Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Les Miserables: Classic Literature to Movie Musical

    Several weeks ago, after I saw the musical, Les Miserables, I wrote  how much I enjoyed the movie on my  blog 2 lane highway  ( ) . I liked everything about it -   the story, the casting, the  costumes, choreography,  and musical score.

     In fact, I liked the movie so much it prompted me to download  Les Miserables , the novel onto my iPad so I could read Victor Hugo's tale of Jean Valjean again, something I haven't done since I was a freshman in high school , many, many years  ago when it   was one of the books required of students to read in  English  class.

    Prim and proper Dr. Juliet Szekler  looked like she had been teaching at Bell High School for a hundred years by the time I got there, and didn't put up with any nonsense from her students.  She was small, but mighty. To the day we graduated,  fellow classmate, Casey H. blamed me for his  getting a C in Freshman English. I sat in the desk  behind Casey that semester,  and according to him I was the one doing all the talking (probably true)  and secret note passing (yes! That, too) while he's the one who got the reprimand.   Hmm, but that's a story for a different time.  One other  thing I remember  about Dr. Szekler is how she  would take out a tissue from her handbag and wipe the handle before opening the door   so has not to touch the handle with her naked hand. Watching her do this,  many of us would look at each other and just roll our eyes, thinking it was the dumbest thing we ever saw.  Well, that was then. Wouldn't she be surprised to know I don't think  it so dumb  now,  as I do the same thing, trying to protect my aging  hands from germ laden  door handles!
     While her  lectures were dry,  Dr. Szekler  wanted students to leave her classroom with an expanded knowledge of  classic literature. I think some of us did.  We learned that Victor Hugo had a  strong literary personality and is associated with the Romantic Movement , perhaps more so than any other author of the 19th century, and not only was he a famed novelist (The Hunchback of Notre  Dame and Les Miserables), he   is also considered a great poet, especially in France.

     As with much of his writing, Hugo drew on his own life experience. According to biographers Hugo believed "Every man who writes , writes a book; this book is himself. Whether he knows it or not, whether he wishes it or not, it is true. From every body of work, whatever it may be, wretched or illustrious, there emerges a persona, that of the writer. It is his punishment, if he is petty; it is his reward, if he is great".  By all accounts Hugo was great. His stories tell the plight of the poor and downcast, contrasting evil over good,  always working for good to prevail, and social justice to win out.  Alphonse de Lamartine  (1790-1869) , French poet and historian says of Hugo, The public heard a soul without seeing it, and saw a man, instead of a book...He went straight to the heart; sighs were his echoes, tears were his applause." 

      But lets go  back to Les Miserables, the musical.  I can't help but wonder how Hugo might  feel  today about having his novel adapted to the stage, and movie theater  - to hear   lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, set to the  score  of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, wonderfully sung by Hugh Jackman, Ann Hathaway, and others. Not  only can  we  read  the story of Jean Valjean, Cossette and Javert, but  now we see them , and hear their voices as well.

      Would it seem his work was  co-opted , or would Hugo  view it has a collaboration between himself and other artists - the lyricist, composer, scriptwriter  that help keep  his writing alive and  introduce Jean Valjean in a new  way , to new generations of people ?

     There are other classic novels -   Phantom of the Opera (Gaston Lepoux), Man of La Mancha (Cervantes) Oliver (Charles Dickens) -  each have found success with  a larger audience when  adapted to the musical stage, giving fresh light to   stories already  immortalized, but also to   the people who wrote them.

** To read more about Victor Hugo visit
*** Note: "Les Miserables" received nominations (Academy Awards 2013) for picture, actor (Hugh Jackman), supporting actress (Anne Hathaway), production design, costumes, makeup and hairstyling, original song and sound mixing. 

1 comment:

Patty said...

Interesting article Kath. Wish I could put Hugo on my bucket list of people I'd like to meet!