Can you hear the people sing? Not in this adaptation, which screenwriter Andrew Davies snobbishly promised would “rescue” Victor Hugo’s classic novel from the “shoddy farrago” of a musical beloved by millions.
Still, it’s undoubtedly good. The prison ship where Jean Valjean (Dominic West) is tormented by vicious cop Javert (David Oyelowo) is palpably grim. Though the kindly, humble Bishop Myriel (Derek Jacobi) remains as preposterous as he did when Hugo’s son chided him for writing the character.
The plight of Fantine (Lily Collins), a young worker whose life falls apart after she is seduced and abandoned by a rich man, is only just beginning in episode one. But Davies promises it will have new “contemporary resonance”.
“It was hard to come along to this place today without seeing people sitting in the rain begging,” he told a London preview audience. “We live in a society that’s really as divided into rich and poor as the society that Hugo was talking about. It often seems that a lot of people like
Fantine don’t really have solid ground to stand on.
If something goes wrong they are on the street.”
Hugo’s novel is one of the longest ever written, so the series has no need for the padding that has blighted other recent novel adaptations.
Instead it restores forgotten characters and themes that put the whole work into a new context.
For example, it opens on the devastation left by the 1815 battle of Waterloo, where a crushing defeat to Britain and its allies reimposed the rule of kings on France after 25 years.
Out of this sea of corpses, survivor Pontmercy (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) returns home to find his young son in the custody of his aristocratic, monarchist father-in-law (David Bradley).This family conflict mirrors Hugo’s own background. And Waterloo was so important to him that after working on Les Miserables for more than a decade, he went there to finish writing it in 1861.
The recent revolutionary past haunted French literature of Hugo’s era. It also gave those suffering from social injustice a political focus that France’s rulers could never erase.
The uprising shown in Les Miserables in 1832 was one of four to shake Paris in just four decades. Hugo wrote the novel in exile for defending the gains of the 1848 revolt. For him Waterloo had “[caused] the revolutionary work to be continued in another direction”.
He continued through his writings a fight he thought could no longer win at the barricades.
But the story behind Les Miserables is that defeat is rarely permanent. Struggles thwarted in one generation can rise again with the next.
Watching this series as France erupts in anger once more can be a timely reminder of that. And you can always download the songs once it ends.