Every review I've read of Les Miserables compares it to the musical that birthed it, which feels slightly like comparing Texas to Louisiana without any mention of the rest of the United States, let alone the world. So I'm gonna be the nerd who talks about the book, which only seems fair since, at the end of the day, the movie is a translation to a new medium, just as the musical was a translation from a novel, which in turn was translated and mistranslated from the original French.
What we're seeing on screen, ultimately, is the videotape of the videotape of the videotape. They've taken the original text and carved it up into strangely shaped pieces, excising character and context and leaving in the glossy bits. This approach worked fine for Mamma Mia (disagree in the comments) because at least Mamma Mia was a fun romp. Oscarbait Les Miserables is a series of soul-destroying set-pieces grounded in not even an iota of human agency.
It finds a humanity with its side characters (Thenardiers, Enjolras, many other nameless revolutionaries) that it never matches with the leads. There goes Anne Hathaway's snotty nostril, there goes the ever-pinkening bags under Hugh Jackman's eyes, and Cosette? Oh Cosette. I never knew you (though I knew you so well in the novel).
What frustrates me most is how little this film paid attention to the prime rule of film - economy in storytelling. Now, economy doesn't simply mean cutting out portions of the text, it means that you boil the story down to the essentials.
At the end of the film, here's what I'd have thought of the characters if I hadn't read the novel:
1. Jean Valjean is a Panglossian do-gooder whose relentless commitment to "morality" has no foundation in reality (which couldn't be further from his character in the novel, who's deeply conflicted at all turns. If you remember, when Jean Valjean goes to the battlements, he's undecided whether to save Marius or to kill him).
2. Marius is the shallowest romantic on the planet (this hurts, because Novel Marius was my first great love, the literary reflection of my idealistic/suffering 12-year old self). Seriously, what a wet wanker is FilmMusical!Marius.
3. Cosette? WHAT COSETTE? All I see is an OBJECT who is barely even half of a person (In the novel, she gets her own book for a reason. She's the optimistic striver who is tired of being an object, and makes choices. CHOICES). This hurts even more because Amanda Seyfried sounded TERRIFIC. Couldn't you give her a role, you guys?
Les Miserables as a Film
There's plenty of commentary elsewhere on Les Miserables filmic failures (oh those closeups. What really burns me is that Tom Hooper actually had multiple cameras on each actor, AND STILL CHOSE THESE DAMNED CLOSEUPS. Like, "Guys, forget the plot. What we really need now is an establishing shot of Eddie Redmayne's nasal freckles.").
Guys, this burns me to say. I really looked forward to the movie, and am sad that it isn't something I can rewatch over and over. But quite frankly, by the time we hit Valjean's seventh song, I was ready for him to die, and die swiftly (and don't get me started on Russell Crowe's "singing").
I've seen the musical, and I don't remember it being such an poorly thought out adaptation of the novel. But perhaps this is a reflection of the rule of Chicago - you can't just film the damn stage musical, you have to alter it to fit the new medium.
Oncoming Hope out. Play nicely in the comments.