Pop-culture history: Les Miserables: The Dream lives?
This year around Christmas Universal will release its movie adaptation of the musical Les Miserables. The description of the movie reads as follows: “Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption—a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.“ While true, this description sums up the problems of almost all adaptations of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece of romantic French literature. Les Miserables is not just a collection of stories about love, redemption, and passion – it is scolding political commentary and agitation against social injustice and the French monarchy (and in extension of this against undemocratic Regimes) and a tribute to the students and fighters for a republican government who fought and died in the July Revolution of 1832.
Victor Hugo born in 1802 was a monarchist in his younger years. Under the impression of the social misery and poverty so rampant in Paris in his day, Hugo turned to republican politics. He saw the establishment of a French Republic under a government that would care about the poor, infringed, and neglected as the only way of progress. After being caught up in the events of the July Revolution, which he describes in Les Miserables, and because of his already considerable fame in the 1830s (mainly due to his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame – another story of social outcasts and injustice), he planned to write a grand story about the misery so rampant in France. It should take him 30 years to finish.
He also participated in the 1848 Revolution in France and afterwards became a parliamentary in the freshly established Second French Republic. His main political issues were social injustice, the abolition of the death penalty, and the freedom of the press. With the coup d’etat by Napoleon III and the subsequent anti-parliamentary constitution, Hugo went into exile in Great Britain. Here he not only wrote several anti-Napoleonic pamphlets but also finished Les Miserables.
In its original French version about 1900 pages long, the book was intended by Hugo as a criticism of France’s monarchic past as well as its present. Long passages in the book consist of Hugo’s examination of topics such as law and moral, social justice, Paris architecture, religion, the idea of justice, politics, and finally the nature of love. The characters a vividly written as they are and their stories as beautiful and well-planned as they are, are also vessels for Hugo’s message that in today’s terms could be described as liberal – he opposes the monarchy, he wants to show the impact of social injustice, stigmatization, and oppression on people and pleads the case for a more just and republican France. He strongly favors liberal politics and glorifies the students and their uprising against the French monarchy and its system of political and social injustice. Even the main character, Jean Valjean, convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving siblings, is transformed from a man who just wants to lead an honest live after his unduly conviction to a political player and almost revolutionary trying to change the world for the better. Hugo’s message is clear, redemption or the road to progression lies in the political activity of Republicanism.
Yet, what do most adaptations – and from the looks of the trailer especially the upcoming movie adaptation – focus on? Love, redemption, and passion. All important parts of Hugo’s novel but only half of it without the grater political message – a political message that could and would work in modern times and terms. There obviously still is social and political injustice and misery. Of course it would be naïve to expect a movie studio or a musical company to focus on these aspects of one of the most acclaimed novels ever written but the twisting of a still sorely needed political message in order to turn political commentary into entertaining sing-songy sludge is still one of the grossest historical deceptions in the musical film world since The Sound of Music. While personally, I am not opposed to enjoying it, I think it is important to be aware that there is an important political message behind all these songs and characters and that turning this story into something like that not only does Hugo’s novel injustice but is an injustice akin to if a movie studio had turned the novel Push into a story about successfully losing weight and not the social drama that is Precious.
The tagline of the Les Mis movie is “The Dream lives”. Unfortunately, Victor Hugo’s dream certainly doesn’t live with this adaptation.