Les Mis's neglected revolution

Saturday, July 12, 2014
It is no surprise that most Western adaptations of Victor Hugo's novel have favoured the clasped hands of romance over the clenched fist of insurrection.

Les Miserables
Now playing in Melbourne
www.lesmis.com.au

Les Miserables tells two stories: one of personal love, the other of revolutionary passion. It is no surprise that most Western adaptations of Victor Hugo's novel have, when deciding what to cut and what to leave in, favoured the clasped hands of romance over the clenched fist of insurrection.

The story we all know -- the one that is left after adaptation pares away everything else -- is that of Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who redeems himself through acts of charity.

Valjean is compassionate and austere, self-sacrificing almost to the point of masochism. Working as a factory manager, he treats his employees generously and distributes his profits to the needy.

At the novel's climax, he risks his life to save Marius, a young man whom he barely knows, from death in a failed republican uprising.

Although the author presents Valjean as a model of personal virtue, he also shows the limits of what that virtue is worth: Valjean is a fair employer, but one of his workers is still fired and thrust into poverty by a less charitable middle manager.

No degree of individual selflessness on Valjean's part can rid the hierarchy of employment of its abuses.

Valjean may save Marius from death in the stifled revolutionary eruption, but there are dozens of other young rebels for whom Valjean can do nothing.

Valjean aids the poor and the oppressed where he finds them, but remains powerless to end poverty and oppression.

This is the mission of the Amis de l'ABC, the group of student radicals to which Marius belongs. The Amis are led by Enjolras, a man who devotes himself as single-mindedly to revolution as Valjean does to charity.

“[Enjolras] hardly saw the roses, he ignored the spring, he did not hear the birds sing,” writes Hugo. “To him, as to Harmodius, flowers were good only to hide the sword ... He was the marble lover of liberty.”

Like much else in Les Misérables, Enjolras and his comrades were inspired by Hugo's dierct experiences.

In 1832, Hugo, following the sounds of mysterious gunfire through the streets of Paris, found himself caught between a republican militia and the French military. He survived only by hiding behind a column.

Two days later, the insurrection was broken. It was this brief event, the June Rebellion, that Hugo would later immortalise in the pages of Les Misérables and personify in the character of Enjolras.

Western adaptations of the novel have given mixed treatment to the June rebels. Richard Boleslawski's 1935 film version portrays the Amis as explicitly non-revolutionary and Enjolras as an unkempt hoodlum; Glenn Jordan's 1978 television film draws the Amis sympathetically but keeps their politics vague.

The 1980 stage musical ・ adapted to film by Tom Hooper in 2012 ・ alone manages to put Enjolras in the foreground and to communicate the view that the June Rebellion might have been more than a tragic waste.

All japes about Russell Crowe's singing aside, it seems that the stage musical and Hooper's adaptation of it have found deeper popularity with the public than previous adaptations.

Like Hugo's novel, both these adaptations were initially savaged by much of the critical establishment.

It seems that the versions of Les Miserables that focus not only on individual tragedy and redemption, but that shine a light on society's tragedies and tell us that there is hope if we take our destiny into our own hands, are the versions that resonate most.

From GLW issue 1016