You may recall that when the BBC’s Les Miserables miniseries was announced, I had a bit of a wish list. All I really wanted was a few trifles, really: constant symbolic light imagery, radical politics, and a transformative moral and spiritual experience. Now, I knew that I would not get everything I desired. For one thing, the book is too long to be condensed faithfully into a mere six hours, and even I realized that the literal halos were probably too big of an ask. Also, with each passing interview that Andrew Davies gave, I became more concerned with his takes on some of the characters and themes. But surely, I thought, there would be plenty of good along with the bad. I may be an adaptation grinch, but this is Les Mis we’re talking about. Just by virtue of being this story that I’ve loved for *checks watch* two-thirds of my life, it was sure to move me on some level.
Well, I wasn’t wrong. I was moved. To rage.
As with my last Les Mis post, I humbly ask you to bear with me even if you don’t care about Les Mis itself. What I’m really going to be talking about here is My Thoughts On Storytelling. Also, I will give credit where it’s due. I wasn’t filled with rage during every moment of this adaptation; in particular, I thought the last episode was the least bad — and yes, I am deliberately damning with faint praise here, but I actually did get choked up a couple of times. Also, the set design was very good, and the acting was uniformly excellent even when the characterization was not. Honestly, one of the biggest bummers of this adaptation has been imagining how great this cast could have been with a script that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out.
So here’s why I’m angry.
I have been describing this adaptation to those who ask me about it as “Grimdark Les Mis.” Until just now when I went looking for that wikipedia article to link, I had never read an “official” definition of the term grimdark; I’d just come across it in various internet nerd circles and intuited its meaning from context. When pressed to explain it, I have personally been defining it as “self-importantly bleak, with a side of toxic masculinity,” which betrays my own biases. I am just not about that grimdark life.
Now, an adaptation of Les Mis was never going to be cheerful. As I noted in my last post on the subject, the title kind of precludes that. (As does the high percentage of characters who die before the end.) However, there is a difference in my mind between haunting and bleak. The Brick is the former. Its depictions of poverty and injustice are troubling, devastating, morally harrowing. The reader wants those images to go away. The text dares the reader to make them go away by doing something. Only then can the ghosts and demons of our society that it reveals lay themselves to rest. (Or only then could they rest; the work of this story and stories like it is nowhere near done, as Hugo himself foretold in his preface.)
Bleakness, on the other hand, is fatalistic. It doesn’t trouble readers (or viewers) with attention-demanding specters; it simply drags them down and leaves them cold. Haunting stories say, “People suffer and they shouldn’t, because people deserve better.” Bleak stories say, “People suffer because they suck.” Bleakness allows — more than that, it invites — cynicism.
I refuse that. I refuse.
Not every character individually sucked as a person in this adaptation, but the script was reluctant to allow them to be their best selves, either. This was particularly noticeable in the treatment of Jean Valjean, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster. In this version, he was very shouty. And aggressive. And controlling. This … was a problem.
Now, I don’t think that Jean Valjean should be angelic, and I think that he can be too perfect in some actors’ hands. Jean Valjean has to continually struggle for his morality; that is a large part of the point of that character. I thought that Nehal Joshi’s take on JVJ in the 2014 Dallas Theater Center’s production of the musical was a goddamn revelation, mainly because he laid this struggle bare in a way that most actors don’t. (Highlight reel here, but, uh, hit me up if you want to see more. I don’t want to just openly post a link — not that I have illusions about this blog being well-trafficked, and I know that Joshi in particular has given his tacit approval to bootlegs, bless him — but yeah, I didn’t travel to Dallas to see this production but have still managed to watch the whole thing, and you can, too!)
Still, for the love of God, Jean Valjean is not a good candidate for a transformation into a gritty antihero! He’s kind. A word that comes to mind when I think of Jean Valjean is grace. He’s sad and he’s hurting; he doubts and he internalizes all sorts of awful narratives; he often does not know how best to love his daughter and the world and least of all himself; but still he loves. He tries to understand, and he forgives. He does not manhandle Gavroche when he delivers Marius’s letter. He ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT manhandle Cosette, ever, under any circumstances. He doesn’t roar wordlessly (?!) at the Bishop, even though that is at the very beginning of his journey! He doesn’t fire Fantine on purpose and shout at her that she’s untrustworthy! What! Were all of these choices!!!
I felt like this adaptation just didn’t trust the audience to be invested in a protagonist whose Darkness isn’t simmering right on the surface 24/7. Either that or it couldn’t imagine expressions of pain that don’t look like anger. Both of those options are a real problem for me as both a Les Mis fan and a storyteller. And listen: I’ve got some angry characters! I recently received some notes on middle-grade story, and one that I dismissed outright was that my main character should be less mad all the time. (Disclaimer: of course it’s important to listen to criticism, but sometimes you just gotta say, “sorry, but you’ll pry my irritated 12-year-old disaster child from my cold dead hands.”) But I also operate on the assumption that people are interested in the good that my characters want and try to do. I am interested in that aspect of storytelling, because that’s what I actually want to see play out in the world.
When Jean Valjean lets Javert go at the barricade, I want it to feel hard but earned. This moment of understanding and pity has to be enough to undo Javert, after all. In this adaptation, I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine why this Valjean would let this Javert walk free. Compassion can’t just be flicked on like a switch; if your character is going to make this kind of self-sacrificing move, you have to start establishing it in their behavior well before they actually go through with it.
Davies also made some real strange choices with Javert. Honestly, I’d say that JVJ and his antagonist were the least like their original counterparts, which is a surefire way to make Les Mis not feel like Les Mis. Davies was clearly primarily interested in the cat-and-mouse aspect of the story, but he reduced Javert’s obsessive pursuit of JVJ to an all-encompassing personal obsession with the man, instead of a symptom of his unyielding belief that The System Can’t Be Wrong. This led to some bizarre and unintentionally funny moments (since when does Javert wholeheartedly believe that JVJ is behind all the revolutionary activity in Paris??), but it also severely undercut the political impact of a character like Javert.
Again, I want to stress that I hold none of this against the actors. I’m a big fan of David Oyelowo, and I think he did a great job with the script he had. This is also perhaps a good time to discuss the racial implications of the casting. I am 1000000% for making Les Mis less white in adaptations, and despite what some newspaper articles have insinuated, there’s actually nothing unrealistic about a police inspector being Black at this time in French history. However, here’s a list of major and/or plot important characters who were white in this adaptation: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Enjolras, the Bishop. Here are the main characters who were people of color: Javert and Thenardier. In other words, the two characters who have the most negative impacts on the rest of the (white) characters were not white. That’s … not the choice I would have made, especially considering the fact that Les Mis should always reflect current systems of injustice whenever it is retold. Depicting white people all suffering under the abuses of POC really does not do that.
Of course, Thenardier being a person of color meant that his children were, as well, so there was some non-antagonistic representation. As far as Gavroche goes, no notes, other than I wish he’d had more screen time! He was Good. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the treatment of Eponine. I knew going in it wasn’t gonna be great, considering Davies had run his mouth about how great it was that Hugo has Eponine “teasing Marius with her sexuality” when they meet, which is a Very Bad Take. Oh, and then Davies decided to augment that supposed sexual tension with Marius having a wet dream about Eponine. And then Marius sees her again working in a brothel when Grantaire and Courfeyrac take him?? To said brothel?? Which: holy shit why. Neither the wet dream nor the brothel are things that remotely happen in the book, and I cannot begin to express how much I hated these choices. First of all, the fact that Marius does not objectify Eponine in the book is a significant reason why this exploited teenager falls for him so hard! And in placing all of the importance of Eponine’s “sexuality” onto how it affects Marius, Davies objectifies her even more, which means the viewer watching this unfold is put into the position to do so, as well. I very much do not want to do that! Ever!!
Eponine (again, as the adaptation’s most prominent woman of color) got the worst of the script’s sexism, but Fantine and Cosette didn’t escape it, either. Fantine’s descent is never pretty, nor should it be, but this script really didn’t allow her to experience any emotion that isn’t crushing misery from the moment Tholomyes leaves her. It didn’t go into her backstory as a street kid who managed to retain her optimism and begin to make a life for herself, and it didn’t allow her to hold onto some strange, startling charm even when she’s dying in the hospital. She was more just Suffering Woman than vibrantly, specifically Fantine.
The treatment of Cosette, meanwhile, suffered a great deal from her juxtaposition with Angry!Valjean; instead of having a loving relationship with her father, they are at constant odds as he tries to keep her from experiencing anything of the world. Davies made his disdain for Cosette from the book clear in interviews, which, first of all, is boring. Sure, she’s a 19th century heroine, so she can be underwritten and undercut by the author’s own frequently-not-great gender politics, but she does have plenty of her own specific character traits and emotionally nuanced moments. Davies’s approach also once again demonstrates his lack of interest in compassion as a driving character motivation — and, once again, I disagree. A father and daughter smiling and pretending for each other’s sake that they aren’t both lonely because they don’t want the other to be sad is far more poignant to me than that father bodily wrestling his daughter away from the front door as she shouts at him that she hates him.
Like I said before, this adaptation did have its moments. Dismissing the breadwinners from the barricade was done really well and completely gutted me, as did every interaction between Enjolras and Courfeyrac once the barricade was taken. I already sang Gavroche’s praises, and I adored the Bishop. Also, not that I actually like this character, but Gillenormand was right on target. A lot of very talented people were involved in this production, and I could see how much they all cared about the project.
I just wish that the script had believed in more. Showcasing misery will never be enough. You have to love the miserable ones. That’s what hurts, and that’s what haunts you. That’s what will make you act.