Les Misérables: The Film Vs. The Musical

Les Misérables: The Film Vs. The Musical

Les Misérables, the film adaptation of the world famous musical, hit American theatres on Christmas Day. Should you go see it? Will the film irk fans of the musical? Will the film turn people off to what is arguably the greatest musical of all-time? Should I buy popcorn?

While there are a few missteps, Les Misérables is a decent film. Those who have seen the musical on Broadway or the West End will appreciate it. The movie is easy to understand and clears up a lot of stuff you may not have gleaned while sitting in theatre. That means it’s a great place to start if you’ve never seen the stage production. While it’s a good movie, and as much fun as a flick can be in which just about every major character dies, it does NOT replace seeing the musical live. That’s good to know because the musical returns to the Great White Way in early 2014.

What To Expect
For the first 20 minutes of the movie I wanted to actually hear some singing. It seemed like the acting and the filmmaking kept getting in the way. I finally got what I wanted when Anne Hathaway, portraying Fantine, sang “I Dreamed A Dream.” It was at this point that the film finally “breathed.”

Sadly, Hathaway doesn’t have the voice to sing that song properly. She has a nice tone, and hit most of the notes, but she lacks vocal power. If you see Les Misérables when it comes to Denver or Les Misérables when it comes to Baltimore you’ll hear a much better rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” than the one we got from Ms. Hathaway.

The film really picks up with the “Master of the House” number. Then, a few scenes later, we’re in Paris where we meet the students and they were all played by actors who know how to sing: Aaron Teveit as Enjolras, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, and Samantha Barks as Eponine (although Eponine is not a student). This is when the movie really hits its strides. From here to end, the film is downright captivating. It’s not a coincidence that when the real singers show up the movie turns for good to great.

Jackman, Crowe & Hathaway
I don’t like the tone of Hugh Jackman’s voice, he played Jean Valjean, but he is a legitimate Broadway star (he won a Tony Award for portraying Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz). His Valjean was perfect for the silver screen. Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway can act, but they can’t sing. Nonetheless, Crowe was a stalwart Javert. He has a singing voice that’s suits the character just fine. I’ve already dissected Hathaway’s voice and acting-wise she was great. If adding star power is a legitimate movie role then these three did their job with aplomb.

The Musical & Film Differ
I’ve never understood why filmmakers find it necessary to alter a plot for their adaptation. For instance, Les Misérables the film differs from Les Misérables the musical in several ways: songs have been moved, numbers have been truncated, and a new song, “Suddenly,” has been added. Why? Was it necessary to move “I Dreamed A Dream” from after “At The End of The Day” to after “Lovely Ladies?” The answer is no, it’s not necessary. Then why did they do it? Simple, they do it for job security. Directors, writers, and producers make changes to source material to justify their huge paychecks. If studio heads realized all they had to do was use a musical’s original book to make a film they could just hire film school flunkies and save a bunch of money. Les Misérables the musical has been running for 25 years. It’s been seen by millions and millions of people all over the world. It’s a success. It does not need alternation.

With that being said you hardly notice the rearrangements. Unless you’re a huge fan that has seen Les Mis a bazillion times, or you saw Les Misérables live the night before, all you’ll really notice is a few songs have been cut short. Happily, there are no major changes. The filmmakers didn’t make Fantine live, they didn’t give Javier a cracked team of rogue soldiers, and they didn’t insert a character that pals around with a talking bear.

Live Recording
The actors in the film Les Misérables sang live. So unlike a Rihanna concert there was no lip syncing. I knew this going in and found it very distracting. Only because I kept wondering how they did it. You just can’t start singing after the director yells “action.” There are major timing issues to address. Afterwards, I learned that the actors wore earpieces which allowed them to sing along to a piano track. The orchestra accompaniment was added in post-production. Promoters said it was the first time a movie musical had been made this way but those in the know argued that the technique has been used several times before. Nonetheless, it sounded great and worked really well for a musical with as much drama as Les Mis.

It’s Loooooong
Be prepared, Les Misérables is a long film. It’s running time is 158 minutes. Unlike the musical, the flick does not have an intermission. To avoid missing anything good take a bathroom break when Marisus is trying to woe Cosette outside of Rue Plumet and refill your popcorn right after Eponine dies.

Show Stealer
As always, the “Master of the House” number is a show stopper. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are magnificent as the Thénardiers. The best part of the movie though is when Samantha Barks sings “On My Own.” It’s a revelation.

Why So Long?
Les Misérables debuted in Paris in 1980, London in 1985, and New York in 1987. As soon as it was translated into English it has been an overwhelming success all over the world. So why did it take so long for it to reach the big screen especially when lesser musicals like Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch have already been immortalized on the silver screen? Why we’re on the subject, where are the film adaptations of insanely successful musicals like Wicked, Miss Saigon, and Jersey Boys (which seems tailor made for a movie)?

The only thing I can think of is it’s not about how well a musical is received but the age of its audience. The average age of a Broadway show attendee is much older than the average age of a movie goer. Therefore, Hollywood doesn’t look at the best musicals but the ones they think young people will want to see. That’s why musicals that skew young get turned into flicks so fast.

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