Les Misérables by Victor Hugo; A look at the story and 1998 movie

The year is 1862. The author, already an accomplished French poet and artist, is one Victor Hugo.  Advertisements for Les Miserables were distributed heavily, and excitement was at an extreme high. When the book was eventually published, Hugo was on vacation. Wishing to see if his book had been printed, he telegraphed a single punctuation note “?” to his publisher. He got a “!” in response. Reception of this book was wildly exuberant, although the French gentry of the time generally spit upon it. They felt Hugo’s sympathy for the poor, revolutionists and republicans disgusting. They stamped their feet when the French judicial and political systems are criticized. Nevertheless, Hugo’s five part book went on to survive for over 200 years, and is still read today.

Why the hype? Although the phrase quality over quantity is a fine life motto, the reader is not forced to choose between the two while reading Les Miserables. Within the unabridged version’s 1500 pages, (a beautiful example of a mega-novel), the reader will be swept along on a captivating, sometimes wordy, journey; beginning with the kindly acts of an old man, and ending with the June Rebellion, a student uprising that brings two souls together in marriage and culminates in heavenly glory for one of the main characters.

Once I began reading, I was seized by Hugo’s literary hand. Never have I felt so incredibly connected with the characters in a novel. Victor Hugo did not just pen a story…he spun an intricate tapestry of poetry, life lessons, humor, joy and grief…but mostly grief. It is called The Miserable, after all.

This story encompasses so much! It addresses honor, justice, atonement, family, and shows us how greed ultimately consumes those that allow it to grow. It even throws in some detailed history lessons.

And so, this story having locked itself upon my psyche, here’s a quick review of several key events in books 1-2, and a short comparison of the book to the 1998 movie starring Geoffrey Rush, Liam Neeson, and Uma Thurman.

WARNING! Contains major spoilers. Read if you dare.

Book One introduces most of the major characters. Hugo began with the generous bishop, Myriel, (known as Bienvenu in Digne). We watch as he lives humbly, giving freely to those in need, never hoarding a sous for himself, living peacefully with some nuns, his sisters. Although I don’t agree with his religious stance, this character is a just, upright man whose charity was entertaining to read…the second time, at least. I admit–this part bored me at first. I wasn’t yet invested in the story, and it seemed like Hugo was taking a long time to get to the good part. So I skipped it the first time, shooting straight ahead to the page 70 mark–straight to Jean Valjean, the unarguable gravitational center of this tale.

We meet Valjean—fierce, cruel, ignorant, as strong as three men—after his release from the prison at Toulon. Nineteen years ago, he was a pruner at Faverolle. After being orphaned at a young age, he was brought up by his sister; and he, in turn, helped to raise her seven children. But as these nieces and nephews grew, Valjean’s income remained pitiful. Overcome by guilt and devastation as the children slowly starved, young Valjean stands before the window at the baker’s shop. The bread that lays behind the glass seems to be his salvation. His fist ruins the window pane, and he flees with a single loaf. But, alas, the baker is awoken by the shattering of the glass. Valjean is recognized, reported, and imprisoned.

Prison Torture Chambers (illustration from 1800s edition)

Valjean’s spirit is crushed. He will be shackled for five years for the theft. Chained to a line of other men, he weeps for the hopeless sister, the seven children who will have no bread, and for himself, the illiterate pruner condemned for a lapse in judgment. When word eventually reaches him that only one of the children remains with his mother, that the others are no more, his heart is untroubled. Prison has changed him. The whip has driven out sympathy; cruelty has driven out love. He is taught to read while wearing his chains, thinking to use the skill for evil later on. At last, unable to withstand the manacles that chafe his flesh, the guards that beat him senseless for a word, and the hard plank he is made to sleep on, he escapes, scaling the tall prison wall. Three days of flight yields him nothing; he is recaptured and sentenced again. In this manner, after several more skillful escapes, he spends nineteen years at the prison in Toulon. He is over forty years old. Half his life has been wasted.

By the time this released convict reaches Digne, he has walked 35 miles from the prison. He seeks shelter in inns, fields, kennels, but he is chased out each time, even by the dogs. At last, he knocks upon one last door. Here Bienvenu the bishop re-enters this tale. Valjean is incredulous when he is admitted inside for a meal and a bed. He cannot believe anyone might be so kind to one such as himself.

However, old habits die hard. Valjean awakens during the night, and is tempted beyond reason to abscond with the silverware belonging to the nuns for the dinner table. He gives into this temptation.

Caught by the police while escaping, Valjean is hauled back to the bishop, who does not condemn him, (which would mean returning to prison), but rather asks him why he forgot the candlesticks. Valjean is again taken aback. Speechless, he watches as the guards release him, and as two silver candlesticks are packed into his ragged knapsack.

Here, the bishop then makes a statement that personifies what the Catholic church believes, that a mere man can forgive sins. But that slight annoyance aside, the bishop’s words pack a punch; it is a forceful, yet gentle, command that Valjean will use the money gained from the silver to become a new man–an upright man.

At this point in the story, Hugo emphasizes the point that although Valjean is ignorant, he is not stupid. The words of the old man weigh heavy on his mind. He becomes so troubled, that he begins to wish he were still in prison, and had never heard them. Then, in thoughtless habit, he commits one last crime; the theft of a forty sous piece from a young chimneysweep, violating his parole and committing himself to the jaws of the law once more. When he at last comes to himself, when the boy has already fled sobbing, Valjean realizes what he has done. For the first time in nineteen years, his conscience is plagued by his actions. Calling for the boy, he sets out to find him with increasing sorrow. Spying a horseman upon the road, Valjean approaches the rider, exclaiming, “Have me arrested! I am a robber!” The rider flees, frightened by the wildness of Valjean’s voice and eyes. Valjean then falls to the ground, sobbing roughly, his conscience overcome.

Hugo then transports us to Fantine, an orphan with shining blond hair, who at the age of twenty is blinded by love to a charismatic playboy. The playboy eventually abandons her in what’s supposed to be a “joke”. By then, she already has his daughter. She is crushed.

Fantine, accustomed to fine living from the funds of the one who abandoned her, then becomes a part of the working class. She trades her silks and her pearls for washerwoman’s rags, and clothes her young child, Cosette, in these fineries instead. Cosette becomes her only treasure.

Searching desperately for work, but aware that she cannot be hired if word gets out she has a child out of wedlock, Fantine passes through the village of Montfermeil, where she spies two lovely little girls playing under their mother’s watchful eye. To Fantine, the appearance of this family is a miracle. She speaks briefly to the mother of the girls, one Madame Thenardier, who agrees to take in Cosette for a monthly sum, under Monsieur Thenardier’s urging. The Thenardiers are in heavy debt, and this poor mother seems to be the answer to their financial woes.

But parting with her Cosette is only the beginning of Fantine’s troubles. We, the readers, are transported forward seven years to a prosperous town, where Fantine finds work and temporary self worth. But news of Fantine’s child eventually leaks out, and she is fired in the name of the mayor, a mysterious man who came and revolutionized glass beadery with a simple idea. He is well respected by all for his kindness.

Fantine cares nothing for his benevolence, however, as desperation grips her. All of her hate is channeled toward the mayor, who she blames for all of her trouble and pain. The Thenardiers demand outrageous sums of money for the care of her child. In desperate need of money, she sells her hair, has her teeth ripped from her gums, and eventually turns to prostitution. (All G rated–we read about her roaming the streets asking for “work”.)

She is eventually arrested. All is lost for Fantine…or so she thinks. The Inspector of Police, Javert, is unwilling to listen to the story of a prostitute and immediately issues six months in prison. Fantine is again crushed. Six months? The Thenardiers will surely turn out her Cosette into the cold! However, the man who she blamed for her misfortunes steps in to save the day. This man had arrived a nobody; his yellow convict’s passport had failed to be seen by anyone, after his rescue of two children from a burning building. His kindness and generosity is rivaled by no one. This man is Jean Valjean, now known as Madeleine.

By this time, however, Valjean’s days of bearing the well being of the town are short-lived, having been recognized by the audacious police inspector, who was once a guard for the Toulon prison. Javert soon denounces Valjean to the police prefect in Paris. But no investigation commences, for a poor wretch who bears resemblance to Valjean has been arrested in the true convict’s stead.

When the real Valjean hears of the mix-up, a moral battle rages inside his heart for many days; he spends his nights pacing and his days brooding. Should he let this man take the fall for him? Is it selfish, to ignore the problem and keep his peace? Or is it selfish to reveal his true name, relieve the poor fellow of the false charge, and condemn the factory and the workers to destitution? And what of the woman Fantine lodging in his home, sick with an infection of the lungs? What of the promise he made to her, to fetch her child from an Innkeeper at Montfermeil? He becomes sick with worry.

Eventually, Valjean travels to the trial and turns the district upside down by his proclamation, “I am Jean Valjean!”  Javert, the inspector, triumphantly comes to have Valjean arrested.  A dramatic scene begins involving Valjean’s arrest and Fantine’s death, the woman who restored something of his love for mankind.

Again, Valjean is taken into captivity; however, his escape comes swiftly enough after falling from the mast of a prison ship. At the age of fifty five, he is thought dead; the name Jean Valjean is infamous once more. His good deeds are forgotten. He becomes a dim memory.

At this point in the story, we again see the quality of Valjean’s spirit. Instead of making good his escape from France, he honors his promise made to the departed, and directs his steps to Montfermeil. There, in a smoky inn kept by abominable villains, the daughter of Fantine is kept as a wretched servant. Although Cosette  is only eight, although the bucket she must carry to fetch water is larger than she is, she is kicked out into the cold night on Christmas Eve to fetch water. She knows the way by heart, but is daunted by the dark forest, by the heavy bucket she drags. Despite never having been taught to pray or acknowledge God, this young soul looks up into the heavens as she sobs and implores the Creator.

A hand touches hers in the darkness. Cosette’s tears vanish as she looks up into the tall figure’s face; she is unafraid of Valjean, this unknown man, whose white hair catches the moonlight. As they walk back toward Montfermeil, the man carrying the bucket for her, they speak with each other; the girl happy to talk, the man’s words marked by an immense gravity. Valjean then proceeds, through honest, clever actions, to take Cosette from the wicked innkeepers. They escape to Paris, where they hole up in an ancient, dirty building. The building is a palace is Cosette’s eyes; Valjean the good friend who takes care of her, and of whom she has no fear. As weeks pass, Valjean teaches Cosette to smile, and how to read—a skill he had learned himself, thinking he might do others evil by it. In this way, paternal love begins to grow in Valjean. Just as Valjean was Fantine’s lifeline to the earth, to happiness, Cosette becomes Valjean’s. Hugo writes this of their relationship: “Fate abruptly brought together these two shattered lives, dissimilar in years, but similar in sorrow… Cosette’s instinct sought a father, as Valjean’s instinct sought a child.”

I could go on, (and I’ve probably gone on long enough!), but I think you get the picture. This story is outstanding. To read it is to take on a greater understanding of the human condition.

And now… Book vrs. Movie!!

In my experience, books beat movies. Every time. This, just as bears beat Battlestar Galactica, is a universal truth.

But this movie comes pretty close to matching the epicness of the novel. Condensed heavily from its 1400 pages, (who could blame them?), what characters and plots that were used in the movie, although shortened, seem true to Hugo’s vision. Had each character, major and minor, and the length of each milestone been placed into the film, the movie would be a full-blown series with ten years worth of material. The movie that we have, however, follows much of the dialogue and captures the essence of the characters.

  • The first major difference seems to be the relationship between Valjean and Fantine. The book relationship shows a mutual liking, a form of love, perhaps, in its early stages; something more true to an honest friendship. Book Valjean and book Fantine are seperated in age by about twenty five years. Gray haired Valjean seems more like Fantine’s life line than love interest in the novel, and transversely, Fantine renews the lonely Valjean’s love for man.
  • Movie Valjean and movie Fantine seem to bond in much deeper ways. Their relationship is shown as a fledgling love, which sells Valjean’s decision to rescue Cosette all the more, seeing as the film-makers had to cut out much before that.
  • The major villains of the book are the Thenardiers, the grasping wretches that demand money from Fantine, who unfortunately have only a minor part in the movie. However, the book takes us back to the Napoleonic wars to show a bit of Thenardier’s past that unites him with Marius later on. Book Thenardier has a delightfully dispicable scene in the Gorbeau building, and also later on in the sewers and Marius’ study.
  • Many minor characters, such as Marius’ family, are not a part of the film.
  • Book Valjean knows how to read by the time he’s released from prison. Movie Valjean learns to read during his time as mayor, giving the Thenardier letters more plot.
  • It also, unfortunately, does not show my favorite part of the book: Valjean and Fauchelevent’s plot to get him, Valjean, and Cosette into a convent, which involves the death of a nun, a coffin containing a living body, and a nearly fatal trip to a graveyard.

Let me quickly add that I dislike movie Marius. They show us this guy for five minutes and we’re supposed to think he’s right for Cosette? Please. But book Marius, despite a somewhat hypocritical view of Valjean, is shown as a noble character.

A thing I so love about the movie is how very perfectly the dogged animosity of Javert, and the honor of  Valjean is shown in the movie. The scene during the student rebellion in the alley is incredibly moving and very true to the book. To read of such selfless acts inspires this reader to try harder in the sometimes daunting race of life.

Although the film leaves us on a much more joyous note than the book, I’m a dutiful fan of both. And if you’ve made it this far in my admittedly long post, then you’ve made me glad, indeed. To not read this book would be to shun a literary jewel. I love this story. I hope you will, too.

UPDATE: APRIL 21st, 2012

Les Miserables will be hitting the big screen once again next year, and it has me wishing for the scenes in the Gorbeau House even more. The cast should be great, (save for Russell Crowe, who was excellent in Gladiator, but just can’t shine a candle to Geoffrey Rush in Javert’s shoes), and although it will be a musical, I cannot wait for 2013.

This entry was published on December 17, 2011 at 11:53 pm. It’s filed under Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Les Misérables by Victor Hugo; A look at the story and 1998 movie

  1. Really liked your intro – concise, yet expressive – had me ready to find out what the hoopla is all about.

  2. Manda – If you’ll put a picture on this blog, I’ll pin it to my “Blog” Pinterest board. It might get you some more traffic. love you bunches, Pam

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