Do not read if you don’t know the story of Les Miserables.  There are spoilers.  

Like many Jews across America yesterday, I went to the movies and saw Les Mis. I don’t generally do “movie reviews,” per se, but these thoughts have been bubbling in my head since the movie let out and my fingers have been itching to type out my thoughts.

I’ve been a fan of the musical for a long time.  I saw it on Broadway years ago.  I listened to the tape over and over again until I replaced it with the 3-CD Complete Symphonic Recording (which, if you like the music, is a worthwhile investment of time and money).  I’ve seen various film adaptations and watched the PBS specials.  I love the story and I love the music.  I went into the movie excited to see it and a bit wary…

I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed.  The acting was excellent, most of the singing was terrific (Russell Crowe does not have the voice for Javert, but is a skilled enough actor that he was able to succeed, I felt, in doing justice to the role), and I like how they presented it.  Some of the big numbers (like One Day More) didn’t seem as big translated into film, since the characters weren’t all on one stage, but I liked how it used the medium in order to create an intimacy with the story that was powerful.  It is rare that the translation is made from stage to screen in a way that is faithful to the original and yet is more than just a video of a performance, so to speak.  

There were a few changes that somewhat baffled me.  The fact that they entirely got rid of the tattoo on ValJean’s chest didn’t make much sense to me.  I believe that it’s not in the book (I admit I’ve never read it.  It’s on my list now), but is very much part of the musical.  I would say they wanted to be more historically accurate, but then they threw Santa Claus dressed in Red at the Thenardiers’ inn, so anachronism doesn’t seem to have been a great concern.  But I digress.  A number of the changes seem to have been made in order to be more accurate to the novel (for instance Marius’ family history), but I’m not sure any of them added that much to the story as presented.  I suppose I’m a loyalist to the musical.

But what really struck me is how differently I experienced the story as an adult.  I was a kid the first time I saw it (can’t remember if it was high school or college, but I was a kid regardless).  And even though I’ve listened to the music countless times, it’s a different experience to see the story visually.  

While I always knew that the leaders of the uprising were students and therefore student age, the emotional impact of that idea didn’t strike me when I was that age, as well.  I never really, fully grokked the fact that the vast majority of the characters are in late adolescence.  That fact profoundly changed the story for me.

While I remain on “Team Eponine,” I came to appreciate Cosette much more.  The love between her and Marius is young love.  Her attachment to her father is the attachment of a child.  Her naivety is age appropriate. This also serves to make Eponine all the more tragic a character.

But it was the fact that the leaders of the revolution were kids that really struck me.  I’ve long believed in the power of teens and have seen many adolescents powerfully use their voices to create real change in the world.  It really had an impact on me yesterday that Enjorals and Courfeyrac are just another generation’s version of the kids that I work with who regularly inspire me.  And that Marius, having just met the girl of his dreams and unable to focus on planning the rebellion, is just another generation’s version of the kids that I work with who regularly confound me.  

This may be why I was disappointed that they cut short “Drink With Me,” as it’s a song that truly captures the conflicting thoughts and emotions of these young people on the brink of change.

And why I was all the more heartbroken to watch Gavroche die.  Watching that scene only weeks after the Newtown shooting, realizing that the shooter in Connecticut was about the same age as the students leading the uprising–and Gavroche about the same age as students–was painful to watch.

But through the tears, I also found myself inspired.  Thank God the kids I know don’t have to take up guns and literally fight for what they believe in (at least not the kids in this part of the world), but the power of their conviction is just as strong.  And the intensity with which they’ll fight for something is a strong force.  And their passion is limitless.

The tragedy of the story of Les Mis is that the students, in the end, stood relatively alone, and that they weren’t able to see the change they wished to see in the world.  The bleak sadness of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” rang true in a new way for me yesterday at the movies. 

But perhaps, the vision of a new day can serve to inspire.  And the adults of today can be inspired by the youth of yesterday, and the youth of today.

One day more…


About rabbiisa

I'm a Reform Rabbi with a passion for education! I'm also a pop culture fan, political junkie, and NY Times crossword puzzle addict. I am INTP, a proud member of Red Sox Nation, and a fan of the Oxford Comma.

5 responses »

  1. Simon says:

    As I mentioned on FB, we saw the early performance here in Tucson yesterday. I have no experience with the book or any theater performance. I loved the movie. Afterwards, however, those in my car and at dinner were discussing the differences. I don’t care. I loved the movie.

    • rabbiisa says:

      I’m glad!! I loved it, too!! One of the people I saw it with hadn’t seen it before and liked but didn’t love it. It’s interesting to me to hear from people that didn’t know the source material so to speak..

  2. Karen says:

    I’ve seen the stage production, but not the movie. I am approaching the movie with caution, as a lot of musicals (particularly ones in full opera format, like Les Mis) just lose something in the translation to screen. But I’m willing to give this one a shot. Hugh Jackman has the chops to pull off the Valjean role…I’ve heard him sing before. I have my doubts about Crowe, though. I just don’t think he has the pipes for Javert.

    They got rid of the tattoo on his chest?? But it’s referenced in one of the lines of the script!…”got a number on his chest, perhaps a fortune tucked away…” Very strange choice by the director. Did there seem to be any reason for it?

    • rabbiisa says:

      I was wary, as well. They balanced the translation well, I thought. I thought they worked it well in terms of cutting pieces and not and adding a bit of spoken dialogue here and there (not a lot). It worked better for me than any other movie of a musical that I can think of in recent memory.

      And getting rid of the tattoo caused a few script changes, as, “heard my name and started running, and that brand upon his skin”…according to my research, the tattoo doesn’t appear in the book (I really need to read it) and there were a few things that they did to be more faithful to the novel. I’m guessing it fell into that category.

  3. Karen says:

    Oh, and as for the book…unless you really, really love 19th century French politics, get the abridged version.

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