Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Review: Les Misérables Movie 1998

Film directed by Bille August, starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush

Les Misérables 1998 posterI don’t remember why I never got around to watching the 1998 Les Misérables movie before – I was heavily into the musical at the time it was released (even subscribing to a fan newsletter and running my own fan website), and I was certainly aware of the film. It may have simply been a matter of “it’s not the musical” (or possibly “Éponine isn’t in it”).

Whatever the reason, I never got around to watching it until now.

On one hand, I wish I had seen it at the time. On the other, I might have been more caught up in “Augh! It’s different!” objections when I was younger. I’m a lot more mellow about adaptation changes these days, except when they completely miss the point. Not that it’s hugely different, but there are some fairly major changes.

It’s beautifully shot, some of it on location in Paris. It’s as visually appealing as the Tom Hooper-directed 2012 musical (my review) – more so, when you factor in how gritty the 2012 version gets. (The sewers in this version must have been the cleanest in Europe. The sewers in the Hooper version…let’s jus say they’re a bit more true to the sewers in the book.) I’m not familiar with director Bille August’s work, but I see that he also directed The House and the Spirits - a movie that I remember thinking (at 18) was a dull waste of a great cast. Fortunately I never got that feeling here, though both are epics dealing with the intersection of family drama and political turmoil.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the music was composed by Basil Poledouris, whose score for Conan the Barbarian is one of my favorites, but this score didn’t make much of an impression.


This is another adaptation that focuses heavily on Jean Valjean’s story, to the exclusion of everyone else’s threads, in order to cram at least one complete story into a single movie. (The musical is unusual in that it actually treats the story as an ensemble piece.) It’s not quite as extreme as the Jordan/Perkins version. Sure, it drops the Thénardiers once the action moves to Paris, and the rebellion seems to take about as long as the chase through the sewers. But Fantine and Cosette have more presence, and it does a much better job of setting up the revolutionaries and making it feel like they have their own story that’s intersecting with Valjean’s, even if you don’t see much of it.

The acting is much more…human here than in the 1978 version, though it does suffer from not showing you at least a little of Valjean’s backstory at the beginning.


I liked the way they tried to expand Fantine’s story, showing a little more of her slow descent into poverty and giving her and Valjean the beginnings of a relationship, cut short by the fact that she’s dying. You can imagine the two of them raising Cosette together in a happier world.

I also liked what they did with Cosette, giving her more agency and allowing some of the fire to burn that is tightly controlled by 1832 society in the book, and completely absent from the 1978 version (my review; she and Marius could both be replaced by cardboard cutouts). She’s the one who chooses to leave the convent, not Valjean. She demands answers from her father…and gets them. She even convinces him to help Marius during the rebellion.

Maybe it was just a way to give Uma Thurman and Claire Danes more to do, but I think it made for a better film. Though it did write them into a corner at the end. (I’ll get back to that later.)

I was impressed that, 16 years ago, they took the bold step of making Enjolras black…until I saw that they’d made him second in command. Way to throw away an opportunity.


Les Misérables 1998 Blu-Ray

A lot of the changes to the story, particularly those that would have bothered me at 22, are clearly designed to raise the stakes of the drama. Jean Valjean actually strikes Bishop Myriel during the robbery. Javert actually witnesses the attack on Fantine (by three men, not just one), and arrests her when she fights back. Marius isn’t a hanger-on with the revolutionaries, he’s their leader. And it isn’t fear of Javert that prompts Valjean to leave Paris, it’s Javert showing up at his door…for, as it turns out, a completely unrelated reason: he’s trailing Marius. This leads to several scenes in which Javert and Cosette actually meet…including a physical confrontation between Javert, Cosette, and Marius. (Javert needs to learn: you don’t try to kidnap Liam Neeson’s daughter.)

For the most part, these changes work. But it’s baffling when they make changes that don’t have any clear purpose, except maybe to make them easier for the English-speaking actors to pronounce, like changing names (Fauchelevent becomes Lafitte, and Montreuil-sur-Mer becomes Vigau).

And then there’s the fact that Valjean actually tells Cosette the whole truth during the insurrection. That makes the main conflict for the last 100 pages of the book impossible, which is probably why they just stop with Javert’s suicide. My wife and I watched as the credits rolled, and said to each other, “They’re leaving it here?” But the earlier change didn’t leave them anywhere to go, except maybe the wedding.

It’s the only way to honestly walk away with anything resembling a happy ending, but it’s also deeply unsatisfying.