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The Long Phenomenon of ‘Les Miserables’

Posted by: Jeremy Walsh, December 14, 2012 11:11 am
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Lovers of musical cinema, rejoice! A new adaptation of Les Miserables hit movie theaters December 7, starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried. It’s just the latest in a long, long, line of art to spring from a classic book about French society.

A Queens Library catalog search reveals 136 entries for “Les Miserables.” The first of those, of course, is the epic Victor Hugo novel from 1862 upon which the classic Broadway musical was based.

The story culminates in the June Rebellion of 1832, a doomed uprising in a series of 19th-century attempts at revolution in France. This rebellion revealed some of the class issues permeating French society and was sparked by the funeral of a French general who was a celebrated advocate of the lower classes. Hugo, who witnessed the bloody fighting in the streets of Paris, wrote the novel in part to highlight the plight of the poor in French society.

The complicated plot unfolds over 15 years and involves a fugitive who was imprisoned for years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his relatives; a rigid police inspector hell-bent on bringing him to justice; a lower-class woman forced by the cruelty of the middle and upper classes to raise a child alone and sacrifice herself In the process; and a young Parisian student who gets wrapped up in the revolutionary events.

The novel was wildly popular and has been translated into numerous languages. Queens Library offers copies in Chinese, French (of course), Greek, Spanish, Korean, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian.

Film adaptations date back to a film short directed by the legendary cinema pioneers the Lumiére brothers in 1897.

The new movie, based on the famous musical, stretches to about two and a half hours, which is long. But when your source material is around 1,400 pages, it’s not THAT long. A 1934 French film is nearly five hours long (we have a copy, if you’re interested in reading a novel’s worth of French subtitles).

An Oscar-nominated 1935 American film adaptation clocks in at a more forgiving 108 minutes. Paring the story down to that short a length means simplifying some of the novel’s subplots, and evidently the choices these filmmakers made informed many subsequent adaptations. We have this film, along with a 1952 adaptation, in a 2-disc DVD set.

And, perhaps most famously, you can watch the 1998 Hollywood version starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes (there’s no singing in this one).

The musical debuted in 1980 in Paris, all in French. The English version opened in London in 1985 before hitting Broadway in 1987 and running nonstop until 2003.

The new movie’s celebrated approach has been to record its actors singing while they’re being filmed, instead of having them lip-sync to a pre-recorded version of the song. Reviewers have said it adds immediacy to the performances. But if you find yourself longing for a proper, studio-recorded soundtrack, Queens Library offers numerous recordings, including those of the original London and Broadway casts.

Want to know more about the French Revolution that set the stage for the events in Les Miserables? Check out The Days of the French Revolution, an excellent overview. Want to know more about Victor Hugo? Graham Robb’s biography is a great place to start. Care to learn how to play the songs from the classic musical? Queens Library has you covered.


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