Turning Hugo Into a Yugo

Moviemakers have been making themselves miserable wrestling with Les Miserables for almost ninety years. The very first American feature film was a 1909 silent adaptation of Victor Hugo's dark masterpiece, and it's been reprised on the screen at least half a dozen times since then. Most memorable? The 1935 version, with Frederic March and Charles Laughton, and the 1957 French edition, starring Jean Gabin and Bernard Blier.

Throw in that kitschy stage musical Americans love so much, the highly derivative TV series The Fugitive and the two recent movies it begat, and you've got a major industry in reformed convicts and obsessive cops.

The Danish director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror), whose films move more slowly than French justice itself, probably won't be remembered for his take on what every dewy-eyed matinee-goer now calls "Lay Miz." And Hugo, the towering romantic who wasn't around to spend the royalties from the dozens of movies inspired by Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, probably isn't turning cartwheels in literary heaven this week. Despite the best efforts of Schindler's List hero Liam Neeson as the beleaguered Jean Valjean and less effective ones of Shine's Geoffrey Rush as the implacable Inspector Javert, this is a pretty tedious hunk o' Hugo. And novelist Rafael Yglesias has yielded to the basest temptations. What we have here is much less a tale of justice and redemption in nineteenth-century France than the love story of two good-looking kids, one of whom just happens to be M. Valjean's adopted daughter.

In other words, the greatest figure in French literature has been "Titanicized." The rising sap in lovely Cosette (Claire Danes) and her pop-revolutionary boyfriend, Marius (Hans Matheson), takes center stage here. Forget the Battle of Waterloo; it no longer exists. Hugo's famous chase through the Paris sewers? It's been trimmed and rewritten to suit this year's fashion. As for the novelist's central conflict between authoritarian moralism and social justice, it's been relegated to the back table of the cafe so August can gaze upon young love in bloom.

This is, of course, the dictatorship of the marketplace. The bulk of the contemporary movie audience is 17.3 years old--something like that--and the moguls know that audience refuses to digest anything like the world's most famous shipwreck or the contemplation of the nature of freedom unless it's been so dumbed down and softened up by soap opera that the original event or source is unrecognizable.

August and Yglesias defend their choice in regard to this diminished and demeaned Les Miserables by saying that Hugo's turbulent novel is so enormous and unwieldy that they had to cut out something. Well, what they've cut out is the heart of the matter--like excising the whale from Moby Dick. What they've left is petty, pretty romance. Cosette and Marius don't attain the age of lust until halfway through these agonizing two hours, but once they do, Neeson and Rush may as well cease to exist. What do trifles like restoring the Republic or contemplating the birth of European fascism in the procedure-ridden soul of Javert matter when young romantics have a misty rendezvous to keep at midnight?

Hey, this author and director can't even get Valjean's sentence for nipping the loaf of bread straight. That's supposed to be five years' hard labor in the quarries of Toulon, guys, then nineteen more in the galleys.

Meanwhile, the kissing never stops.


Les Miserables.
Screenplay by Rafael Yglesias, from the novel by Victor Hugo. Directed by Bille August. With Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Claire Danes, Uma Thurman and Hans Matheson.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >