Tag Archives: Les Miserables

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.

 

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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.