Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Review: Les Misérables Movie 1978

Film directed by Glenn Jordan, starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins

Les Misérables 1978 DVD CoverI think I’ve unwittingly started another project: watching the various movie adaptations of Les Misérables. One of the hazards of searching Netflix by title.

I watched the 1978 film starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins. It’s extremely focused on the story of Jean Valjean vs. Javert, and while it’s able to add more to that thread, the whole suffers. The Thénardiers are basically gone, you don’t get any sense of what Fantine was like before her fall, and the insurrection and barricade feel like just one more event in passing, not the culmination of a major storyline.

And while they didn’t technically change the ending, they stopped early enough to make it happy.


Jordan is a good Valjean during the first half of the movie, but is somehow diminished in presence after the final time-skip to 1832. I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Perkins is an imposing Javert, and as in the book he tends toward insufferability and even cruelty when he’s sure of himself. The confrontation at Fantine’s deathbed is a particularly frustrating scene to watch, and yet it’s exactly what happens in the book. He’s also completely obsessed, to the point that he requests a transfer specifically to follow Valjean to Paris, and contests another transfer that puts him off the trail.

Ian Holm shows a lot of promise as Thénardier, but sadly only appears in one scene. I’d really hoped to see the shrewd, dangerous Thénardier of the novel.


The film opens with Jean Valjean’s theft of the bread, and spends some 20 minutes or so following him through his prison sentence and various escape attempts, showing his descent from a fundamentally decent man to a savage animal. He really is “a dangerous man” by the time he gets out. Strangely, Valjean is never released on parole in this version. Instead, he escapes by falling into the river (as he does during his second stint in prison).

Some of the characters glossed over in the musical get a little more attention here: Bishop Myriel’s wit has a chance to shine. Mme. Magloire actually has lines. Even Sister Simplice, the ageless woman who never speaks a word that isn’t true, appears. But the whole Thénardier family is gone, including Éponine. Even the ABC students are little more than background characters.

Every once in a while someone speaks a line of philosophy, and the phrasing sounded familiar every time. This would have been just two years after the Norman Denny translation that I just finished reading. I wonder if that’s the one they were working from.

Some details I liked seeing:

  • Valjean quoting regulations to Javert to claim jurisdiction over Fantine
  • Fauchelevent’s interview with the Mother Superior at the convent – a rare bit of humor.
  • How and why Valjean and Cosette left the convent.

The chase through the streets of Paris was done much better here than in the 2012 movie, though they decided to set it during the day.

Things start really diverging after the jump to 1832. All the time they put into Valjean’s prison sentence has a cost, and that’s cutting the rest of the story down to the bone…and then amputating.

The ABC students never really get any focus. They’re giving speeches in the park when Cosette and Marius start making goo-goo eyes at each other, and then a few scenes later they’re fighting at the barricade, with no build-up. As near as I can tell, the fighting is continuous (with one odd break, which I’ll get to later). And while I say “students,” I could swear Enjolras is 40. Marius, on the other hand, looks like he’s desperately trying to look older by growing a beard.

The movie takes the same love-at-first-sight shortcut that the musical does, but without the songs, and without enough screen time dedicated to the blossoming romance, it’s not convincing.

Marius’ grandfather actually has something to do in this version, though why they put him in a gigantic country palace instead of a well-to-do Parisian house, I couldn’t tell you. He’s rich, but he’s not that rich.

Back to the barricade: Gavroche dies just returning from his errand. If they were going to include him at all, you’d think they’d feature his signature moment. Then Valjean shows up, and the army stops shooting because “he’s a loyalist” while he picks up Gavroche’s body and carries it over to the barricade. Then they start up again. He’s got some serious Plot Armor.

It feels like they were going down a list of bullet points from a plot outline, crossing off what wouldn’t fit, and just making sure the others appeared on screen without really connecting them. I found out afterward that the DVD is actually cut down from the original version, and the additional 30 minutes include the scene in which Valjean is buried alive. I would have loved to see that. I also wonder if the full version paid more attention to the rebels and barricade.

One thing that bothered me was Javert declaring when he confronts Valjean in the sewers that “there is no God, only the law.” That’s not how he thinks at all. He believes in order, and the order of society includes the church, but since he believes the law is infallible, he just assumes God agrees with the law and doesn’t really give it much thought. What ends up breaking his mind is that the levels of “right” above him have come into conflict. Giving him this line not only alters his character, it casts the entire story as a struggle between a good Christian and an evil atheist, instead of the struggle between two men who are both trying to be good, one helping people at the expense of the social order, the other preserving the social order at the expense of people.

The ending works well enough if you don’t know that the original story runs all the way to Valjean’s death. It’s at least a matter of just stopping early rather than altering events to make them turn out happy (Valjean is too melancholy for that to have rung true), and it’s still a bittersweet ending, but it doesn’t quite fit. It could be worse, though – the 1998 movie cuts out even earlier, and I once saw a version of The Glass Menagerie that had a happy ending.


If you’re in it for the Valjean/Javert story, this is a great version to watch, especially the first half, before it settles into bullet-point storytelling. If you like the other characters more, you won’t find a lot here.