Tag Archives: Les Miserables

Kathleen Will Never Shut Up About Les Mis, Part II: Anger Edition

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. 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.

 

Not Too Much To Ask; Or, Kathleen Will Never Shut Up About Les Mis

I did not actually have any ideas for this month’s blog, so Anna suggested I write about my ideas for how I would do a Les Mis miniseries, because she has known me for 900 years and has spent 850 of them listening to me talk about Les Mis. For those of you about to check out of this post, I beg you to bear with me! Talking about Les Mis is also talking about LIFE ITSELF, so if you’re on this blog, you apparently have at least a passing interest in my thoughts on that topic. For those of you who are unfamiliar with my lifelong love affair with this story, here are the main points you need to know:

  • I saw the musical when I was 10 and understood most of it, immediately started reading the book and understood very little of it, put it aside until I was 12, still understood not a lot, but finished it and loved it anyway. I’ve read it a bunch of times since then (well, not the Waterloo tangent). My first copy literally ripped in half. I care about precisely three (3) 19th century novels, and somehow this 1400 page Romantic monstrosity is one of them.
  • Also the musical is just my whole life. I memorized the soundtrack immediately, and then my mom had to explain way more than she had intended because she had to beg me to please not sing certain lyrics in public. This was, you’ll note, entirely her fault for taking me to see it, even though somehow MPAA ratings were Law in our household. (Uh, except when I semi-conned her into letting me see Trainspotting when I was a freshman in high school.) (In hindsight, my bad.) (Look, I was really into Ewan McGregor.)
  • It is a scientific fact that, compositionally, I am 87% Les Mis opinions by volume.
  • A new BBC miniseries is being made! http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2018/les-miserables-casting

So obviously, in the background of my mind at any given time until this miniseries happens, I am running through all my hopes and dreams for this adaptation. My mom asked me who I would watch it with, and I answered, “I don’t think anyone would want to do that.” I’m an adaptation grinch by nature, but I also saw the musical movie three times in theaters (I know), so what I’m saying is that if anyone does wind up watching this miniseries with me, they should know they’re going to be in for six hours of alternating crying and yelling.

I am trying not to have preemptive opinions about the miniseries, though I do wish Davies would stop talking smack about the musical. Like, bro, I get that it’s probably annoying that people keep asking you about a different adaptation, but surely you realize that a bunch of people who care about the book got there by way of the musical, so perhaps cool it with the “shoddy farrago” remarks. But based on the cast members whose work I’m familiar with, I’m optimistic about the performances. (I am obviously obsessively checking IMDB until the full cast is on there. They have a Favourite now! That’s neat. She definitely doesn’t get to be in a whole lot of adaptations. But also where is my favorite?? RELEASE THE FULL LIST.)

But while I may not have preemptive opinions, I sure do have a wish list. Obviously, a significant part of this list is just all my favorite scenes, word for word (surely not much to ask in … six hours. Hmm.)(But listen, I’ll forgive almost anything for a phenomenal Orestes Fasting and Pylades Drunk) (RELEASE THE FULL CAAAAAAST LIIIIIST). I also have some big ticket items, as well, which are as follows:

  • First and foremost, please do not make this a Dark Muddy Colored Period Piece Of Sadness. I mean, it is a period piece of sadness — consider the title — but it’s also Romantic. Hugo went hard for symbolic light motifs, and the miniseries should, too. (Dare I mention the musical? Because, listen, nothing guts me quite like the Bright White Spotlight Of Sanctified Death. Take notes, Davies.) I want alllll kinds of light in this thing. Bright light, soft light, golden light, light like halos around specific characters’ heads at the appropriate moments, light seeming to emanate from their very faces. Don’t feel the need to be subtle; Hugo sure didn’t.
    • To whit: “God is behind everything, but everything hides God. Things are black, creatures are opaque. To love a human being is to make her transparent.”
    • And: “Brothers, whoever dies here dies in the radiance of the future, and we are entering a grave illuminated by the dawn.”
  • This probably seems contradictory following Intense Light Symbolism, but I also want the miniseries to be super relatable. Like, sure, everyone’s kinda Jesus, but also they’re people living their lives that they would prefer (but generally don’t get to) keep living. I’m going to need the props and set design to provide tomes of information about everyone, especially if we see them in intimate spaces. The progression of Fantine’s rooms as they slowly shed belongings should be devastating. What small, pretty things will disappear first? Will they look like the small, pretty things that Cosette later places in her room? (They should.) I want to see characters pause mid-sentence to smile at a cat that walks by. I want to see them yawn at nighttime and catch glasses that they’ve upset right before they spill. I want nervous tics and “you weirdo” looks and startled smiles.
    • So putting those two thoughts together, I want the viewer to be able to look at any given character and have a moment where they say, “Same.” And then when that character has a moment of being kinda Jesus, the viewer can then think, “Wait, so then am kinda Jesus?”
      • Yes.
  • I’m going to need this miniseries to be overtly, inescapably, relevantly political. Quoth Hugo, from the introductory note of his own damn book: “so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be need for books such as this.” There’s, um, kind of a lot of that going around. I do not want anyone to be able to walk away from this miniseries and think, “Gosh, things sure were rough in 19th century France,” and have that be the end of it.
    • This is one of my issues with the movie musical, actually. The musical itself can fluctuate in how confrontational it is about its politics depending on the production, and the movie version sadly dialed it down with certain choices. Example lyric change: “And the winter is coming on fast, ready to kill” became “And the plague is coming on fast, ready to kill.” Plague theoretically could kill anyone. Winter only kills the poor.
    • Listen: one of the most important and least comfortable thesis statements of this book is that injustice on a systemic level precludes morality on a personal level. Jean Valjean must break his parole to be a better person. He can’t follow the law, because the law won’t let him be a good person under the ridiculous restrictions of his parole. He also needs cash dollars. Or, you know, semi-stolen silver. (Another infuriating lyric change from the movie musical: there, the bishop says “I have saved your soul for God” instead of “I have bought your soul for God.” No! It’s bought! It has to be bought, because his soul can’t be saved without the material means the bishop provides. That shouldn’t be true! But it is.)
      • Basically, you don’t get to care about JVJ and be okay with literally anything about our judicial system. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. I want this miniseries to make you ask, “Wait, would it be easier for released convicts to live moral lives if they break their own paroles and assume new identities, too?” And then I want it to answer, “Yep.” And then, “Do something about it.”
        • Also: Do something about how women like Fantine are chewed up and spit out, because she’s definitely kinda Jesus, didn’t you see her symbolic halo? Do something for the girls like Eponine. They’re still here; they’re called trashy. But she hums when she looks in the mirror, and so do you, and so do they. Do something for the protesters, the revolutionaries. Not just the calm ones. The desperate, furious ones. They’re illuminated by the dawn.

So that’s what I need: big soul, big themes, small dear fragile human people. Transcendent beauty, fury, and love. Time and space collapsed, no distance at all between characters and audience. But really, isn’t that what I want of all fiction, all the time? It’s certainly what I try to do, even though my fantasy stories for kids and teenagers are, to put it lightly, pretty damn different from the Brick. But scratch the surface, and it becomes obvious that I imprinted on Les Mis as an earnest preteen duckling. As I always do when I read the book or watch and listen to the musical, I want my readers to think:

They’re just like me.

They’re holy.

I’m holy.

I will help all the holy people. I will make them transparent.

 

Formative Narratives

So basically as soon as I said that I was going to finish the second draft of werewolf story, I experienced my patented reoutline-everything-five-chapters-til-the-end part of my ~process. (This time, on a notepad in the car on the way back from a bridal shower for about an hour. I was pretty boring company, I’m afraid.) I did this I think three times with story, so I’m not totally sure why I thought I would make it to the end of this draft? I mean, I kind of still will, but with the last few chapters written as though I’ve already done everything I now know I need to do to the middle, just to see what they look like. I’m always somehow taken by surprise when my sudden windfall of clarity happens, but I suppose I shouldn’t be at this point. It always kind of makes me laugh, actually. It’s like my brain needs to get almost there . . . before it can reboot.

Onward with werewolf story then! Revision and rewriting are my favorite thing to do. Getting closer and closer and closer to the story you know the characters deserve.

(Also: Health Stuff is on the mend. Yay!)

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about Les Miserables, which I just saw on Broadway with my mom last week. This is the fourth time I’ve seen Les Mis live (the first time I was 10 years old). I have also watched the movie musical many a time since it came out, and I’ve also read the book (known affectionately as the brick by fans) quite a few times as well. Probably 90% of my reading is children’s and YA books, but when I go for an adult title, I guess my attitude is go big or go home. So considering my 15 year old love affair with this story, it is definitely fair to say that Les Mis is one of my formative narratives.

Everyone’s familiar with the hyperbolic claim that “this book changed my life.” Usually that’s just shorthand for “it was really good.” And I don’t even mean that disparagingly — hyperbole is one of my preferred modes of communication. (For example, if as many stories had actually “completely destroyed me emotionally” as I have claimed, I probably wouldn’t have the wherewithal to write this blog post.) But for the most part, life trucks along mostly unchanged even after a good book.

Sometimes, though, “this book changed my life” isn’t hyperbole. Sometimes it’s actually an understatement. There are some narratives that I can honestly say didn’t just change my life; they shaped it. I have several, but for me the main two are Harry Potter and Les Mis. Harry Potter’s a bit obvious, as a huge percentage of my “kids who liked to read and were born in the late 80s” demographic also fit that bill. The fact remains, though, that the Kathleen who lives in an alternate universe where Harry Potter never existed is not the Kathleen writing this post right now. She’s probably fairly similar — for example, I had alighted upon my writing ambition pre-HP, because I’m one of those obnoxious people who’s always known what she wants to do — but so many of my professional interests, political views, and personal relationships and patterns can be traced very clearly back to my childhood and adolescence with those books.

Similarly with Les Mis, I’ve been engaging with these characters and narratives for three-fifths of my entire life. I fancy myself a bit of a Les Mis connoisseur, with an oddly detailed memory of minute performance details and musical-novel connections. Also, I have literally been reenacting my favorite death scene  from the book (listen, Les Mis has a lot of them) for 12 years, maybe? Including on the school bus in middle school, all the way up to outside a Tasty Burger for an audience of grad school friends. So that’s . . . a weird thing about me.

But it’s not all encyclopedic recall and gushing fannishness. It’s determining the kinds of narratives that matter most to me, both as a guide for creating my own fiction and also for creating my own life. Of course real life has more moving parts than even a beast of a book like Les Mis, and any editor would tell you that it is overcrowded, poorly paced, and has far too many loose ends and dropped plotlines. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t plan our lives like narrative (or that I don’t, at least). We expect a satisfying conclusion to any number of our efforts. We want our own character development to pay off, and we hope that we accomplish something. (I am assuming here that no one actually wants to live the lives portrayed in the drab cynical contemporary adult realism subsection of the market.) (I’M NOT SAYING ALL CONTEMPORARY ADULT REALISM IS BAD. Just, you know, a lot of it.)

My formative narratives are the stories that helped direct the rising action of my own life really early on. I honed my opinion-forming skills on these books. I went on HP-verse werewolf rights tirades in eighth grade that were actually my first opinions about healthcare. That same year, I was zoning out in class to consider the implications of How Cynicism Sucks, But More Importantly, Is Incorrect embedded the character of Grantaire in Les Mis. Much later on, I learned to be critical of these texts, and if that’s difficult, it’s because these texts have become a part of me, and being critical of oneself is always difficult, but also necessary. (I need to keep getting better at this, especially with regards to Harry Potter. But I’m working on it. And I’m certainly trying to not have the same flaws in my own writing, especially with regards to representation of race and sexuality.) (Being critical is easier with Les Mis, mostly because if you don’t find some things to disagree about with a well-off white guy from the 1800s, you probably have to do some pretty urgent reevaluation.)

When I was watching Les Mis last week, a lot of things were going through my head. I cried a lot, because that’s what I do. I cataloged actors’ facial expressions with a furious intensity, mostly because MY MOM GOT US SUCH GOOD SEATS. (Last time I saw it, I couldn’t so much . . . see. But that production [25th anniversary UK tour, baby! I was studying abroad] was so breathtakingly perfect that it kind of didn’t even matter.) But there where also moment when I would feel a sweet, aching tenderness. Parts where I thought: ah, yes. That’s where that part of myself was born. Hello, little me. I still love this. I still care about this. I’m still here, trying to make myself in the image of narratives of hope, and love, and the possibility of change.