Monday, September 9, 2013

Summer Reading #4 - Post-Summer Report - Les Misérables (2012) & stage version.

So we come to the end at last. This has proven a pretty interesting experiment, really. Some bumps to start with, but nothing that can't be hammered out in future years.

I'd been saving this one for the end, one part cause it made sense to leave it on this note, and one part because, compared to the others, this was gonna be a doozy - and given the sheer length on some of the adaptations of this book, that says something. To that end, some of the other ones I couldn't fit into this project may appear in later writeups for the Hell of it. Anyway, the reason for said doozy is partially because of the nature of this last adaptation. For those who wondered why it hadn't been brought up sooner, yes, this is in reference to Tom Hooper's adaptation of the musical adaptation by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Suffice it to say, in light of the matroshka effect on this adaptation, this was going to call for going an extra level. At first, as stated in earlier reviews, I was going to do the stage version as a separate write-up. Given how it really would just extend to laying the groundwork for this film, it seemed best to just go all in and do a two-fer discussing how the two fair as adaptations in one go.

So yeah, this one may run a bit longer than usual. Now would be a good time to get something to eat or drink before we continue.

Now then...

The musical version of Les Misérables is one of those curious cases in the world of adaptation. It's a case of an adaptation that's become successful enough in its own right that it's almost an entire entity unto itself, and in some circles has even overshadowed its source material.

It almost feels odd to hold this up to comparison given that extra legacy attached. To its credit though, it's not like this has too much to worry about as an adaptation.

There is one particular advantage I'd argue this version tends to have over many of the played straight film versions as adaptation goes. It's the fact that, by its nature, the medium of the musical often uses song as a means for characters to sort out internal conflicts. As such, what would look odd in a straightforward film feels commonplace within the trappings of a musical. This works particularly well when adapting a story like this one. Part of the reason the book is such a dense read, besides Victor Hugo's quasi-fetish for backstories, is his tendency to get into the heads of his characters. It makes for an introspective style that, in a printed medium where you have no real restrictions of time to worry about, you can really do a lot with. Yet In a visual medium,  where you have limits on what you can really depict and how much time you have and how you can do it, your hands are severely tied. For a good example of this pertaining to these versions, one can use Valjean's conflict when he learns that another man has been arrested on being mistaken for him. In the original novel, this scene is a prolonged piece of introspection as Valjean wrestles with himself on whether to jeopardize his freedom in the interests of doing the right thing. This is an uphill struggle he constantly comes back to all the way up to arriving at the trial, when he finally just bites the bullet and speaks up. In many of the film versions, this scene tends to be rather truncated by virtue of consequence of the medium. In the better versions, we at least still see him weighing over the possible consequences of each possible choice of actions, but given how much of the conflict is internalized, the film can only really go just so far into it without trying to turn it into a monologue. Said monologue (after a fashion) is a luxury the musical has, and as a result, the song 'Who Am I?' openly lays out his internal conflict and all the aspects being weighed in around 3 minutes. It still has to distill things some for time, naturally, but it has a bit more freedom in that conveyance. This also goes as far as backstories, which, as I said above, Hugo does a LOT with. While some versions do actually elaborate on Fantine's backstory (such as the Raymond Bernard version reviewed earlier this summer) it is also not uncommon to see that story sacrificed for time. Once again, the music medium actually allows for more freedom in this regard - what would be seen as a potentially awkward information dump in just a straight adaptation, song allows to convey with less of a clumsy feeling- in this case, 'I Dreamed a Dream'.

I could keep going with examples, but you can see where I'm going with this - this version has an extra advantage with regards to Hugo's style of writing. Of course, it still has its limitations, albeit understandable ones. For a show that's a solid three hours when performed, it still has to make a fair number of concessions as backstory goes - one of the biggest surprises to people who jump from the musical to the book would be that moment when they find out that Marius actually has a surprising amount of backstory and personality that doesn't really get conveyed in the stage version. Granted, his lovestruck phase still makes him seem odd and awkward, but it's not the only thing we see in his life at least. It's not going to be a 1:1 lift, in part because the only way you could feasibly even hope to attempt that would be to subject your audience to a multi-part saga akin to Wagner's Ring cycle...the human buttocks can only take just so much sitting at any given time, after all.

That said, one of the other curious things this version has going for it is the extra things it works in. Like I said a few reviews back, one of the fairly common practices when it comes to adapting a work as large as this one is in the matter of, rather than bring everything through in one huge mass, find certain elements in the work that appeal to you and elaborate on those. This version in particular does that in the second half. Much of the first half plays out fairly straightforward, albeit with a few minor tweaks; things like Fantine's reason for losing her job being a bit more simplified - a bit understandable, since even with the liberties song offers, getting sacked from a mix of morality clause and social stigma feels a little lacking without an extra immediacy attached. Come the latter half of the show, however, a much more pronounced focus is made on the failed 1832 rebellion. This is partially done by rewriting Marius to be a much more active member of the Friends of the ABC, where he was previously more interested, but not really focused or driven. This time around, he's a full card-carrying member taking part in all the plans. To this end, the audience for the stage version is in for quite a surprise should they choose to give the book a read and find there is no real build-up for the barricade until the fighting breaks out, largely a consequence of the fact Marius drifts from the group and as such is in the dark about a lot of their plans until the fight breaks out. Further, his stay at the barricade is much more of a 'I'm here to die' decision on his part.

Of course, Marius isn't the only character who gets reworked. A good chunk of the Thénardier clan, likewise, are also modified in various capacities, with the exception of Gavroche, who isn't even explicitly mentioned as their child. The three other children are written out, somewhat understandably since they wouldn't add much to the narrative-and then we come to their one other progeny, Eponine. Eponine is probably one of the debatably stranger changes within this adaptation. Those only familiar with the musical tend to remember Eponine as the luckless third in a love triangle, resulting in a mix of devoted fandom in some circles, mockery in others. It's somewhat of a softened image, and while it inspires some good music, including one of the show's most iconic songs, it is largely a product of the stage show. The original version of her being, for lack of a better term, a bit more pathetic - Marius looks on her not as a friend he simply never considered as more, but someone he genuinely pities. Further, her death, while still tragic, is also a touch creepy for the extra motivation. Though again, I can't entirely say I blame them for omitting that from the musical - 'A Little Fall of Rain' would sound a lot weirder with the implications of it being a botched attempt at murder-suicide. The Thénardiers, like their daughter, get a bit of a softened touch as well, albeit in a different sense. They're still generally horrible people, but for the show, that horrible edge is tinged with a more comedic element. This is one that, for the purposes of the show, actually still serves well, resulting in another of the particularly iconic songs. Plus, to their credit, Boublil and Schönberg still do seek to remind us that Thénardier himself is, for all the joking, a horrible person. When the song 'Dog Eats Dog' occurs, it is like seeing the man behind the image of the buffoon, and finding him to be the monster readers would recognize underneath it all. Even when his comedic image returns for the end of the show, it's such a change that the audience won't forget it. The entire family actually does pretty well with the changes, all things considered. They're a bit odd at first, but the show does still manage to do a fair amount of justice to them.

For as much as I bring up some of these changes, I do still have to concede - the show works well. Very well, in fact. There's a reason the show has become as popular as it is. For as odd as some of the creative liberties may be, it still, does justice to the material, even if it doesn't necessarily hit all the same notes (but, again, because of the medium, you take those changes in stride.) Outside of the adaptation factor, it rolls well in all. There are a few minor lingering questions or parts that seem odd in stride that are more thoroughly explained in the original book, but nothing that ultimately derails the show.

It's not something that is a complete substitute for the book, so I do find it a bit of a shame that it has overshadowed the source, but it's still a very enjoyable show on its own that also works well as a supplement to the material.

All this and we haven't even gotten to the movie yet.

OK, buckle your seatbelt, Hooper. We're getting to you now.

This adaptation has been one that had been gaining momentum for a while now - an attempt to take on one of the most acclaimed musicals to date with the extra budget and freedom that a Hollywood production would allow for.  Top this off with an all-star cast and a director fresh off an Oscar win, albeit one some have already disputed (As being paid for by Harvey Weinstein- editor), and this had a LOT of expectations to live up to. Expectations further being added to by the ambitious, if risky, idea of having the songs performed live, rather than synced and then recorder later, as is the common practice with musical movies.

Yeah, you can get where I'm going with this. There was a lot riding on this movie.

To its credit, some of it paid off.
Some of it.

"Just a few more years at this and they'll finally lay off me about X-Men Origins..."

Like I said above, there were some particular reservations among some people over the appointment of Tom Hooper to direct this - true, The King's Speech had won the best picture Oscar previously, but despite that win, his direction itself didn't particularly seem to wow many. Given a project like this, that could be a detriment, as doing this show justice calls for a creative and ambitious eye. Surprisingly, at points, Hooper does rise to the challenge. While the camera is frequently misused, there are certain sequences that do wind up showing flashes of potential, such as the opening shots of the movie. The initial camera work used to introduce Valjean and Javert does a great job of establishing their dynamic to start with. Unfortunately, from there, Hooper lapses into his problem habits of holding tight shots on his actors at dutch angles. This a technique that has a time and a place. Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as often as Hooper seems to think. I could write an entire article in and of itself on the problematic use of the camera in this movie, which, again, for a project like this is a disappointment. I'd say if you want a particularly good example of the problems with the camera work in this, and this is one I feel somewhat bad bringing up for a negative point since the acting is good, is the much promoted 'I Dreamed a Dream' sequence. Hathaway certainly sells her part of it, and we'll get to that later. The problem is, Hooper spends the entire song just holding on her in close-up. While it does give her extra incentive to sell the performance, it also feels like a lazy shot from the directorial perspective, as even a good performance only goes so far when that's all you see for an extended period. It gets tiring after the first minute. Of course, not all the shots are held overly long - there are other scenes where the editing is problematic to the other extreme, such as in 'Look Down,' where the shots jump all over the place where a long take would have been just as ambitious and arguably better suited. Perhaps he could have spoken to Alfonso kind of get where I'm going with this one. Tom, when your audience is doing your work for you, something is wrong. When you're a director with an Academy award on your mantle and this is happening, something is REALLY wrong.

The unfortunate part of all of this is, for as many faults as Tom has on a technical level, again, he does have some good ideas as well. For as much as I bust his chops on his painful camera work, I do have to give credit to him that some of the sequences he sets up are actually not bad. His prevalence for dutch angles actually pays off for him during the song 'Lovely Ladies,' where the set design combines with that penchant to give the entire sequence a rather nightmarish effect. I'm not sure if that was the idea the whole time, but I will give him that it works well. Likewise, the decision to rearrange the order on some of the songs makes for a good call at points - saving 'I Dreamed a Dream' until after the above-mentioned song, I have to concede, actually gives the latter song more impact. Having it after Fantine's descent into prostitution makes the song's feeling of someone who life has ground into the dirt really hit home more than its former placement, which was when she'd just been canned on the job. The other standout call in this regard comes from the decision to shift 'Do You Hear the People Sing?' from its original spot, moving it instead to the outbreak of rebellion at Lamarque's funeral. This is a sequence that the stage versions tend to gloss over as a necessary evil of time and cost. Hooper's decision to add the sequence and set it to this song is actually one of those calls I have to give him credit for. In fact, the barricade scenes are actually some of the strongest parts of this version. Some of Hooper's bad habits are still there at points, but he actually manages to keep focused fairly well during this section of the film. He even manages to actually handle the collapse of the barricade and the last stand of the Friends of the ABC fairly well. Which, in some ways, adds to the hurt - since it again reminds that he's got the potential to do this movie well, but only seems to capture it at sporadic points.

On the other side of that coin, and appropriately right after the barricade, one of the weakest parts of this movie was probably the sewers. This is in part because they choose to omit the song 'Dog Eats Dog', which I have problems with that we'll come into more in casting, but also because that song is really a major piece of the sewers scene. Otherwise, it's really just a protracted scene of Valjean dragging Marius through sewers. Which you can roll with in a stage version, if only cause the direction there can find ways to make a stage look like a seemingly endless sewer that show some extra creativity - in a film, the decision unfortunately just feels tedious. Also, on the problem side of creative calls is the addition of the song 'Suddenly,' a song that, even after having rewatched the film a few times for this writeup, I still can't really remember much of. It's not like it's not an idea that couldn't make for a good song, but the song in question just...doesn't really do much. I found it particularly telling when the song got entered for the Best Original Song at the Oscars and its performance instead segued into a performance of the show-stopping 'One Day More.' It was like an unspoken concession that the new song wasn't up to snuff with the rest of the show and was mainly just there to give them a shot at the awards.

"Valjean dragged Marius to safety through five hundred years of shit smelling foulness I can't even imagine, or maybe I just don't want to. Five hundred yards...that's the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile."...hey, I can't be the only one that was waiting for Morgan Freeman to say something like this during this sequence, can I?

OK, I need to stop or we'll be here all night.  You can see what I'm getting at though, this film's got spread of some good and some bad ideas that makes it really hard to completely write off. It's a flawed production that definitely did not deserve the 4 star reviews and best picture nominations, but isn't the disaster some think it is. It's watchable at the very least, and definitely works hard to do the stage production justice.

Further on that point, let's take a look at the casting.

I know I said this one was a cast that, on paper, looked pretty promising, but I have to admit, I still had some reservations going in. Luckily, not all of them were justified. Still...some were. Even knowing his background in theater, I still wasn't sure at first how to feel about Hugh Jackman as Valjean. He's a good actor, but at first I wasn't sure if I could picture him in fitting the part. For the most part, I will admit he did the part justice. The singing was sometimes a little problematic, though learning some of that was actually a creative touch, such as in 'Bring Him Home,' where Jackman's voice cracking was a way to convey Valjean's growing older, I do cut the decision a bit more slack. It may not have been the way I'd have liked it to go, but it's actually not a bad idea to work with. The other I was really uncertain of at first was Russell Crowe as Javert. This was one that really had me mixed, since, in a straight performance as Javert, I'd have been all for it. Crowe has the presence to do the role justice. But this was the first time I'd ever heard the man sing. And it was...really not what I was expecting. I will at least give him this much, if there's any character in this show who could feasibly get away with sounding flatter, it would be Javert, where it could be seen as part of his stiff nature. Again, I can respect that idea, even though in this case I doubt it was on purpose, but it is still disappointing to hear in some of these songs. Much of the rest of the cast, actually, are fairly good. Anne Hathaway's Oscar win for this one was certainly earned, and Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne both do justice to two characters who, even in this version, seem a bit light on actual character. Actually, in their case, I really have to give Redmayne some credit for one thing, when it came to 'Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,' he succeeded at selling the song. For as mixed as I was with later parts of the movie, that was one I was actually satisfied with. Likewise, as the third member of the triangle, Samantha Barks as Eponine carries her role well. While the decision to have her big number, 'On My Own', take place in the rain felt a bit heavy-handed on Hooper's part, she still delivers the emotion strongly enough that the rain doesn't really detract. [EDIT - OK, I will concede the rain fits the song in hindsight.  Though I still think the film lays on the downpour a bit thick here. Especially considering afterwards it's like it never happened. Even in New England, a downpour like that leaves SOME signs after.] Actually, about the only other area where I had much of an issue with the casting was in the casting of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers. This is one it saddens me a bit to admit to since, on paper, I REALLY liked the idea of Cohen as Thénardier. In some regards, he actually doesn't do that badly, either. Like Crowe, he feels like a case where he'd be better suited to playing the role in a non-musical capacity. He does make for some decent bits of comedy, but his singing unfortunately feels somewhat lacking here. He at least makes the most of some of it in 'Master of the House' with the physical comedy, but it's hard not to feel like there's an opportunity wasted there. He does get some of the hang of balancing the comedy with the singing when it comes to 'The Thénardier Waltz of Treachery,' but for a man known for his comedy, it feels strange to have him come up short here. Though from an adaptation standpoint, I do have to admit, I actually did find his playing Thénardier as a bit crueler and harsher at times a nice callback. Though, further on that, it made me sad they omitted 'Dog Eats Dog,' as Cohen's singing style would have been perfect for that. As for Carter...OK, she's not a bad actress, but given the character in question, I wasn't particularly sold on the idea of her in the part from the get-go. Then she didn't exactly work to assuage my reservations from there. For a character who is, by all accounts, an overbearing bruiser and a terror to everyone but her husband, Carter channeled none of that. In fact, half the time, she didn't really seem to be channeling much of anything beyond a nondescript performance cribbed from a lost Tim Burton movie. Again, the knowledge that she's not actually a bad actress and that this is actually a character an actress could have a lot of fun with just made the cruise control performance feel like THAT much more of a disappointment. Back on the good side of the performances, the rest of the cast were actually quite well chosen. The Friends of the ABC all balance the acting and singing well, and hearing the performances within the right age range is a nice little bonus. Again, it's the kind of thing you can take in stride on stage, but for a film, it's nice to see them meet this one part way and still do it. Along those lines, I was actually very happy with Daniel Huttlestone's turn as Gavroche. Admittedly, it feels a bit weird to hear a British accent from someone who's supposed to be French (Cohen, Carter, this one's on you two as well!) but for his age, I can let some of that slide. That aside, he channels the boy's rebelliousness well, and carries his songs well. Given the hit or miss field of child acting, it's always nice to see the kids who can hold their own this well. In wrapping up this section, I do have to give one other shoutout - the decision to cast Colm Wilkinson, the show's original Jean Valjean, as the Bishop of Digne was a VERY nice touch. Both for a general trivia bit, and the fact that Wilkinson makes a great performance of the brief role, giving him the warmth necessary to see why he has the impact on Valjean that he does.


So yeah, a few bumps aside, this actually turned out to be a net positive.

But how does it fair as an adaptation?

One of the biggest hurdles this film has from an adaptation standpoint is the fact that, at least by design, it's not so much an adaptation of the original book as it is an adaptation of the musical adaptation of the book. Despite that, and in something of a risky move, Hooper seems to want to try and reconcile the two different versions together, and includes a lot of callbacks to the original novel while he films the musical. Some of these aren't bad ideas, such as invoking the reaction from Gavroche during 'A Little Fall of Rain' to hint to the fact he and Eponine are siblings (though to be fair, this is common in a lot of the stage performances is as well.) Likewise, introducing Gavroche by having him climb out of the elephant statue the novel describes him as living in are nice touches for those familiar with the original while not really deterring the musical. Unfortunately, it also leads to a couple of areas that DO tend to sit awkwardly in the narrative. Much as I like the idea of this adaptation actually providing the follow-up to Fauchlevent (the man Valjean saves when he's trapped under a cart,) it's part of an overly long sequence that, while also accurate to the book, really doesn't fit into the pace of the movie that well. Likewise, while the movie does make a bit of a nod to Marius's grandfather, Gillenormand, he's almost a non-character in how he's depicted. Given just how much personality Hugo gives the man in the original work, as a somewhat comedic example of bourgeoisie, seeing him as just a scowling old man here is arguably more of a disappointment than not featuring him at all.

Much of the rest of the elements, I already discussed before, so there's no real need to go into them too much here. While I want to be able to give Hooper more credit for his including the shoutouts, several or the more pronounced ones really don't justify themselves in the film too well.

...whew.  That...that was a lot.

So what did I get from this film? Honestly, a very mixed sentiment. Again, I can't bring myself to completely hate the movie, since it does have its strengths. At the same time, however, it also has a LOT of problems, many stemming from the faults of the director. I feel like Hooper is the kind of director who may be better suited for the stage than film. He knows how to direct actors well, but otherwise, he either doesn't realize or doesn't appreciate the extra freedom the medium of film gives him, resulting in a lot of moments in this film that leave me with a feeling of "This could have been so much better." In fact, that phrase really seems to sum up this film in general. It's not particularly awful, but for what it has to work with, and what it's trying to adapt, it really feels like it could have been a much grander vision. What we did get was an interesting experiment, and has some traces of ambition - while I like the basic idea of live recording on the songs, in many cases here, it feels like Hooper just used the first take and ran with it, rather than trying for a better rendition - but only really seems to live up to its potential at select intervals.

Maybe in another 10 or 20 years time, I'd be game to see another attempt made at this with a fresh director with a strong sense of ambition and direction. In the meantime, this isn't as bad as it could have been, but I will continue to look at it with a sense of what might have been.

and if they're lucky, the Academy hazing rituals won't be quite as severe by then.

So...several stops and starts later, this brings the first Summer Reading project to a close. In all, was an interesting project, and one I look forward to trying to work with more in the future.

In the meantime though, now I'm just glad to have that one past, cause that was a LOT.

Keep an eye out this Friday when we get back on track!

Till then!

...oh, what the Hell, I've put off the jokes about him this long, one for the road:

"Did someone say FOIGHTIN'?!"

No comments:

Post a Comment