It’s been almost 35 years since the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables opened on the West End, drawing in 70 million theatre goers worldwide, and 7 years since it hit the big screen, collecting 3 Oscars. The musical’s success may have changed popular association of the title from Hugo’s 1,231-page book to the stage production; however, Andrew Davis set out to challenge this with his six-part drama adaptation, taking the story back to its non-musical roots.
Fans of the musical should not be put off at the prospect of a melody-less Les Mis and fans of the book should be assured that the novel is in safe hands, with Davis’ previous adaptations consisting of BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice and 2016 War and Peace. The first few minutes may take some getting used to as the background score makes those familiar with the musical half convinced the prisoners will break into an angry song. However, it doesn’t take long for the style to establish.
This dramatisation offers a deeper look into Hugo’s epic novel, closer to the one experienced in the book. It covers much more ground for the simple reason of extra screen time and the lack of music, rather than making the storyline heavy going (it is called “The Miserable Ones” after all), it makes the struggles and suffering presented even more hard-hitting.
For fans of the musical, it brings to the table a closer look into the characters’ backgrounds, relationships, flaws and developments. For instance, Valjean’s transition from thief to honest citizen is much more pronounced when we see him, not only stealing the silverware from the priest, but also remorselessly stealing money from an innocent child. Whether it’s the charm of Hugh Jackman or the absence of this scene from the musical, Dominic West’s Valjean is much more dislikeable at the start of the story, making his redemption that much more remarkable. We also see Lily Collins’s moving portrayal of a young and naïve Fantine, being deceived by a student and their relationship before he cuts ties with her and their daughter to return to his father’s southern estate and Fantine’s subsequent dilemma to leave Cossette with the Thénardiers in order to be able to work and provide. The same amount of detail goes into the stories of Marius and the Thénardiers as well as establishing the links between all the characters.
For newcomers, it offers an impressive condensed version of Hugo’s tale of good and evil, privilege and poverty, oppression and revolution with a cast of Oscar nominees and BAFTA winners including Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar as the infamous Thénardiers, David Oyelowo as Javert, as well as promising new talent found in Ellie Bamber, Erin Kellyman and Reece Yates.
Whether you’ve read the book, seen the musical or are a complete newcomer to Les Miserables, missing out on this dramatisation is a huge mistake.
Image: BBC iPlayer