Life & Style Editor Julia Lee writes, for the 190th anniversary of the June Rebellion, an in-depth guide on all the adaptations of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Life&Style Editor, Law Student, Lover of Les Mis
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This article contains spoilers for a 160-year-old novel. Some prior knowledge of Les Mis is also recommended.

June 5th marks the 190th anniversary of the June Rebellion, known to fans of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as Barricade Day. To commemorate the occasion, I decided to take on the burden and privilege to critique the four most widely available English language adaptations of the novel (and one bonus adaptation that could best all of them).

Les Misérables is a 550,000-word novel in 5 volumes that spans decades, from before the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to after the June Rebellion in 1832. Jean Valjean is the main thread that carries our story. Other characters and their stories may be read in relation to his different personas – his stints in prison connected him to stoic policeman Javert and his release to benevolent Bishop Myriel, as mayor he failed Grisette Fantine, and as a father he protected Cosette and Marius. Tertiary are Fantine’s lover Tholomyès, Cosette’s abusive foster family the Thénardiers, Marius’ grandfather Gillenormand and the activist group Les Amis, whose presences descend into the allegorical. The story nonetheless starts and ends with Valjean, who had been oppressor and oppressed, rich and poor.

Les Misérables is a condemnation of the system that creates these disparities, and a critique of the nobility who had never questioned its superiority, the workers that unthinkingly carry out its will and the delinquents who joyously exploit it. Hugo says in his preface that ‘books of [its] nature’ will be relevant as long as Earth is plagued by ‘ignorance and poverty’; the book is most importantly a call to action. 

Although many are familiar with the musical, the fact remains that there is no definitive adaptation of Les Mis

Although many are familiar with the musical, the fact remains that there is no definitive adaptation of Les Mis. Filmmakers and show-runners have taken different approaches to the gargantuan novel, to varying degrees of success. Measuring it requires some sort of rubric, given the breadth of discussion, so I have chosen the following: political thesis, depiction of religion, treatment of gender, and how they take advantage of their medium. From worst to best, here is a non-exhaustive, self-indulgent, somewhat subjective overview of the novel’s most popular adaptations. 

4. 1935 film

Before the 2012 movie was nominated for eight Oscars, the 1935 version was nominated for four. The film starred Fredric March, a dashing leading man of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and was the first English language film adaptation of Les Mis. It is also the worst adaptation by far.

Made in the aftermath of the First Red Scare and the enforcement of the infamous Motion Picture Production Code (better known as the Hays Code), the 1935 film held marked differences to its source material that render it practically unrecognisable. The title card sets the law and order tone of the film – a bastardisation of Hugo’s foreword that eliminates any reference to the wretchedness of poverty. No central character is part of the working poor, who are only mentioned in a distant and pitying way. Rather than ‘Les Amis De L’Abaissés’ (Friends of the Abased) who stood in vehement opposition to the monarchist regime, the group Marius is part of is named ‘Students’ Society Law Reform.’

Marius says to Valjean at one point that they are ‘not revolutionaries sir, politics is not our business’ and in fact ‘in favour of a more strict control of crime than now exists.’ There is no desire to rally the people of Paris, no plot to overthrow the king or even protest him. The ensuing violent suppression by the National Guard is completely nonsensical. The film is a revisionist, conservative take on a fundamentally politically progressive source material. 

There is no desire to rally the people of Paris, no plot to overthrow the king or even protest him

Instead of being inspired by the Bishop to pursue moral goodness, Valjean is haunted by his memory that manifests in the silver candlesticks and a variety of crucifixes. Before Valjean flees his home with Cosette, the candlesticks fall from his mantle to dramatic effect. The most entertaining part of this slog of a film, an exhilarating carriage chase scene, ends when ‘Ave Maria’ swells and Valjean and Cosette swerve to the side of the road to face a looming statue of Virgin Mary. 

Fantine is barely a footnote in this version of the story. She bursts into Madeleine’s (Valjean’s alias) office dishevelled, her plight implied but not shown or even told. Éponine is not the poor daughter of the fallen Thénardiers but Marius’ secretary. The screenwriters took the common misconception of her role as rival love interest to Cosette to the extreme, making her a petty caricature of the ‘other woman.’ Cosette has some agency, seeking out Marius and his ‘activism’; Valjean however leans heavily into his ‘girl-dad’ Electra complex and compares his attachment to Cosette with Éponine’s for Marius. 

The film structured itself as phases of Jean Valjean’s life, which is not a bad choice in itself, but all tertiary characters that do not directly affect his plot are neglected as a result. There were some moments where the theme was outright stated, but was sped past as quickly as Valjean did on his carriage. Beginning with a Hugo misquote and ending with Javert’s baton swirling in the Seine, the 1935 film is clearly unconcerned with book accuracy.

3. 1998 film

I held a fervent hatred for this adaptation of Les Mis until I saw the 1935 version. In contrast, the 1998 film starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes is almost passable. 

The political thesis of this film is not as heinous, but that is because it is barely present. Conflating Marius and Enjolras has never been more discordant than in this adaptation. Hugo deals in symbols – when characters are cut, the themes they represent are removed as well. Without Enjolras (who is present but only as Marius’ friend) and to an extent Gillenormand, Marius has no conviction, nor does his story have any stakes. He preaches about freedom and suffrage, but is non-committal towards pursuing it.

Hugo deals in symbols – when characters are cut, the themes they represent are removed as well

Marius abandons his role as ‘leader of the ABC Society, the largest and most dangerous of the student groups’ to make out with Cosette on a bench in the middle of a public street. He abandons the barricade immediately after it is erected to find Cosette again. Making one character the romantic hero and the leader of a rebellion results in neither. 

Valjean’s being religious manifests in puritanism. He is violent and sexist, far beyond the baseline for a man living in the 1800s. To me, he challenges just how much toxic masculinity a character could embody while still being someone the 90s audience could presumably root for. Hugo’s character is kind first and foremost, someone that has no urge to raise a hand to even an attempted murderer. Neeson’s Valjean punches Bishop Myriel in the face, beats Javert until he is unconsious, slaps his adoptive daughter across the face, and merrily skips away after Javert’s suicide. 

Javert on the other hand is very well portrayed by Geoffrey Rush. He follows the law to the letter, and shapes his morality around its absolutism. He is as harsh towards himself for his misdeeds as he is towards those he condemns. He accuses Valjean of ‘[destroying] justice,’ but acquiesces to his mayoral authority. He observes other hedonistic police officers with distaste but occasionally submits to his one vice, snuff. 

The 1998 film is an improvement upon the 1935 film in its depiction of poverty, but actively worsens any sexism present in the novel

The 1998 film is an improvement upon the 1935 film in its depiction of poverty, but actively worsens any sexism present in the novel. Fantine before and after her unemployment is contrasted visually, and we get the sense that Cosette is the only thread keeping her alive. She does not retain any of her fortitude however, offering her ‘services’ to her landlord and Valjean, with an implied romantic attraction for the latter. Éponine is absent, and so too are her thematic ties (though little brother Gavroche makes an appearance). I cannot stress enough that this Valjean hit Cosette. At least she gets to pull a gun on Javert. Female empowerment!

This is a film that wants to be a dramedy. There is a ‘good cop’ character to offset Javert’s severity and suggest that most cops are alright actually. Before Valjean revealed his identity in the trial of his doppelganger, the latter did a stand up routine that had the open court in stitches, which could have been a comment on the rich treating the poor as entertainment but was never followed up on. This is a film that thinks it made improvements upon Hugo’s story. Valjean tells his life story to Cosette with barely any qualms, contradicting the novel’s ending. Instead of the candlesticks, this adaptation created another recurring object – a carved pendant that Fantine held onto despite her destitution to one day give to Cosette. Like the film, it is pretty, but pretty aimless.  

2. 2018 miniseries

The most recent adaptation, the BBC miniseries, is full of high highs and low lows depending on screenwriter Andrew Davies’ whims. He somehow managed to adapt parts of the book no previous English production had before to great effect, while completely misunderstanding fundamental parts of the story that ought to be common knowledge to anyone familiar with the source material. 

Let’s get the bad parts out of the way. The most glaring issue with this adaptation is the characterisation of David Oyelowo’s Javert. He did his damndest with the script he was given, but there is no other way to read him but a villain. What is so fascinating about Javert as an antagonist is his sense of duty and rigid adherence to the law, his ‘villainy’ coming to pass due not to personal evil, but the inherent corruption of the legal system.

Davies’ Javert is obsessed with ‘winning’ against Valjean to the point of hilarity. He is unconcerned with upholding the law’s justice – he openly threatens Valjean while he was mayor and is barely seen doing any police work. He rants and raves about Valjean ‘laughing at him’ while barricades are being erected all around Paris, and his ‘good-cop’ colleagues look upon him in disbelief. Davies described Javert’s obsession with Valjean as a ‘perverse, erotic love.’ Aside from completely missing the point of Javert’s role in the story, it is hardly a stretch to point out the homophobia underlying such a portrayal.  

Throughout the rest of [Valjean’s] story his sole motivation was unprocessed guilt

Valjean’s characterisation is not that much better. Hugo’s Valjean was resentful of society but had always been selfless – his initial crime was stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving children. Davies’ Valjean never had a compassionate nature to reinstate, nor did he turn a new leaf as implored by the Bishop in 1815. Throughout the rest of his story, his sole motivation was unprocessed guilt. He confessed to his true identity in 1823 after being burned by the coin he stole from Petit Gervais years ago rather than in concern for the suffering of his doppelganger or the people under his care; he saved Marius in 1832 after he fought with Cosette rather than of his own volition. 17 years on, he still flashes back to Fantine calling him a monster, because even he does not believe he has honoured her memory. 

Undue ‘sexing up’ of the story is a common criticism of the series that I believe is entirely warranted. The promise of giving Fantine a backstory involved a nauseating amount of Tholomyès instead of showing her strength as a single mother. Her losing her job at the factory to selling her hair and teeth and body, happened just as lightning-fast as every other adaptation when it took place over years in the novel. It is a shame that the only non-musical portrayal of Éponine is so abysmal. Not only does Davies write Éponine, Marius and Cosette as a love triangle, he perpetuates the Madonna-Whore Complex while doing so.

Preceded by a visit to a brothel, Marius has a sex dream about Cosette and Éponine, where the former transforms into the latter as soon as she starts undressing. Davies’ Marius is attracted to both women, but his attraction to Cosette was portrayed as pure and chaste, whereas he was seduced by Éponine’s feminine wiles. This entire sequence of events has no basis in the novel and is a complete invention by Davies, who said ‘the women in this book are not terribly complicated’. Bold words from a man who erased all of Fantine, Cosette and Éponine’s narratives that were separate from the men in their lives. 

Welcome in the miniseries was the focus afforded to tertiary characters who were only able to appear given the 6+ hours runtime. Sister Simplice was the only person aside from Valjean to have known Fantine and watched Cosette grow up. With the inclusion of Waterloo where Thénardier ‘saved’ the elder Pontmercy as he robbed him, Marius’ internal conflict could be played out in his repeated attempts to rob Valjean. Thénardier is not just comic relief nor is he just evil (though he is certainly evil, admitting to following the lucrative slave trade to the New World), criminality is a way of life he shares with many as the economy declines.

The lead up to the barricades was properly built up, including the women’s and workers’ places within it

We get an explanation for Marius’ political views; he was raised by his grandfather Gillenormand, a staunch royalist who barred him from seeing his father, a colonel in Napoleon’s army. No other adaptation gave it as much weight that Marius joined the republican barricades on a suicide mission rather than a genuine belief in the cause. Mabeuf, who told Marius of his father and died at the barricade despite being apolitical all his life, is given his due. In fact, the revolutionaries exceeded expectations. The lead up to the barricades was properly built up, including the women’s and workers’ places within it. The levity in their cafe meetings is contrasted with their desperation in the thick of the fight, and the heartbreaking mantra that ‘this is history’ as they face death with smiles on their faces. 

It is commendable that this adaptation contained the most racially diverse cast yet. However Javert, who is a much worse person than in the novel, is the only character played by a dark-skinned Black person. Thénardier, the other main antagonist, is played by a man of colour. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. 

The miniseries hit the important plot notes despite keeping social justice at arm’s length. There was so much potential in its miniseries’ longer, chronological format. At the end of 6+ hours, we are left with the image of starving children. In aiming for a gritty, realistic version of Hugo’s symbolic, capital ‘r’ Romantic novel, it missed the mark.

1. 2012 movie musical 

You read that right. Even considering the concert recordings, I believe the 2012 film is the best English language screen adaptation of Les Misérables in terms of the novel’s characters, themes and spirit.

The best thing about musicals is it is a feature of the medium for characters to articulate their innermost feelings. Every central character, Valjean most of all, is allowed to reveal their complexity and humanity. Éponine and Cosette who were ‘children together’ are lonely in different ways as adults, in the middle of a crowded street and isolated in an empty house – ‘On My Own’ and ‘In My Life’ are much more than simple romantic declarations.

It also removes the need for the inclusion of minor characters like Tholomyès, who only served a minor role in Fantine’s story. The downtrodden are also represented in an unprecedented way through the ensemble numbers. ‘At The End of the Day’ illustrates that the plight of the poor is not unique to Fantine, but a suffering that is systemic and inescapable. There are minor inaccuracies that the movie and stage musical share, a sleazy foreman fires Fantine in the musical. In the novel (and 1998 film), Madame Victurnien is the supervisor that fires Fantine without Madeleine’s knowledge, showing that both men and women can uphold oppressive systems by taking advantage of the little power they have. Nonetheless, the advantages of a musical adaptation far outweigh such changes. 

The plight of the poor is not unique to Fantine, but a suffering that is systemic and inescapable

Sticking to one’s knee-jerk reaction as fans of the musical does the film a disservice. I agree that the vocal performances are nowhere near as strong, on top of cinematography that is not to everyone’s tastes. It is not a 1 for 1 transposition from stage to screen – there are changes, cuts and additions, but the result is a more faithful and equally moving adaptation of Hugo’s novel. To those familiar with the musical, the most obvious change is the positioning of ‘I Dreamed a Dream.’

An overlooked aspect of this change is what took its place; the cart crash where Madeleine saves Fauchelevant and sparks recognition in Javert. Fantine is given time to exhaust her resources before ‘Lovely Ladies’ and ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, during which Javert opens an investigation into Madeleine. This allows Javert to confess his wrongdoing and ask to be discharged, his submission to authority a part of his character missed by the stage musical. Book Javert reveres the law in the place of religion; his musical counterpart treats the law and the Lord as interchangeable yet unchangeable objects of veneration. His worldview is confronted by Valjean’s, whose religion defines his morality, but is entirely separate from legality. 

Speaking of Valjean, no other adaptation has gotten him even close to this right. In the stage musical, the time jump from 1823 to 1832 happens immediately after Valjean fetches Cosette from the Thénardiers. I have gone on record saying that ‘Suddenly’ was a mediocre add-on, but after seeing so many adaptations butcher Valjean’s character, I have no choice but to eat my words. In ‘Suddenly,’ we hear Valjean find hope, life and love in becoming a parent. He sang of himself as prisoner and mayor in ‘Prologue’ and ‘Who Am I?’, it is only right that Valjean contemplates his new fatherhood through song.

After all, this is the role he commits to until the end of his life. From that point on he puts Cosette above his wants and needs – he barely hesitates to find Marius though he knew he would take away his one happiness. Once Valjean had ensured she would be taken care of, he willingly withdrew from her life because his past could have the potential to ruin it. When Cosette describes him as ‘loving and gentle and good,’ you are inclined to believe her. 

When Cosette describes [Valjean] as ‘loving and gentle and good’, you are inclined to believe her

The movie musical does not place pressure on Marius to be simultaneously revolutionary and romantic. Gillenormand’s presence, although brief, tells that he is a student who is at odds with his rich family. His stubbornness towards his family grants him more complexity than just a flaky, lovesick fool or ‘leader’ of Les Amis. Enjolras takes up the mantle, especially as ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ is shifted to open the film’s second act. Les Amis being an experienced activist group is alluded to in the removal of the line ‘they were schoolboys / never held a gun’. Their idealism and camaraderie are clear even in the little screen time they had. The concert and stage versions of Les Mis are unmatched musically, but differ wildly from production to production (removing the revolve on the West End was a terrible decision). The movie musical is not only well done, but remains constant. 

The 2012 film is devastating, uplifting, and beautiful to look at. Some say musicals are the most manipulative art form, and while I am happy to report that Les Mis is one that weaves in Hugo’s message flawlessly, it does not remove the need for at least some critical thought. The worst thing about the musical is not that it does not do the novel justice, but that with its popularity, a large portion of its audience only gives a passing thought to the message behind their entertainment. Theatre audiences are able to go about their days while its music has been used in protest movements around the world. The myth of continuous upward progression blinds the best of us, but ‘ignorance and poverty’ is as present as ever. The Les Misérables musical ends with the same call to action Hugo’s novel begins with. Are you interrogating oppressive systems that persist today?

Bonus! 2007 anime

If you would like to watch a book-accurate adaptation of Les Misérables and musicals are not your jam, never fear! Shoujo Cosette is a 52 episode anime that contains the most detail of them all (including Jehan, if you know you know). Aimed at young women, there is no over-sexualisation, nor does it condescend or shy away from the heavy themes of Les Mis. One notable departure is the addition of a pet dog to Valjean and Cosette’s household, which let’s be honest, only adds to the story. 

If you have reached this point in the page, might I suggest you try reading Les Misérables? I heard it is a nice little novel about a man who stole a loaf of bread.

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