Les Miserables

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I am probably one of the only people in the civilised world who knew practically nothing about Les Miserables before going to watch the film. Of course I knew it was set in Paris, was where that Susan Boyle song was from, and was sad, but that was the sum total of my knowledge. The story was a mystery, the characters a mystery, and the obsessive love so many people seem to have for it a mystery. My mum is one of the latter people; she’s seen the musical loads of times and thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread. As such, she was desperate to see the film, and so last weekend we trudged through the snow to our local cinema to enjoy the promised spectacle of Les Mis on screen. I had no idea what to expect, so prepared myself accordingly; as I am prone to inconvenient tears, I made sure I had a stash of tissues in my bag, and just in case there were any unpleasant bits, I took a scarf to hide behind. As the lights went down, I was quivering with anticipation; a roar of song met my ears, a breathtaking image of men pulling a huge sailing boat into dry dock met my eyes, and I was instantly enthralled. I don’t think I blinked for the next two and a half hours.

I was shocked at how quickly and cruelly Fantine’s life changed after she lost her job; how little choice she had, how little opportunity to change her lot. Juxtaposed to this, I was amazed at Jean’s ability to transform his life so completely from being nothing but a number to the most prominent man in his town; what inner strength, what courage he had. I was incensed at Javier’s inability to empathise with Jean and his lack of willingness to open his heart to other people. I was awestruck by the bravery of Marius and his friends, willing to lay down their lives to fight for the freedom of the ordinary people who were living under such oppression. I was moved throughout by the acts of kindness and selflessness that elevated ordinary people to the rank of the extraordinary. I loved the epic, sweeping scale of it all; so colourful, so passionate, so raw, so powerful. The realistically patchy singing made it even more intense; if it had been spoken in ordinary dialogue, it would have lacked so much of the soul that comes forth on screen. I felt like I was there, on those teeming, filthy, suffering filled streets of 19th century Paris. The two and a half hours flew by; I don’t think I’ve ever been so engrossed in a film.

I remained dry eyed throughout, but there was a very significant lump in my throat as the lights came up. I felt that I had been through an experience as I left the cinema, buoyed up on a renewed sense of faith in the essential goodness of the human race. A week later, I still find myself randomly bursting into song at inopportune moments, my eyes misting up at the memory of Jean and Javier and Marius and Cosette. I’d like to say that watching Les Miserables has made me a better, more selfless person; it hasn’t. But it has made me flirt with the idea of picking up Victor Hugo’s novel. Has anyone tackled this behemoth? Is it worth it?

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54 comments

  1. Is it worth it? Yes and no. There are parts that are incredibly moving in the novel that just are not as powerful onscreen – the whole section about the priest just rips my heart out – but so, so many lengthy digressions about things I didn’t care very much about. (Make that “cared zero, zip, zilch about.) But the novel is rich and rewarding in many ways. I always marvel at the power of the novel to make the reader experience the reasons that people in poverty make the terrible choices that they do – it feels very current.

    1. Yes, it is worthwhile reading the book but I would recommend the abridged version. I went with the unabridged version last summer in preparation for the movie and lost patience with the digressions and started skipping large sections. But if you want a fuller understanding of the characters, by all means, I would recommend the book.

      I am so glad you liked the movie as much as I did as I have been reading some really nasty (and in my opinion, unjustified) criticism of it.

    2. Thanks so much for your advice, Mumsy – I think I am definitely going to read it. You’re so right in saying how current it is – especially in our financial times, the issue of poverty and desperation is so pertinent. Perhaps that’s why the story has such a powerful resonance and popularity.

  2. Taylor took a scarf along with her as well but it was almost used as a murder weapon as she wanted to strangle the young man sitting beside her who made comments to his father throughout. She kept things to a minor telling off, thank goodness. I loved the film and had material for singing sessions in the shower for weeks on end! Haven’t read the book though, sorry. It can’t be as trying as Villette though, can it? All the best!

    1. I hate people who talk through films! Taylor should have used that scarf!! Glad you loved the film too – wasn’t it amazing?! Oh Villette…we did try! I’m sure Les Miserables might be a bit more eventful?!

  3. I read the abridged version before I saw the movie or musical. While it does give you a more detailed explanation about the events happening in onscreen, the edits and condensing did give it an occasionally choppy feel. Now I’m about 300 pages into “The Brick” (what the unabridged book is commonly called) and have really been enjoying it! I like the greater level of detail about the characters. I know there are some boring digressions coming up, but I think I’ll be able to tell what is skim-able. So if you have the patience, I’d recommend the unabridged version. Many fans swear by the Signet paperback translation, but I’m reading the free (yet older) Hapgood translation on Kindle (for ease of transportation and highlighting). Sorry if that’s a longer opinion than you wanted, haha!

  4. I read the book so long ago it’s as if I’d never read it. I love a looong novel, so the length would have been a plus. I’ve never seen the musical–I can’t think of the musical without recalling The Sopranos’ Adriana calling her fluffy white dog Cosette.

  5. I read the unabridged book many years ago after seeing the stage show several times and i definitely felt it was worth it for all those extra details that they can’t possibly include in either show or film. Besides, i tend to feel that reading abridged versions of any book is a bit like cheating! I have only just found your blog and have so much enjoyed all your very well written reviews that I am inspired to search out and read the many of the authors you have introduced me to. Many thanks.

    1. Hi Pauline, thanks for your advice! I agree – I’d feel like a terrible cheat if I read an abridged version! I’m so pleased you’ve been enjoying my blog – I hope you’ll find many a new favourite from my reviews!

  6. I definitely think it’s worth it, I’ve read it and loved it in one translation and am about to read it again in another. It makes me feel like I have been swallowed whole by the book so I can’t wait to take a deep breath and dive in again. :)

    If you fancy tackling it avoid the Wilbour or Hapgood translations (both out of copyright and so they pop up in cheap editions and ebook versions) – they’re very stilted and you won’t get the feel for it. Denny’s translation (all Penguin editions, including clothbound) is abridged but a very powerful, enjoyable text, it’s the one I already know. Rose’s recent unabridged translation (Vintage) is huge and has received a bit of flak for being clumsy in places, but I like the idea of reading the full text just once so it’s this one I am tackling next month…

    Er, hope that helps!

    1. Twice! That’s a recommendation in itself! That definitely helps, thank you. I’ve had my eye on the new Rose translation – I think what I need to do is go to a book shop and compare them, then buy. That way I will be able to see which one floats my boat more!

  7. It’s definitely worth it. I haven’t watched the film, but the amount of emotion the book manages to convey is striking. Jean Valjean’s inner struggles are wonderfully written, to the point where you can feel his conflict as your own. He’s without a doubt one of the, if not the, most perfectly constructed character I’ve ever come across. Fantine’s fall from grace and the abuse Cosette undergoes at the hand of the Thenardiers are written with a detail and emotion that will make you want to rage and cry at once. And as someone who went from hating Javert to pitying him and wishing that he would live, I’d say you have to be taken into his mind in order to fully understand the complexity of his character. Or rather, his journey from simple-mindedness to complexity.
    Anyway, condensed version: yes, read it. Like others have said, there are large chunks of the book that can drag out a bit, but as Les Mis isn’t really (in my opinion, anyway) about a character but about a country and a civilization, I’d suggest not to skim over them (with the exception of the blasted tangent about Paris’s sewer system. Feel free to skim over that, I wish I had). All in all, it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read and it’s worth every second invested in it.

  8. I am in the midst of the Denny translation right now. I am about on page 340 and I am enjoying it immensely. I would encourage iit n the strongest terms. It is a story I have loved for a very long time and yet there are many things you appreciate all the more in the reading. I am sure that when you read it you will love it completely.

  9. I really enjoyed reading the book, but you have to be okay with skipping some sections. All the stuff about Waterloo is veeeeery long, and you don’t necessarily need that in your life. If you’re comfortable skipping past that sort of thing, then yes, the book is very worth it.

    It’s ridiculous, but the parallel between Valjean’s ability to rebuild her life and Fantine’s inability to do the same thing had never occurred to me! The difference between them says so much about the time, I can’t believe I never thought of it before.

    1. I didn’t know you’d read this, Jenny! You’re a better woman than me! I’d definitely be open to skipping…I skipped my way through War and Peace!
      Look at me, being all profound! Yes, the film definitely shows that inequality which is so powerful. You need to go and see it (if you haven’t already)!

  10. I love this story. I have not read the book (too chicken to tackle) but I did see the movie and I have seen the Broadway play/musical 3x…in fact, tomorrow evening we will be seeing the 25th Anniversary performance! It is definitely one of my favorites. And now, after reading the other comments, I am wondering if I should try reading the book. I did read “Gone With the Wind” which is a hefty book too and loved it so maybe “Les Miserables” is a real possibility.

    1. How brilliant -25th anniversary performance! You lucky thing! I have read Gone with the Wind too, and it took me ages but was definitely worth it. I do feel like I need to bite the bullet with this one!

  11. Long ago, when I was still a child, it was a dream to master the French language and read Les Misrables. Today, somewhere in the middle of life, I have woken up to the dreariness of work and paucity of time. The film may not be a patch on that early ambition, yet it may offer a quick denouement. Thank you for pointing out the path.

  12. I haven’t seen the musical or the film- but I read the book and loved it! It does have a couple of long historical digressions, but they have moments of interest, and the themes and characters are wonderful. I don’t know how it compares to the movie, but I would say it is definitely worthwhile.

  13. I was another person who knew very little about Les Mis before seeing the film last week. I am just starting the book now – I’m about 60 pages in and I am so excited about it! I am reading the Penguin edition although I really love the Vintage cover -I may have to get that edition too at some point just for prettiness!

    1. Look at you – brilliant! I wish I had been so proactive! I love the vintage cover too – if I get it, I’ll buy that one. I’ve heard that translation is very good.

  14. Over the years I have often toyed with the idea of tackling the book. Alas, I’ve yet to begin. I, too, enjoyed the film, apart from Russell Crowe, whose voice I didn’t think was up to the role. I can really recommend the theatre version though. There’s nothing quite like the live experience.

    1. I know, I need to go and see it at the theatre. The power of the voices of professional singers would be incredible, I’m sure. I agree with you about Russell – he was definitely the weakest link!

  15. I will definitely see the film after your glowing review. I haven’t seen the stage version or read the book. I’ve tried to take up the book a few times in the past but I’ve always been too daunted by its length to make it past the first three chapters. I think I will save that particular classic for my retirement.
    I did see the 1998 film version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. No singing there, but I recommend it highly nonetheless.

    1. Oh you must, Elke, you must! Thanks for the film recommendation. And I know what you mean about the length – I am put off so many classics just because the commitment seems too much!

  16. In December I participated in a read-a-long of the unabridged version. It took me the month to read it and I really liked it. I did skim in two places the major digressions but other than that I really think its worth the read. I’ve seen about 50 minutes of the movie (I had to leave unexpectedly with my friend) but will see it again.

    1. You must feel really pleased that you read it – it’s a real achievement! So glad you enjoyed it and yes do go back and finish the film. It’s brilliant!

  17. I have also toyed with reading it and after this post I am going to give it a try. Why not try too Rachel and we can be reading buddies on the Les Mis Team. Onward we march !!!!!

  18. Allow me to interject once again if I may. While I can appreciate some of the comments regarding some of the long historical sections, if those are skipped there are rich elements of Hugo’s thought that are missed. For example, it is in the lengthy description of the Battle of Waterloo that he speaks to his understanding of Providence/God in the way that history is played out. While that may or may not affect an enjoyment of the story, it does impact his broader thinking on some very important issues.

    1. Thanks for your insight, Jeff – I’m certainly not a skimmer but it’s good to know that it’s worth sticking with the seemingly irrelevant bits. I am getting more excited about reading this with every comment!

  19. Totally agree about reading the book. It really takes you there…the time, the struggle, each character’s life and thoughts. Javert is the greatest character (my daughter thinks I’m crazy) and seeing the broadway musical twice, the 1998 film version and now the movie musical I love and cry for him even more. Eponine is also an unforgettable, heartrending soul. Love Les MIs in all its forms.

    1. I am being more and more convinced with every comment, Miriam! I certainly found Javert an intriguing character – as I did Eponine. She has been given rather short shrift in the film reviews but the actress who played her did a marvellous job of showing the pain of unrequited love.

  20. I read the book 23 years ago when the musical first made its appearance in our city. I had a newborn at the time and had neither the money nor the time for a grand theater experience. I loved the book. There are a couple of long digressions, but nothing is in the book that doesn’t eventually lead you to understand the characters and plot better. I recommend the “brick”… you’ll love it.

  21. I bought the Rose “brick” for myself for Christmas and am finishing up listening to Hardy’s Tess on cd, before attempting Les Miserables. I would love to join in on a group read or whatever you feel you can manage with your day job.

      1. I finished Tess over the weekend. I have been listening to the BBC Audiobooks Cover to Cover version in the car during my commute (25 miles each way to work, and 100 miles each way on the weeked to my home) so it took about a week and a half. The length of the drive through the countryside really took me into the world of the fields. Tess was so completely trapped, all her bright promise as a schoolgirl stifled and strangled by the needs of her feckless family. I am going to read the book next.

  22. I read Les Misérables when I was a teenager (well, in France it’s a “classique” and it’s very difficult to love books and not read it), and I adored it.
    I think you should read it in an unabridged version, and skip the chapters that bore you. It did that for the long account of the Waterloo battle. But I immensely enjoyed myself with the chapter that describe the XIX° century parisian slang, that was cut from the short version.

    1. If I could read it in the original French, Celine, I would! I agree – I’d rather have the choice of what I skip rather than that choice already being made for me. It’s good to know what you’re missing!

  23. I grew up loving the musical (I even saw it in London), and was so moved by the film that I immediately went home and ordered a copy of the book! It’s high time I read it. Like you, I find value in unabridged versions – you can always skim sections if they drag on, but if you have an abridged version, you don’t know what’s been cut. I did some research and decided on the Signet translation. The newer Modern Library edition is a highly modernized translation, and I know I’d get really irritated with some of the anachronistic speech and description. Signet’s is supposed to be denser and a little stilted, but truer to Hugo’s original. As a reader of classics, I can handle denser prose! And it really is a brick – you can see a picture of the behemoth here: http://amusicalfeast.blogspot.com/2013/01/much-good-news.html It’s much bigger than One Fine Day (which I read on your recommendation!)

  24. I haven’t read it yet but I hope to read the unabridged version someday — I received the new Penguin clothbound classic edition for Christmas and it looks very nice on my bookshelf, so I should really read it someday!! I’ve never read Hugo and I’m a little intimidated. I still have an unread copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame which I bought at the Notre Dame gift shop after climbing about 200 stairs — the gift shop is halfway to the top and I desperately needed a break!

    But back to Les Miserables. . . I haven’t seen the movie yet, nor the musical, but when I was a kid I saw at TV movie version starring Anthony Perkins as Javert. I think it’s supposed to be a good version and is still available on DVD. Maybe I’ll go see the movie tomorrow instead of pretending to watch the Super Bowl!

    1. Lucky you – with such a beautiful copy you should let it sit on your bedside table, and then you’ll be guilted into it! I’m intimidated too – the length puts me off. With so little time I read I think it would take me 6 months to finish!

      I hope you went to see the movie – it is amazing!

  25. You remained dry-eyed throughout? Impressive! I shed a few tears at Fantine’s horrific demise…then proceeded to sob throughout the entire second half. I just couldn’t keep the tears back.

    Funnily enough, there was a young boy sitting behind me in the cinema. As soon as the credits began rolling he exclaimed, ‘All but two of the main characters die? What?!’ His juvenile outrage amused me. I was so determined to be a young Cosette when I was first exposed to Les Mis as a young girl that I think the tragedy of it all didn’t truly hit me at the time. He helped me see it through fresh eyes.

    1. I know, I surprised myself – but I did have a very painful lump in my throat! Yes, I was quite taken aback by how many people died – my most near to welling up moment came when little Gavroche met his end…so sad!

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