When I heard back in January that PBS was broadcasting the new BBC miniseries, Les Misérables, this April-May, I was delighted for many reasons. Les Misérables is one of my favorite novels of all time. I am a big fan of the Broadway musical, having watched the anniversary concerts online and listened to the Broadway album. I’d also seen several screen versions. But I’d always felt that the productions I’d seen were hampered from doing full justice to the novel by their short running time. I decided, in honor of the new version being broadcast, that I would offer here a comparison between the various screen versions.
To my amazement, I discovered that Les Misérables has had over 30 screen adaptations—starting with several silent films! There was no way I could obtain or see all the adaptations in a short period of time, so I narrowed down my watchlist by trying to discover which versions were considered “the best.” Over the past six weeks, I’ve tried to watch as many as I could.
If you would like to spend your summer watching a fantastic screen version of this great classic, read on!
Some might wonder why I might be so fascinated by the various adaptations of this particular story: a novel first published in 1862 in France. Despite its sprawling nature and frequent digressions (entire chapters of description or philosophizing), Les Misérables is a truly great novel. Victor Hugo developed the story over many years, and frequently modeled incidents and characters on real-life experiences. Perhaps because the initial story and characters are so compelling and the novel itself is such an incredible achievement, I found something worthwhile and enjoyable in all of the screen adaptations that I watched, even the ones that weren’t that great or that I really didn’t find faithful to the novel.
Like all great stories, Les Misérables deals with timeless problems that will always haunt a world suffering from the ravages of sin: injustice, poverty, and oppression. The novel enables us to explore the workings of nature and grace in the lives of the poor ones of this world, the “wretches” or “miserable ones.” (And this was Victor Hugo’s intention.) With its many subplots and detailed accounts of many characters, the central story that pulls the entire novel together is the transformation of Jean Valjean, a hardened ex-convict who spent 19 years in a hard-labor prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nieces and nephews.
Les Misérables on the Screen
Watching so many film versions has been very rewarding and enabled me to immerse myself in the interior journey of the protagonist, Jean Valjean. Hugo’s insights into human nature and the workings of grace offer a great deal to reflect on for our own ongoing journeys of conversion towards holiness. To me, Valjean is a great example of an ordinary man who has been greatly sinned against and yet responds to the grace of God to become holy in both the extraordinary and ordinary challenges he faces.
Perhaps I will do another blog post on the novel itself, but for now, if you are interested in watching a great movie, here are my choices for the four best screen versions of Les Misérables.
4. 2012 adaptation of the Broadway musical, directed by Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman.
The Broadway musical is famous for good reason. I have never seen it onstage, but as I mentioned above, I have listened to the music countless times. Since I’ve never seen the musical on stage, I won’t offer a critique of its fidelity to the plot of the novel. But I do know that it greatly condenses the novel’s events and leaves out great swathes of the intertwining stories. But through the music, the stage production offers a depth of insight into the characters that some film versions don’t.
The 2012 film version of the Broadway musical is even shorter. As an adaptation of an adaptation, it is also so short that it cannot possibly be faithful to the original story. For the most part, the musical performances in the film are adequate but not truly outstanding, with the exception of Anne Hathaway’s incredible performance. But even in this shortened, melodramatic version of the novel, the songs that are included are incredibly powerful and offer a wonderful interpretation of the interior sentiments of the characters, something that many of the other screen versions do not succeed in offering us.
(For those for whom the stage version is inaccessible, the best way to experience the full power of the musical interpretation of the story, is either the 10th Anniversary Concert or the 25th Anniversary Concert, both widely available.)
3. 1978 British television version, directed by Glenn Jordan, written by John Gay, starring Richard Jordan.
This adaptation is so condensed that it really doesn’t do justice to the themes of the novel, yet as the very first screen version I saw, it made a lasting impression on me. Partly this is because it has my favorite onscreen version of one of my favorite characters — the bishop who changes Jean Valjean’s life, portrayed by Claude Dauphin.
Out of the many two-hour versions available, this would be my choice.
The final two screen adaptations go far beyond all the other screen adaptations that I’ve seen. Excellent films in their own right, they are also marvelous, in-depth adaptations that are faithful to the spirit of the novel.
2. 1934 version in French with English subtitles, directed by Raymond Bernard, written by Raymond Bernard and André Lang, starring Harry Baur.
Surprisingly contemporary in feel, this is a wonderful film on its own merits. Great direction by Raymond Bernard and a very strong performance by Harry Baur as Jean Valjean make this film stand out even today. (And make me eager to see Bernard’s other films.) Handheld camera shots bring us right into the battle scenes, and the angled camera views reinforce how askew this world is, where a man may be imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed children.
The screenplay, written by the director and André Lang, is excellent overall. With a lengthy running time of 281 minutes, the film is able to cover much of the scope of the novel and is faithful to its spirit. However, I was disappointed by a couple narrative changes that were made near the end of the film, because they take away both from the drama and Jean Valjean’s heroism.
Some of the other screen versions play around with the arc of Jean Valjean’s transformation as if he never really changed (for example, the 1934 Hollywood version). Baur’s Valjean, however, shows a realistic progression in his growth from a hardened ex-convict into a compassionate man of integrity who, in the end, has successfully chosen to love, even in the most challenging and desperate circumstances.
For the most part, the acting is superb, although the acting styles of the female characters feel quite dated—especially the melodramatic repetition in the lines and acting of Fantine, who receives a good amount of screen time that is wearing, and Cosette, who seems overly naïve.
Despite its age, this was the best screen version of Les Misérables that I’d seen, until I had the privilege of watching…
1. 2018 BBC Mini-Series, directed by Tom Shankland, starring Dominic West, written by Andrew Davies.
Amazing in scope, depth, and fidelity both to the novel and the TV medium, this is far and away my favorite screen version of Les Misérables. (The trailer doesn’t do it justice.) At over six hours, the BBC adaptation has the time to not only fully develop the novel’s intertwining stories, but also to go deep into the development of the major characters, especially contrasting various characters who find themselves in difficult situations and respond so differently. Some original dialogue between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert (in one of my favorite portrayals of this character by David Oyelowo) offer insight into how these two men cannot understand each other, even after an undeserving Javert experiences Valjean’s compassion.
Novels and movies differ in essential ways, so no screen version would equal the novel, and vice versa. But the BBC miniseries offers insight into so many elements of the novel, with its lavish scale not just in length, but in scenery, setting, costumes, and actors. The BBC miniseries has, like the novel, a rich tapestried background of the times in France.
You can listen to my commentary on the BBC mini-series Les Misérables on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here.
In terms of the screenplay, the script by Andrew Davies is superb especially in its fidelity to the novel’s spirit, even when it varies the timeline or compresses events recounted in the novel. Davies wisely chose a chronological retelling of the story, so that the relationships between the characters are clear and unforgettable. This gives us plenty of time to get to know and connect with the characters. The only drawback to this method is that the first episode (the first hour) is rather slow-moving. But this attention to character and set up is paid off in every subsequent episode.
Even though we are treated to in-depth portrayals of the many characters, Davies uses Jean Valjean as the center of the story around whom everything else revolves. Brilliantly structured as a miniseries, almost every episode ends with a real turning point for Jean Valjean: a choice that he must make if he is to become a man of both integrity and compassion, who chooses selfless love and true justice over evil and social conformity…every time. But every time, the choice seems to be more difficult—which is a tribute to the director, writer, and actors.
Davies’ expert script also reveals the novel’s brilliant comparisons and contrasts between good and evil, law and mercy, justice and love. In being faithful to the characters, especially Jean Valjean, the miniseries explores the theme of what to do in the face of the misery of oppression. Valjean’s freedom of choice to do the loving thing is a stunning contrast to the evil choices of others (like the Thenardiers) and the constricted choices of others (like Javert), and also a clarion call that is echoed in the selfless choices of other characters.
Almost every screen version of Jean Valjean has some appeal, even when other aspects of the film were lacking. But Dominic West’s Jean Valjean is by far the most compelling. He doesn’t hesitate to portray the ex-convict almost a monster that we pity but also feel a real aversion for. His growing heroism—as each choice confirms him more deeply in being the good man he has sought to become—is not without its cost. West offers us a wonderful portrayal of a man for whom justice, mercy, and love have painfully become his highest values…and who suffers greatly at all he loses. On his journey from ex-convict to privileged and wealthy mayor, to simple gardener, to a loving father, Jean Valjean finally returns to being the simple and hardworking peasant of his youth, but transformed: a peasant who is no longer misérable, because he selflessly lives interiorly and shares with others the life of God. Recognizing the depths of his own sinfulness and the greatness of God’s grace, Valjean seeks only to love, to choose the good of others. In all the screen versions that I have seen, Dominic West best portrays this transformation, revealing just the right amount of emotion, and becoming an onscreen version of the fictional saint. (Yes, if a fictional character could be canonized, Jean Valjean would be one of the great saints.)
The story of Les Misérables has always been a story that powerfully reveals the difference between good and evil, between the Gospel and various conventional and often sinful standards of society. Victor Hugo clearly intended to show the working of grace in a desperately wounded, broken soul, and the difference that correspondence to God’s grace in one man can make to individuals and society. But the novel and this miniseries go far beyond theory: we see sin and grace at work in the lives of characters who are startlingly real and identifiable. And all along through the story—whether the novel or screen—we root for Valjean: not just for him to escape physical prison, but also to escape the prison of selfishness, unhappiness, and spiritual poverty. Despite the sacrifices Valjean makes, we rejoice with him as he makes the right choices, above all the choice to love, because we become captivated not so much by his suffering, but by his goodness.
In a landscape of media that tout selfishness and evil, and victory at all costs, Les Misérables is an inspiring and rewarding story about the transforming power of self-sacrificing love, a love modeled on that of Christ.
If you love great stories or the classics, great acting, nuanced and fully developed characters, and a masterful plot that pulls all of these elements together, this Les Misérables is a must-see. Rarely do I find a film or show that is truly binge-worthy, but this BBC/PBS Les Misérables mini-series is an exception: a great choice for your viewing this summer.