Les Miserables: From Stage to Screen

| March 12, 2013

The new book: Les Miserables: From Stage to Screen takes the prize for one of the geekiest books ever written, and this is very good thing, if you’re a Les Mis fan that is. Bursting at the seams with related memorabilia and dozens of intriguing photographs, this book serves as the perfect summation of the journey of Jean Valjean, Inspector Javet and the ill-fated Fantine. It elegantly addresses just what it is about Hugo original, iconic text that has resonated so strongly for well over 100 years, and provides ample coverage of the original story’s arduous journey to both the world’s theater stages and multi-plexes.

The book has a fluid, coherent and chronological structure, beginning with an examination of Hugo himself and the various socio-economic and historical circumstances which led to the inception of his original, mammoth novel. The text then moves into a detailed description of Cameron Macintosh diligent efforts to produce an English language musical adaptation.

Like many pieces of “behind the scenes” material, Les Miserables: From Stage to Screen has a tendency for some superficiality in its coverage. This is evident occasionally throughout these initial chapters, particularly when the book explores the shift in Hugo’s political and social consciousness. Of course this is a minor quibble as the book is not obviously written to be some sort of definitive Hugo biography. Once the book changes its focus from the expository backstory of the source material to a detailed look at the adaptation process the content becomes much more enriching and absorbing.

What is especially notable are chapters six, seven and eight; each of which are devoted to exploring the various qualities of a different main character from Hugo’s story, and the various actors who embodied each character on-stage. The text in each character-centric chapter is supported by a plethora of pictures which include stills from various productions, a couple behind the scene snaps and even some concept art. These chapters are a treat, although some of the pictures are a bit unfocused, which seems natural if they were being taken at an actual stage performance.

The time frame covered by the book is considerable, as there are chapters which focus on the show’s transition to American stages following its success in Europe and even a full chapter discussing the rejuvenation of the show for its 25th anniversary. The book does an excellent job of evoking the innovations made to celebrate the anniversary and to amp up the intensity of the show. This included technical hocus pocus, such as film projections which gave greater scope to the gothic gloom of Valjean’s flight through the sewers and Javet’s eventual suicide.

The film adaptation chapters are also well done, if mildly sparse with real information. This is again a minor complaint as the book’s intention is not to provide a massive chronicle of the day-in and day-out process of filmmaking. Still, the chapter spends a considerable amount of time discussing the much publicized decision to record the film’s songs live. This is a feature of the movie which has already received an unbelievable amount of coverage by even non-related media entities. There is no need to really spend a lot of time rehashing the subject like the book does here.

The filmmaking chapter is another example of the book’s sublimely generous inclusion of photographic material. The pictures and concept art included here are absolutely beautiful and really give you a sense of the artistry behind the production, which is something that Hooper’s penchant for the extreme close-up unintentionally obscured.

Les Miserables: From Stage to Screen won’t probably win over any new devotees to the institution, but it is a great supplementary addition to any established fan’s library. The text is not always the most involving, as it occasionally displays a penchant for superficiality and self-congratulatory feeling. Yet, there is too much here to enjoy to get really down on a few minor portions of text.

The book is broken up at certain sections with envelope-like containers which carry a proverbial treasure-trove of memorabilia related each time-period of the musical’s development (these envelopes appear after the chapter covering the Europe premiere, the Broadway premiere, the 25th anniversary show and the film adaptation). The memorabilia includes really nerdy stuff like copies of ticket stubs, call sheets from the film shoot, more concept art, blurbs of actual news reports of the 1832 uprising, and even posters from global productions of the show. These materials are integrated nicely into the book’s presentation and further show how even after more than 100 years Hugo’s original story remains just as powerful and that the people are singing louder than ever.

About the Author:

Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic and writer who currently lives in Denver, CO.
Filed in: Books on Film

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