I admit it: I’m excited about the “coming soon” movie adaption of the musical play adaption of the book Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.
Here’s the teaser trailer, for those who might be interested (and I should say for the sake of those very interested that this post will contain some spoiler-ish comments for those completely ignorant of the tale):
I had read the book in high school (bit of a story there, but it will wait for another time) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Much later, I took my Beautiful Wife to see the hit musical play, which is as about “epic” as such things get, and, frankly, not my wife’s cup of tea, as she is ready to tell anyone who asks. It is definitely filled with sad endings for various ones. (If I go to see the movie, I will be taking my mother-in-law, who is quite into such fare). And, as an adaption of Hugo’s book–as Wikipedia will tell you, a book “widely considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century”–the musical can hardly do justice to its richness, and it succeeds by focusing on core themes to move the story along. Particularly grating to me are the handful of vulgarities and profanities that make their way into certain portions of, for instance, the “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House” songs. I understand that the songs are meant to convey the vulgar and profane nature of their topics, but the same sentiments and characterizations could have been communicated without such things.
And those things aside, one of the worst elements of adaption, in my opinion, is the character of Éponine. She’s a great character in the musical, to be sure, but Musical Éponine lacks the key characteristic Book Éponine has that helps make Hugo’s point: She isn’t ugly. Every picture I have seen of a Musical Éponine from the play’s many, many performances, she is essentially a “pretty girl” with Hollywood mud smeared on her cheeks, to indicate to us viewers that she’s among the downtrodden and poor. But Hugo went so much further in his book, penning one of my favorite lines in all of literature. (Well, OK: All the literature I have ever read.)
Éponine was to be the anti-Cosette in Les Misérables. Rescued by the grace of God (which is what the actions of Jean Valjean come to symbolize) from a life from which she could never have freed herself, Cosette grows into a beautiful young lady. Éponine, on the other hand, continues living the life that Cosette would have had, and the result is symbolized by the fact that, as Hugo so wonderfully describes, Éponine is clearly a young lady who should have been beautiful but was absolutely not. She was not to be a pretty “diamond in the rough” type, a standard entertainment trope–not the sort that when you look at her you would think that a few days at the local spa, just the right beauty tips, just the right 80’s song and–voila!–she’s ready to be prom queen in another John Hughes smash hit. Rather, she was to be the control to Cosette’s experiment, if you will: a living, breathing example of what the world of mankind can do to someone who, by all rights, should have been so much more. And it isn’t pretty. Not just “pretty covered up by grime” but not pretty.
Here’s the line that grabbed me so when I read the book in high school:
Never, even among animals, does the creature born to be a dove change into an osprey. That is only to be seen among men.
This line really struck me hard when I was in school, reading the book. I’ve never escaped it, and out of the 1500-or-so pages of the book, it is the one line that has stayed with me ever since. (Read the whole chapter from which it comes, including the description of Éponine that, I guarantee you, will not be matched by the movie’s Éponine.)
The question I’ve asked myself before is why? Why break from Hugo’s description in this particular way? Is it because the musical’s creators felt that the unrequited love that Musical Éponine holds for Marius wouldn’t grab us in the same way if Éponine were not inherently attractive? Is it because the musical’s creators felt that we simply wouldn’t sympathize with Musical Éponine, in general, if she weren’t, deep down, an obviously pretty girl?
And, perhaps more significantly: If these are the reasons, are they correct?
I must say that I still enjoy the musical (and immensely so) for its power to beat you over the head repeatedly and effectively with its themes (a big fan of unsubtlety and epicly epic epicness, I am), and I do not resent it for simplifying Hugo’s work for the sake of creating what is truly a spectacularly moving musical production. Music has a way of hitting us harder and cutting us more deeply than mere words (one of the reasons I believe God uses music and song, as He did in Deuteronomy 31:19), and the picture painted contrasting divine grace and intervention against choosing to make one’s own way in man’s world through man’s means is one I appreciate. Hearing Valjean’s words in “Who Am I?” always inspires me to take the noble path, and hearing Fantine’s pain in “I Dreamed a Dream” always reminds me of the lies that underlie this world’s paths to “happiness”–that for those who choose such paths, the tigers always come at night.
And, again, I am excited about the idea of seeing Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway bring characters of “Les Mis” to life on the screen–talented actors brought to bear on roles and performances that deserve and require a great deal of talent. But I will remember that they aren’t really Victor Hugo’s characters. They will have been prettied up a bit for easier public consumption. Fantine, I am sure, will not be selling her front teeth. And Éponine, I am sure, will be played by a pretty girl in dirty makeup–a dove made up to look a bit like an osprey, but a dove all the same.
If only Hugo had been wrong, and the world of men really were so merciful as that.