This is an idea I've been tossing around off and on since roughly last fall, to give an idea how long this has been gestating.
The more I think about it, the more fascinated I find myself with the entire idea of adaptation. Something about the idea of someone taking a work and then trying to tell it in a way that's both true to the original work as well as something that's distinctly their own is a challenge I find intriguing to watch play out. Sometimes it works. A lot of times, it fails miserably, tending to either be a good film but a poor adaptation, or in some cases, a good adaptation that's frankly just a badly made film.
So, in light of a partial idea suggested by a friend, I got to thinking along these lines about making this a theme for a set of reviews. As the idea built, it slowly mutated and grew into what I am about to start unleashing on you this week --
In the tradition of that old school custom, The Third Row is announcing a new feature for the season - Summer Reading.
Like that time-honored, and depending who you ask, sometimes reviled summer custom, the upshot here involves the focus on a particular book. The only real requisite here being that the book has a sufficient number of adaptations to draw from over the course of the summer. From there, and posted every other Friday/weekend, there will be coverage of another entry in this series, comparing each as standalones as well as how they hold up as adaptations of the source material.
This is being done as an every other week rule for a couple of reasons:
-I like the amount of challenge it gives to try and keep this up over the whole summer
-to that end, only doing this for one month feels like it wouldn't really do the theme justice
-By doing it every other week, I can still keep other work running along with them and not have this drown out everything else lined up.
So with the project lined up, I suppose now is the time to announce which book will be kicking off the project for this year. Up until recently, I'd had another book picked out for this one, which will get covered in another year. But this title in particular was something of a 'now or never' moment, given how much of a time investment a reread would call for.
Without further ado, let me then just say it - For this, the first of The Third Row's Summer Reading projects, the focus will be Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
France's major bid to match Charles Dickens in the 'childhood can be a living Hell' department.
Suffice it to say, with that in mind, the time investment makes more sense. It's also part of why I'm genuinely looking forward to using it for this project - the book is massive. Not just in terms of page count, mind you. Hugo has put together a densely written work that feels immense in terms of how build up and laid out everything is within it. It says something for the amount of backstory and context that this book requires that the version I read came with a solid hundred pages of annotations for all the historical and cultural references.
As such, a complete 1:1 lift would be nigh on impossible. It would require film length to trump The Human Condition and the budget of a small country and even then there's no guarantee a filmmaker would be insane/ambitious enough to properly capture all the details that go into this. Again, there's that much context and backstory, as well as a lot of character introspection.
So it will be interesting to see how each adaptation sizes up the challenge, knowing this is a massive game of give-and-take (and yes, while not a film in itself, the musical will be one of the versions covered here, simply because of how well known it is among the different takes on the story.)
Alongside the challenge factor...it's also just a well-done story with a lot to offer in the right hands. I mean, it's one that no doubt most people are familiar with: the rather timeless tale of Jean Valjean, the convict who develops a crisis of conscience that drives him to want to try and straighten up his life, the doomed woman Fantine, her daughter Cosette, the overly zealous lawman Javert...yeah, yeah, I know, we've all heard about them by now. But really, that's part of why the story's endured this long - even with people who aren't really familiar with the actual context of the period Hugo was writing it in (cause believe me, there are a lot of misconceptions about the era the story takes place in.) It's a story and characters who have gained a lot of staying power, both as enduring archetypes and within their original context, very fleshed out and believable characters, many of whom are neither good nor evil, so much as they are flawed.
As a book, it's one of those curious cases - on the one hand, it's not really exaggeration to call this book a tome. Even without the notes, it's a solid 1200 pages of reading, and again, I stress a LOT of backstory (one of the sections starts with roughly 50 pages on the Battle of Waterloo. A well-written summary, but still one that may make some readers wonder why the Hell Hugo spent so much time on it in relation to the story. It does have a place, but it could still throw some people.) For my part, the book took the better part of 4-5 months to get through, and there were a few sections where I had to work up some motivation (primarily the section where he outlines the history of a convent. I can see why he did it, but MAN that part was dry reading.) Despite that long duration (which, again, is why the book is this year's pick rather than saving it for another year) and some dryer parts, I still found it VERY worth the read. When it was finally over, it felt like the end of a very long trip - you feel glad to be done, but still can't help but enjoy having taken the trip.
In France, this is part of classification of books known as un bébé concasseur
...OK, so that was a bit more needlessly prosey than I probably needed to get for an intro piece. What can I say? I wound up really liking this one.
Anyway, this weekend will mark the first entry, where I tackle the famous French version from 1934 (at 5 hours running time, it's generally considered to be the best adaptation out there.) Personally, I'm rather interested to see how it turns out.
Hopefully, this project works and you guys will humor me by following along.
I promise, other stuff will still be run here alongside this.