Mary and I saw Les Miserables at the movies last weekend. I’m a big fan of musicals on stage, and this is one of my favorites, but I wasn’t sure how well it would translate to “the big screen.”
There’s something about the whole theater experience that I find different from movies – maybe it’s the energy of a live performance, or the required exercise of imagination to “see” 19th century Paris on a small stage, or the willful suspension of disbelief necessary to accept the characters and situation as “real.”
I’ve also got some entertainment prejudices, I must confess. I simply couldn’t bring myself to watch the filmed version of Evita from 1996, with Madonna as Evita Peron – partly because I’d sung the role of Che Guevara myself just a few years previously, and I had certain ideas about how it “ought” to be done – and Madonna in the title role didn’t work for me.
The role of Valjean in Les Miserables is one of the last “big” roles I’d like to sing someday, and that added to my initial uncertainty about this new movie version. And of course, there was plenty of press with both details of the production and criticism.
Post-viewing bottom line: I liked it, a lot. It was rather different from the stage production in several ways – as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies differed from Tolkein’s books and as the Harry Potter movies differed from J. K. Rowlings’ books.
There are things one can do in a movie that aren’t possible on stage. For instance, in every soundtrack I’ve listened to, Les Miserables songs are “big” – emotions are portrayed loudly, volume is turned up, there’s a feeling of power.
A number of songs in the movie version, however, were done quietly, with a sense of introspection, almost as the interior conversation that songs in a musical often are. So the emotions were more palpable – and visible; most theater-goers are too far away to see facial expressions or tears, but a movie close-up shows everything.
What may have been most affecting, though, were the scenes of poverty and suffering. There’s a certain antiseptic quality to stage poverty; no matter how much dirt and makeup are applied, the actors still look and sound robust.
But in the film, the suffering seemed more real. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine looked sick as she lay dying; the poor masses seemed really to teeter on the edge of life. Interestingly, the deaths of the students at the barricade seemed less real – partly, I’m sure, because they didn’t receive the graphic focus of a horror or action movie.
But it made me wonder if we’re desensitized to violence because it’s so familiar, and struck by realistic poverty because our society keeps it so well hidden….