Les Misérables and Musical Éponine versus Book Éponine

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.

Emile Bayard’s iconic engraving picturing Cosette from the original edition of Les Misérables

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.

12 thoughts on “Les Misérables and Musical Éponine versus Book Éponine

  1. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    That is, indeed, a truly striking line, and you’re right: if only the world of men were so merciful as to be otherwise. Now for one of yours:

    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)…

    Not just in the Song of Moses, but in the whole Law (cf. Psalms 119:54) and the rest of the Hebrew Bible too… even the New Testament in Greek could be and probably was recited to what was called “obscure song”, a very simple three-note-range melody based on the three vocal accents. And yes, that is one of the reasons: music properly employed hits hard and cuts deeply. More importantly, music properly employed gives us “the reason behind the speech” – right up to being an exegetical aid in Hebrew Scripture on every level, including the spiritual level, not just the emotional level.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Wheeler! I must admit that when I typed that particular line, I thought to myself that you would almost certainly latch on to it, comment, and mention such matters as you have, and you did not disappoint. 🙂

    I do not endorse the idea that the entire Bible was intended by God to be set to music (what I’ve learned of Haik-Vantoura’s work through you notwithstanding), nor do I endorse the use of the music as an exegetical aid (though, I do know that you believe that it is profitable for you). I do agree, though, that music is a means to add meaningful content to a message in powerful ways, and it is certainly used to great effect in Les Misérables.

  3. I’m more familiar with the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” than “Les Miserables.” Victor Hugo was certainly a keen observer of human nature and the social conditions of his day. His characters were textured instead of being one dimensional, and that actually made you care about them. And there were a lot of unspoken subtexts that screen writers must find difficult to pass along.

  4. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Hi Mr. Smith! If by that you really mean an honest “agnosticism” on the subject, well and good. An honest “I don’t know” as the basis for lack of “endorsement” is fine. That I can help you with, at an opportune time.

    Returning to the subject at hand: at some point in my education, we students were assigned an English translation of Les Miserables. I think it was that book specifically that made me decide I’d never read of my own free will a book I didn’t enjoy simply because it was considered a “classic”. I thought it was overwrought, moralistic, and needlessly verbose (not to overlook depressing) at the time. Only when the stage musical came out did my interest in the book’s subject revive. Between times, Charles Dickens’ summary “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” was enough for me.

    Then I started editing for publication the translation of a book written in very good classical French – ironically, Suzanne Haik-Vantoura’s (2nd ed., 1978). Her book reads fantastically well in the original French – whereas its language sounds (what else?) overwrought, moralistic and needlessly verbose in English, unless one takes due care to tweak it appropriately. So maybe it’s the translation from classical French to modern English that’s the problem with Les Miserables, or my experience with it.

  5. Chris Connelly: Mmmmm… Even modified I don’t see it with liturgical possibilities, though the reprise of it at the very end of the musical often has me thinking of the Kingdom. Similar sentiments to my reaction at “Anthem” in the musical Chess.

    steve: Not familiar with Hunchback at all beyond the standard pop culture references. And I’ve actively avoided the Disney version, though I’m not entirely sure why.

    John Wheeler: If by “honest agnosticism” you don’t mean to imply a confession of complete ignorance, then that is fine. Not all agnosticism is based on ignorance, after all. If you do mean to imply that then, no, I can’t say it is an “honest ‘I don’t know'” as much as it is an honest “everything I’ve seen so far is not convincing enough to cause me to accept the strongest position on the subject, nor is it enough to refute my concerns, nor is it enough to reasonably believe my concerns will be refuted, nor is it enough to motivate me to find it worth looking into further, yet it is enough for me to leave the door open (if only cracked).” Should you need elaboration, I would be glad to help you, as well, at an opportune time. 🙂 Until that time, it looks as though these comments are enough on that subject.

    As for LM being overwrought, moralistic, and needlessly verbose, maybe that’s why I liked it so much! Sounds right up my alley. 🙂

  6. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Mr. Smith: I don’t know if your reply reflects reading what I just sent you, but again the clarification here helps. Heh, and that’s an interesting confession on your part, with regard to books that you like. 😀

  7. Howdy, again, Mr. Wheeler — No, it did not reflect that, as I just now read it, but I’m glad that it was helpful. And, yes, confession is good for the soul. 🙂 I actually don’t get to read books like that very often, but I’m not agin’ ’em.

  8. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a good read. A quick example…

    The archdeacon has an inordinate desire for Esmeralda. But he faces the internal conflict of pride and shame, guilt and lust, manipulation and frustration. Repudiated, he decides to burn Esmeralda at the stake, It’s murder pure and simple, but he convinces himself that it’s okay, because his sin is actually her fault. He purges his own soul by killing her. (Blaming somebody else for your sins).

    Quasimodo pines for being a normal member of society. Owing to his disfigurement and isolation, he has a childlike naivete about faith and honor, loyalty and justice. His forays into the world teach him that society is uglier than him. Sadness besets him – but he remembers the girl, Esmeralda, who gave him water while he was being flogged. And – childlike – he develops an intense loyalty over a simple act of kindness.

    I won’t keep you. It’s a good read if you had time – which I seriously doubt that you have. 🙂

  9. Chris Connelly

    I once refused to perform the finale in a religious setting. The venue was my last association with an organization that had been the source of my faith, collegiate education, and personal friendships since my youth. It was a troubling time and Do You Hear the People Sing is associated with the experience. Since then, I’ve had discussions with musical colleagues who share my original and current theological beliefs about its suitability. The popularity of the piece cannot help but be associated with its setting within the musical. As such, even with adjustments to the lyrics, I heartily agree with your assessment of its usage in a liturgical setting.

    Chasing a bit of a rabbit based upon your comment on Chess, I had the opportunity to beat Bobbie Fischer. Of course we were playing water polo at the time. . .

  10. Ha! I was just thinking that if I had made the same comment, for once I would want to be taken out of context: “I had the opportunity to beat Bobbie Fischer.” 🙂

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