Saturday, September 7, 2013

Summer Reading #3 - Les Miserables (1978)

The backlog continues.  It actually feels somewhat fitting thematically that the last entries into Summer Reading are rushed into early September. I mean, really, who hasn't had that happen with their summer reading at least once?

In hunting adaptations for this, I did want to try and find a good variety. Unfortunately, many of the standouts I found in this regard were miniseries. Now, nothing wrong with those- I've tagged a few for watching on my own anyway-but in trying to keep a schedule with these, now that things are in a rush, time dictated that I try and keep to the shorter versions. On the plus side, this did allow for this rather curious find - a 1978 made for TV movie based on the novel.

The story...OK, do I really need to review the story by this point? In terms of how this version fares in adapting that story, well...

About the best analogy I can think to make for how this film paces its events is akin to a funhouse mirror. Certain parts that were minor within the original story get considerably more focus here, such as Valjean's arrest and imprisonment at Toulon, a fairly short sequence in the book that nets a solid 20 minutes of this two hour version. By comparison, other parts feel almost alarmingly condensed, most damningly Fantine's narrative, which has much of its front-end chopped off and then revealed in a rather hasty information dump. This creative decision feels particularly problematic given this adaptation makes it a point to start with Hugo's famous prologue declaring "So long as there are people suffering in the world, stories such as this one will be necessary." It feels somewhat hypocritical to emphasize that quote while ultimately downplaying the one character who, more than anyone else in the narrative, is the ultimate poster child for suffering and the casual cruelty of people. Given how much of this movie tends to carry itself, it feels like this is because writer John Gay and director Glenn Jordan seem to want to place the emphasis on the storylines of Valjean and Javert (it's rather telling that many of the covers for this version prominently display Anthony Perkins in the latter role.) In fact, anyone who isn't Valjean or Javert can look forward to their story essentially being told with a fast forward button.

This is kind of a shame since, for the parts they do pay the focus to, the movie actually does a pretty solid job. It's not without its drawbacks (I do find it strange this version has Valjean actively break out of Toulon) but in all, it still manages to capture their respective plots mostly well. I say mostly because Javert's botched spy job is a VERY clumsy scene in this version. Otherwise, the film does their characters fair justice. Everyone else, however, is far less than lucky. Like I said above, much of Fantine's storyline is sacrificed, drastically reducing the impact of her tragedy. Her daughter is even less of a character, sadly. I'll grant Cosette is kind of a light character even in the original narrative, but in this version, she's almost nonexistent. The biggest casualties in this version, as it were, would be Marius and the ill-fated Friends of the ABC. For what's meant to be a major turning point in the story, they're only introduced within the last half-hour of the movie, and the barricade only arises in the last 20 minutes. Further, it occurs with almost no buildup whatsoever. We learn about it as it's happening care of young Gavroche, who this version makes into an almost literal plot device. From there, much of the barricade is further rushed through. And, in keeping with the film's matter-of-fact handling of his character, even Gavroche's death is rather abrupt.

Speaking of no buildup, they aren't standing on anything here.
This is as large as their barricade gets.

As heavily condensed as the film's script is, I do have to give the film credit for its casting. It is arguably the movie's strongest suit, and in many cases does make up for how the script has rendered several people to be non-characters. At the start, I will concede, I wasn't particularly sold on Richard Jordan as Valjean, but after the first 30 minutes or so, he grew on me. It's a bit strange to say he first really starts to fit the role around the time Valjean is slowly losing his humanity in prison, and becoming more and more of a dangerous thug. For how this film writes the character, Jordan does a decent job with giving the role the needed emotional weight - or at least as much as this telling allows it to carry. Likewise, Anthony Perkins, who I initially felt a bit uncertain about going into this movie, really surprised me as Javert. His turn is arguably one of the best performances in this version, playing the inspector with what starts as a clipped detachment that slowly turns into more of a dogged determination as the movie goes on. The supporting cast, it feels somewhat odd to comment on since, like I said, so many are ultimately marginalized by the script. There are still a few notable turns, such as Ian Holm as the innkeeper Thenardier, and John Gielgud as Marius's uncle, Gillenormand (I got my hopes up at seeing this version incorporate him, as he's a character that often tends to get omitted from adaptations.)  From there, the two other performances that really stand out for much are Angela Pleasance as Fantine and Christopher Guard as Marius. The two aren't bad, but again, they only can do just so much being demoted to extras.

On the plus side, being killed here WOULD free him from getting called back for more Psycho sequels.
...come on, I bit back a LOT of Norman Bates jokes during this review, let me have this one!

I actually feel somewhat bad coming down on the script on this version so hard since, to be honest, it's otherwise not a particularly bad movie. Jordan's direction is certainly capable of handling the material well, even with the focal problems. Further, he makes good use of the cast he has here. Because again, they certainly deliver on their performances. Even the overall production, for a made for TV budget, looks quite good. Some of the sets are, admittedly, a bit downsized (the barricade being the prime example,) but given the means the production had to work with, that's understandable. For what they had to work with, they still make the most of the money on hand. Also, Jordan's handling of certain scenes relying more on emotion than dialogue actually shows some good directorial skill (for the most part, there's a couple of iffy moments, though given how introspective parts of this novel are, it's a challenge to be expected.) Further adding to those emotional scenes, the score by Allyn Fergsuon, while nothing timeless, does serve the movie well. Really, the other components of this film have a lot of potential and do manage some good on their own terms.

Though on the plus side, that lower budget DOES make the sewers much easier to maneuver.

In all, I feel rather conflicted about this version. I want to be able to say more good for it, cause the things it handles well, it actually does a fairly solid job with. Unfortunately, the very heavy hand in adapting the script hurts the film in a lot of ways, both as an adaptation and with its own standalone ability. It's a case where one of the weakest pieces has the ill luck to be a central one. The rest of the components of the film do their best to make up for that failing, but they can only do so much.

"...and they said this was going to be a sad ending!"

Well, three down, one to go.

Keep an eye out for the last in a few days. As you can imagine, this one's gonna be a biggie.

"Well, my work here is done."
(...and this is actually how this version ends. Really. Well, not the line, but this shot.)

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