The Cult of the Miserable Ones
Something interesting happened in the weeks that followed the American premiere of Les Misérables.
But let’s back up for a moment...
As a lifelong theater person, I have a vested interest in seeing screen adaptations of plays succeed. Unfortunately there is usually something lost in the translation from the stage to the screen. Theatre, for all of its pomposity, has an unique quality to it unmatched by other mediums. Seeing actors perform roles live and in the moment carries with it an emotional weight that can hit stronger than even the most perfectly shot film. There is that palpable sense of immediacy when you see a stage play, where in the darkest moments of the characters you are overwhelmed with the idea that THIS IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
Film, on the other hand (along with most other forms of art), brings with it a sense of THIS HAPPENED THEN. You are always aware that cinema is a recording of past events and as a result translations from stage to screen often lack the same emotional impact. Director Tom Hooper tried to blend both of these in his adaptation of Les Misérables with mixed results. More on that later.
For years people have been telling me that Les Misérables was the one show that would convince me all musicals weren't shlock. For the record I have never said that, I have said that most popular musicals were mindless drivel – but I acknowledge that there are plenty of musicals out there with more in depth characterization, themes, and plots than your run-of-the-mill Oklahoma!s and Annie Get Your Guns. Unfortunately these aren't produced that often – I can count the number of musicals on one hand that I've seen that I’d be willing to say, “This script has actual complexity and development to it!” Spring Awakening, Sunday in the Park with George, Marat/Sade (though whether or not this is a musical can be argued), and now Les Misérables.
I’m not going to get into a big debate here on whether or not Les Misérables should be considered an opera or a musical or a sing-through. Classifying shows is irrelevant. Suffice to say, I greatly enjoyed the script of Les Misérables on its own.
But I did not enjoy the movie.
As mentioned earlier, director Tom Hooper attempted to capture the spirit of stage adaptations by using a lot of unbroken close-ups and recording the actors singing in the moment. But there are a few common misconceptions that need to be cleared up. First, outside of Hathaway’s amazing rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” none of the other songs were done in a single shot. Secondly, if you believe in the idea that what the actors sang on the set was recorded in one take and placed into the movie completely unaltered - you are just kidding yourself. The most under-appreciated aspect of film-making is getting the sound levels correct. I have no doubt many hundreds of hours were spent in post-production tweaking the audio levels of the songs until they came out just right.
What Hooper failed to realize is that no matter how many times you stress the fact that the songs were recorded in the moment, because the medium of cinema is different from the stage you will never ever be able to provoke that sense of immediacy that theatre carries with it. Hooper’s biggest failure as a director was failing to understand the spirit of the medium in which he creates in. Cinema has its own strengths that theater is unable to provoke, not the least of which is the scope of visual design.
Hooper’s Les Misérables did not capitalize on any of cinema’s greatest strengths and instead chose to play to its weaknesses and that alone is enough to rank it as one of the most overrated films of the year. The endless series of closeups, a lack of any establishing shots, some questionable casting choices, and unnecessary CGI (if you took a shot of calvados for every CGI butterfly you saw in the film, you’d be drunk before the film even reached its third act).
It may seem like I hated the film – I didn't Oftentimes it was the acting that saved the film. I found several of the performances stellar – Jackman, Hathaway, and Barks were the three standouts for me. Hooper’s last film, the King’s Speech, had similar problems with unrelenting closeups and piss-poor direction (it certainly did not deserve the Oscar in 2011). But where the King’s Speech succeeded was the strength of the performances of its actors – Colin Firth in particular. Similarly, where Les Misérables succeeds is in the performance of the actors. Unfortunately, one of the greatest downfalls to Les Misérables is the performance of one of its actors: Russell Crowe. Confession: I am not a Russell Crow fan. I found A Beautiful Mind to be boring mostly based on Crowe’s insistence on performing everything with the same stony expression on his face. Gladiator was a fun popcorn flick but certainly not even deserving of the Oscar nomination much less the win.
In Les Misérables, Crowe’s performance as Javert single handedly brings a lot of the greatest moments of the script to a screeching halt. “The Confrontation” is rife with amazing opportunity, “Stars” delves deep into Javert’s character, and “Javert’s Suicide” should be one of the most emotionally wrenching songs of the show. Wasted potential, all of it.
Here’s the thing: every dramatic work needs an antagonist to serve as an obstacle for the protagonist. The protagonist for much of the film is Hugh Jackman's Jean Valjean. In Les Misérables the antagonist is supposed to be Javert. Javert not only serves as the physical foil to Valjean but also serves as a representation the greedy and the rich that the revolution is desperately trying to overthrow. When the performance of the antagonist is such a bland disaster as Crowe’s was you are left with a film with nothing for the protagonist to match wits again.
Indeed, much of Jackman’s songs as Valjean that referenced his fear of Javert fell flat because there was no emotional connection made from the songs to Crowe’s performance. If the role had been played by someone who could have brought a degree of intimidation to the role without losing the complexity of Javert’s character AND could actually sing in a voice that didn’t sound like he just had oral surgery, the film would have been much better off.
Crowe’s performance wasn't helped by the insistence on Hooper to seemingly film every single moment in the film in an unrelenting close up. When used properly close ups can bring the audience closer to the actor than even theater can (though it still lacks that immediacy). Unfortunately in Crowe’s case it only served to show us how one-note his performance was. When overused, as it was in Les Misérables, it begins to detract from the film.
One of my biggest issues with Spielberg’s Lincoln was the lack of variety in the shots. Everything seemed like it was a slow zoom in or a slow zoom out or a slow pan. It got old after a while. In Les Misérables – a story about the beginnings of the June Rebellion and the state of the common people in France during the years preceding it – these close ups worked against establishing the scope of the story.
Yes, Les Misérables, is a character piece about specific individuals but these individuals are set against the background of a much larger story. The stories of Valjean, Fantine, Éponine, the Thénardiers, Cosette and Marius, and Enjorlas are but small portions of a much larger story. The brilliance of Hugo’s novel and of the musical is how these characters claw and scrabble their way through the grime of 1800s France and how it speaks both of Valjean and company as well as the state of life during those ugly years.
By filming everything in constant close ups, often without any establishing shots to set the location, Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables sacrifices the scope of Hooper’s novel and the larger themes of Les Misérables suffers for it. When Hooper does pull back and allows the scope of 1800’s France to touch the screen – the film is absolutely triumphant. In the spectacular “Do You Hear the People Sing” the cinematic medium is used to encompass the breadth of the June Rebellion and everything that has come before.
If Hooper hadn't chosen to focus exclusively on closeups on every single song, the film would had been much better off. Instead we are left with constant shots of poor dentistry and sad eyes. I do want to point out one place where this absolutely worked – and that is Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”. She gave herself so completely to the song – it was the one moment in the entire film where I had to wipe away a tear. Fantine’s conflict is not against a person as Valjean’s was with Javert or against a faceless government as Marius’ and Enjorlas’ was, or even with unrequited love as Éponine’s was.
Fantine’s central conflict is with herself – the situation she has found herself in. While all the other characters in Les Misérables primarily come into conflict with outside forces, Fantine’s is internal and “I Dreamed a Dream” is a song about the loss of hope, regret, and is an incredibly painful song. And it absolutely deserves to be shot in close up with nothing else. Other solos, such as Javert’s “Stars” could have benefited from a wider variety of shot choices.
Something interesting happened in the weeks that followed the American premiere of Les Misérables.
My social network is primarily filled with lovers of art in all of its many varied forms. What struck me was how polarizing this film was to them. I quickly began to identify how people felt about the film and could predict their reactions to Les Misérables before they even began to post about it. Of course, this is not 100% accurate, but this is what I saw:
Theater people who didn't care much for musicals were mostly ambivalent about the film.
Film people hated it for poor direction.
Literature people dismissed it a a poor adaptation of a great novel.
Photography and visual arts people bitched about the cinematography.
Opera singers detested the singing.
And musical theater people?
That's where it gets interesting.
It seemed most musical theater people who went spoke often about sobbing throughout the film. Though many of them would criticize the person in “their role” as they could do it better than the actor in the film. But most surprisingly were the number of apologists for the film.
It seemed that most musical theater people who loved the film loved it not because it was a great film but because it was a great musical. They seemed to have a hard time divorcing themselves from staged productions they had seen or performed in and the filmed production they just saw. In the weeks that followed, I haven’t met one musical theater person who hasn't acknowledged the flaws of the film or disagreed with me when I critiqued the film to them. But every single one of them seemed to make apologies for the film.
And the excuses usually began with, “Well, in the musical they…”
The depth of passion many people have for this musical surprised me. I certainly wasn't expecting such fervent and almost cult-like defense of the film while in the same breath those apologists acknowledged the film’s many flaws.. Being unable to judge the film on its own merits presented a huge obstacle in critical discourse – people would turn a blind eye to Hooper’s poor choices because it meant that their musical was finally in theaters and it was so completely and wholly theirs that nothing, and I mean nothing could dissuade them from that stance.
The cult-like grip Les Misérables had on these people was almost frightening. I originally had given the film 3 out of 5 stars but lowered it to 2.5 out of 5 after letting it sit for a while and when I told people that they literally began frothing at the mouth in defense.
How dare I. By their reaction you would have thought I blasphemed all over the grave of Jesus Christ.
Then came the accusations. I was in no position to judge the film because how could I understand the complexity of the music if I had a hearing disability? Most certainly I couldn't grasp the sweeping score and the soaring notes of the songs. Les Misérables was completely sung – I have no musical talent whatsoever – there was no way I could possibly be a critical judge of the piece.
Never mind that I loved the songs, the script, and the actual music and that I believed the film’s issues were cinematic ones, not musical ones. In their desperate attempt to protect their baby they began to seek out the cheapest way to discredit me. People who would normally respect my critical judgment for what it was – one man’s educated opinion – suddenly felt the need to tear down the critic by any means possible.
These are smart people. People whose opinions I respect and admire. People who have never even made a noise about the hearing disability before. Suddenly they were calling into question my ability to think critically and without bias.
To say I was stunned would be an understatement. I should remark that this is not the first time this happened, to be honest, I know people pose that question in private to others and I don’t begrudge them of it. I’ve often asked those questions myself – it’s a good question to ask when coming from the right place.
But in this instance where my criticism was of the film and not of the music these attempts seemed woefully misguided. I had failed to recognize the signs of rabid fanboyism. If there is one hard and fast rule of debate – it is that you will never ever win an argument with a fanboy. The fervor they hold for the culture object of their choice is nothing short of religious fanaticism. Have you ever tried explaining to a Browncoat why Firefly, while it is a fantastic show, is not the best sci-fi show ever? You know that look they get in their eyes?
It’s the one that says: “You’re lucky I don’t have a baseball bat in my hands right now.” That’s about the same look you will get from many musical theater people if you dare to criticize Les Misérables.
The interesting thing about fanboyism is that often (but not always) after years have passed people will look back on things they loved and ask themselves, “Really? Really? I thought that was good?” This is not a film that will hold up over time. It is nowhere near the level of the 1934 adaptation. It’s not even close to the recent concert adaptation (which you can view in its entirety on youtube if you search hard enough). It is an incredibly flawed film with some high moments and many low points.
And it is an incredibly polarizing film. For now.