Javert, and the icy river below him. You watch Valjean carry Marius through the sewers, and you mentally add in the smell and the rats and terrifying darkness.

But in the movie version, there were no blanks to fill in, no “white space” between scenes or around the edges where your mind creates an entire world. In the movie, we see the sores on Fantine’s face, the dirt on her neck, the feces from the sewer. Instead of Javert falling powerfully and symbolically to his death, we see Russell Crowe’s body hit a stone wall and hear it crack. The emotional content of the moment is replaced by visceral horror, and for me, the whole point is lost.

There is such a thing as too much reality, too much verisimilitude. I’m hearing it from people coming out of high frame-rate version of The Hobbit: they feel like they’re on the set with the actors, not watching an epic story of adventure.

Too much reality hurts Les Misérables in other ways, too. When you see it on stage, it moves you. It makes you laugh and cry. It makes your heart soar until you’re mouthing the words “One Day More” along with the revolutionaries. But in the movie, the horror the world is played out in full — the disease, the poverty, the filth, the needless death. Most of the songs involve the actors sobbing or dying the whole way through.

When Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream” on stage, you are enraptured and heartbroken, but you aren’t actually miserable yourself. The two hours and forty minutes of the film version of Les Misérables felt like two hours of watching people suffer. There was no lightness, no upbeat tempos, almost no moments of joy or happiness. In their efforts to convey a wretched world full of hopelessness, the filmmakers bring that lack of joy right to the audience.

This is not to say the film is without merit. I thought Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche were stunningly good. Everyone (except Russell Crowe) sang fine, although I was certainly not happy to see Helena Bonham Carter (who should be banned from all musicals) and Sacha Baron Cohen show up. Still, it was a huge production that had a distinct voice and style, and I’m sure many people will love it.

But for me, the hyper-realism of the movie killed the magic of the story.