“Ain’t Got a Clue What He Put into this Stew…”

“…Must’ve scraped it off the street.”

–Drinkers, “Master of the House” from Les Miserables

Full disclosure:  I enjoyed the musical Les Miserables, seeing the touring company perform the musical twice in Los Angeles during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And, just this past weekend, the wife and I had a chance to enjoy the recent film adaptation of the stage musical.

(Warning:  Spoilers follow.)

Rather than turn this post into a full blown review of the film, which, I must admit, I did enjoy, I came across this odd commentary by writer Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times today:

After nearly 150 minutes of Tom Hooper‘s “Les Misérables,” Jean Valjean has said a tearful goodbye to Marius and made him promise to protect his beloved Cosette. It is heartbreaking; it is satisfying. There are tears, and melancholic smiles.

But like a late-night infomercial, there’s more. A wedding follows. Marius and Cosette rejoice. Ah, a nice wedding finish. Wait, why is Sacha Baron Cohen back to make trouble? The movie can’t end with Sacha Baron Cohen making trouble, can it? Of course, it can’t. There is another scene. Candles. A convent. Valjean is still alive! No, no, now he is dead. But wait, he is given a new chance in the afterlife. The end seems to take, well, an eternity, as Hooper seems to grope around for an ending to match Hugo’s novel.

Steven Zeitchik is even more clueless than the drinkers in Thenardier’s tavern.

For starters, Les Miserables, the film, is an adaptation of the stage musical.  Of course, it was based upon Victor Hugo‘s novel, but the musical is, in and of itself, after 27 years, its own distinct creation.

Tom Hooper, the film adaptation’s director, was chosen with the idea of bringing the musical to the screen.  

The movie is not an exact match for the musical.  Director Hooper, on the differences which the set design and the presence of the camera led to specific changes:

What happened is, once we made the commitment to having it sung through, you then realize that any changes you need to make are going to need to be made through the books and the music. So every change I did was in the musical form, by writing lyrics. But because I had the original team, the original lyricist and composer, a lot of the changes are invisible. People aren’t even commenting, they don’t even know that they’re there. There’s a slight perception that we just took the libretto and shot it, and that’s true for quite a bit of it. But there were many interventions we did when we converted it to the screen that were simply about making the storytelling better.

Some weren’t even about lyrics. A really good example of something that struck me again last night, which was a change, was in the first battle, Eddie Redmayne is rushing to get a barrel of gunpowder and then get it torched to blow the whole thing up, and a soldier trains his gun on Marius. In the musical, Eponine’s been delivering a message for Marius, and she arrives at the barricade, she’s already been shot and it happened offstage, and she just happened to get shot as she’s walking down the street.

But the ending to the musical, is also mirrored in the ending to the film.

Because the musical is being filmed.

Did writer Zeitchik even consider this possibility?  Or was he so intent upon disparaging the film, for reasons other than Russell Crowe’s vocals, that Zeitchik hit upon this motivation about film endings to drag “Les Mis” into his hit piece?  The film version of Les Miserables ends in a manner very close to how it was performed at the musical’s 25th Anniversary concert.

The ending to the 25th Anniversary concert at London’s O2 Arena:

OK.  There was a change in the film.  Eponine does not appear in the climatic scene.  (Nor does Nick Jonas in Marius’ role–Phew!)

If the film didn’t work for Zeitchik, the musical would not have worked either.  In that instance, if he didn’t care for the musical, expecting to see something different in what was meant to be as faithful a film adaptation as it could be, was a fool’s errand. If he didn’t like the film, say so.

Last year, Steven Speilberg couldn’t trust the material he was given in adapting War Horse, and the result was a beautifully filmed mess.   In the case of Les Mis, Zeitchik apparently damns the film for being too trusting.  I honestly believe that Zeitchik, for himself, is being too lazy, confusing that impulse with being too clever by half, in seeking some sort of easy way to rip into Les Miserables.  He attacks the ending *as* an ending without realizing that it is, in fact, an ending used by the film’s very source material, the stage musical.

Worse, Zetichik criticizes the choice to not match the ending to Hugo’s original novel–but the final scene in the convent between Valjean, Cosette, and Marius, does, in fact, take place in the novel as well!  The wedding scene in which Thenardier (played by Cohen in the film) attempts to blackmail Marius, is meant to show Marius who it was (Valjean) who had saved his life after Marius was wounded at the barricades during the 1832 June Rebellion, enabling a final reconciliation between the young couple and Valjean before Valjean dies.

Yes, very melodramatic.  Because it’s a tear-jerking musical, for crying out loud–literally!  Hooper’s not “groping around for an ending”, he’s using that of the musical AND the novel.   Perhaps writer Zeitchik needs to take it up with Victor Hugo in the afterlife one day.

“…But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner than over the white robes of a hundred just men.”
― Victor HugoLes Misérables

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