Savvy Saturday – On Les Miserables

This Friday and Saturday, I am at my alma mater watching my favorite musical ever created: Les Miserables. If you haven’t yet seen this masterpiece, you need to. It is a rare example of a thoroughly successful book adaptation to a different medium – in this case, the theatre. As a lover of story, I continue to be impressed by the masterful efforts of Boublil and Shönberg, the individuals who took Victor Hugo’s 510,000 word novel (five times as long as “The Quest of the Unaligned”) and turned into a coherent and powerful musical. As a novelist and a musician, I have found that there are three areas in particular where Les Mis excels: its highly motivated characters, its wide-reaching and powerful plot, and its use of music to tie everything together.

Writing believable characters requires that one know what a character’s motivations are. An area in which Victor Hugo excelled was in writing characters that had well-thought-out but clear and unabashed motivations. These characters are faithfully reproduced in the musical. Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Miserables, begins as an embittered and hardened criminal who suffers no qualms from stealing from the only man who is kind to him after he is released on parole. Javert, the antagonist, begins (and remains) a policeman absolutely devoted to the law he serves. As readers of the book (and viewers of the musical or motion picture) know, however, Valjean becomes an emblem of mercy, while Javert finds that an unbreakable law will ultimately break him. Other characters are also portrayed more vividly than might be seen in life (a greedy, treacherous innkeeper; a loving single mother who turns to prostitution to save her daughter’s life; a revolutionary on fire for his cause; a pair of young, innocent lovers who are ridiculously infatuated with each other), but they, too, have believable motivations and act in a manner consistent with who they are.

The plot of Les Miserables spans decades, and tells several different stories in one. While it is on one level an expose of the mistreatment of the poor, a tale of revolution, and a love story, at its heart, Les Miserables is a personal narrative of one man’s journey from godlessness to godliness. (“To love another person is to see the face of God,” the characters sing at the end, as Valjean enters Paradise.) The foil to this jewel of redemption is the personal journey of the “righteous” Javert. In a world of post-modernism such as our own, where one’s moral rectitude is judged by how well one holds to one’s own standards, Javert is a paragon of virtue. He lives by his own rules, and is willing to die if his rules require it. Lawbreakers must be punished, while “those who follow the path of the righteous will have their reward.” In the novel, when Javert believes that he has falsely accused an innocent man of being a criminal, he turns in his resignation and offers himself up. He thoroughly expects to be arrested, charged, and condemned: he will willingly suffer justice at the hand of the law he serves. (As it turns out, this doesn’t happen.) However, his forthright attitude and passion for what he believes is striking, and even more striking when contrasted with the mercy and grace shown to him later in the story. Hugo contrasts the man of Mercy with the man of Law, and shows powerfully how mercy must triumph.

The book does this all in over a thousand pages. The musical does it in three hours. How does it do it? In a large part, by cutting out side-plots, minor characters, and much of the personal angst and inner turmoil that the main characters go through. However, the heart of the story – and its turmoil – is kept through music. One of the brilliant aspects of Les Miserables is its use of leitmotiven, music used as cues for particular characters or situations. By using the same music for multiple situations and characters, Les Mis informs us how certain situations are alike, or how a certain character is reacting internally to a given situation.

An obvious example is the theme at the very beginning, sung by a chain gang of prisoners. “Look down, look down, you’ll always be a slave,” they sing. This exact tune is repeated later by the wretched populace of Paris: “Look down and see the beggars at your feet, look down, and show some mercy if you can.” Similarly, the crisis moment for Valjean and for Javert is played out with exactly the same music. Each is confronted by unmerited, unlooked for grace, and it changes the life of each. Valjean sings, “I stare into the void, into the whirlpool of my sin – I’ll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean,” and rips up his yellow parole ticket to begin a new life as an honest man. Javert sings that he stares “into the void of a world that cannot hold – I’ll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean, there is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on,” and with those words, leaps from a bridge to commit suicide. The music and repetition of lyrics shows powerfully the moral contrast that takes Hugo thousands of words to develop.

As a novelist, I do wish that the play (and film) could explore some of the additional material that Hugo included in his book – Marius’s elderly grandfather who loves his grandson but can’t find a way to show it, the intricate “buried alive” plot to get Valjean out from under the eye of Inspector Javert and into safety (which almost goes horribly wrong), and the gentle ridiculousness of Marius and Cosette’s whirlwind romance, which includes much sighing and gazing at one another, and very little intellectual activity. (Though the musical actually does a good job of picking this up: “Cosette, I don’t know what to say!” “Then make no sound.” “I am lost!” “I am found!” I chuckle every time.) However, given Hugo’s unfortunate tendency to go off on rabbit-trails that seem completely irrelevant to modern readers (e.g. thousands of words upon why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, and a detailed history of Paris’s sewer system), the musical does an excellent job of taking the essential story and characters of the book, making it relatable and enjoyable through good lyrics and music, and giving viewers a powerful story they won’t soon forget.

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