Can we talk about what Les Misérables is, like, doing? The book, the show, but especially the 2012 film, which I thought was appealingly weird in 2012 and fully abject today. I did a Zoom showing to a few friends recently, and I spent the whole thing writhing in shame. To think I had vouched for this!
The thing is that when you’re deeply invested in a story, and you see an adaptation of it that’s bold, you’re apt to think that the adaptation is objectively interesting. You’re wrong! You’re almost certainly wrong. Every adaptation is interesting if you’re obsessed with the story in an intense, granular way, where you can taste every sugar-crystal of it at once. When you’re alive to that canon and have been for decades, any deviation seems revolutionary. You run into this in fandom a lot, obviously, because fans encourage each other to greater and greater refinement of the palate. That’s why folks have such strong feelings about specific Star Wars or Harry Potter films. It’s not even that these films are the best entries in the franchise — it’s that they flip some switches up when most others flip them down.
Whenever I talk about fandom, I want you to know that I’ve been to fandom, and for several years together, I have even lived there. I’ve also left fandom. It stopped working for me. Most people engage in fandom because it does something for us: it makes us friends and lovers, helps us indulge our kinks or avoid our bodies, offers us a microscope or a telescope or a kaleidoscope, according to our needs. It’s a method of criticism, a summer camp, a mentoring program, a bodybuilders’ gym. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons people don’t speak of it with respect. They’re always skeptical of art that has a purpose, even though all of it does.
I have a tough time projecting myself back into that mode of thinking. It’s like falling out of love. Fandom, more than a telescope or a camp, is like a great romance. And I really did fall out of love with it, with a mercurial, exciting partner who told me I was brilliant at first, but then became dangerously bored. Some of the most alarming people I’ve ever known — the ones whose effects on my life were the most sweepingly pernicious, the ones I talk about in therapy — were people I met in fandom. A small community, united in an unpopular opinion, is an ideal stalking ground for the cruel. It’s no wonder that, while I have friends still in fandom whom I respect very much, I struggle to remember how its powers worked.
I fell in love with Les Misérables when I was about fifteen. Hugo’s novel, a dirtbag War and Peace filled with God and shouting, is pretty accessible for a smart kid, although I’m also not sure I ever read it through. I just read my favorite portions over and over, most of them involving Javert. Hugo, you see, while nominally anti-prison and anti-police, also can’t resist making Javert the funniest, most stylish character in a book whose characters are markedly unfunny. Javert’s the only character who gets one over on the Thénardiers. He devotes his suicide note to bureaucratic complaints. He’s not ashamed to warm his ass in public. Hugo throws himself into the common trap of making his villain rude, bitchy, and generally unpleasant in a way that’s a relief from the heroes — in particular the student revolutionaries, who are a painfully accurate study of a certain kind of young men’s activist club. They devote a lot of their time to making puns. One guy calls himself “the eagle of the law.” No one recognizes that their funny gay alcoholic friend is a human man who needs help.
The musical carries on this tradition. Javert, although he is not made funny (in the musical, comedy is cordoned off into designated humor areas) does get its two best songs. The musical also makes the students more credible, at the expense of Hugo’s satire. It adjusts the volume on nearly everyone else: more god, more monster. It will sacrifice anything for rhyme. Men go into the blood cave, and do not come out, for the sake of some rhymes that are really quite bad.
I maintain that the musical is great. Its politics, theology, and understanding of romantic love are all insane, but none of that matters in context — it’s about emotion, excess, God! and Desire! and Despair! and Revolution! and RED, THE BLOOD OF ANGRY MEN! It floors it right past the land of normal plot, and straight to the land where two men can have coincidental “24601” tattoos, where people collide once and devote their entire lives to each other, and where heaven is a place of eternal revolutionary violence. Everybody embodies an idea, and yet there are no ideas at all.
And so we return to the film, which is technically an adaptation. A number of decisions took place here: to turn down the volume of everything in pursuit of realism; to cast a dead-eyed Russell Crowe as Javert and have him try out a different kind of singing every time; to let Hugh Jackman swing at Valjean with circus athleticism; to bring in original Valjean Colm Wilkinson only to serve a sparkling thinned wine as the Bishop of D—. Of all the main actors, only Anne Hathaway’s Fantine and Samantha Barks’ Eponine (the latter a ringer who had already appeared in the show’s 25th anniversary concert) are doing what people in Les Misérables should, which is to follow Kate Bush in making “a sound that could kill someone from a distance.”
Watching it almost a decade later, none of this is interesting. It is a bad weird, and it’s 2020 now. Les Misérables (2012) doesn’t succeed at its inexplicable goal of tempering the show with real grime and sorrow, and it sure doesn’t succeed at adapting it. I am out of love with it, just as I am out of love with the fandom it tried to play to — although I will never be out of love with the 25th Anniversary concert, whose soundtrack is the only one to feature both Wilkinson and greatest Javert Philip Quast. Give me Wilkinson and Quast, if there must be a Les Misérables at all. Give me Wilkinson with his textured snaps and pops, his implausible upper range; give me Quast with his voice like a mouthful of tinfoil. Some great romances turn to friendships, I suppose.