Monday, August 16, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Les Misérables" (1935)

I would not want to be a filmmaker faced with the daunting task of translating Victor Hugo's mammoth, epic novel "Les Misérables" onto film. The scope and sweep of the book are simply too huge to be diminished into a movie running two (or three, or four, or even five) hours.

Still, plenty have tried, with varying degrees of success. IMDb lists nearly 20 versions, including television movies. Perhaps it's due to the severity of the challenge that none of them are considered the standard, so more keep getting made.

The 1935 film with Fredric March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as Inspector Javert is perhaps the most recognized iteration. It's a powerful version, centering on the antagonism between Valjean and Javert -- though the filmmakers had to jettison much of Hugo's pages to set up this dynamic.

I won't belabor every way in which a 1,500-page novel is redacted in order to fit into a 108-minute movie, though if you're curious the Wikipedia page has a pretty thorough rundown of the discrepancies.

But director Richard Boleslawski and screenwriter W.P. Lipscomb made one monumental alteration: Removing the villain of the piece, Thenardier. In fact, the entire Thenardier clan has been purged from the story, other than a very brief glimpse when Valjean rescues Cosette from indentured servitude at their inn.

From a movie-making standpoint, the choice makes sense. The rivalry with Javert has more narrative juice, and with Charles Laughton in the role, the film had to shrink down to better contain their antagonism.

I assume everyone is familiar with the bones of the story: Valjean, released from prison after 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread, has his soul enlightened by a kindly bishop. He endeavors to do good deeds, even as Javert and the hard hand of justice continue to pursue him. Valjean takes up the guardianship of the young girl Cosette, and they try to forge a new life together.

The travails of Cosette's mother Fantine are mostly dropped, which is too bad because the book establishes its tragic tone largely through her story. I mean, who could forget a woman who's forced to sell her own teeth? She's played by Florence Eldridge, who was Fredric March's wife.

It's not one of March's best performances. He gives Valjean a sort of flat nobility -- we see him struggle with his conscious, but not for long. Compared to Laughton's mesmerizing turn filled with fire and ice, March is more or less blown off the screen in their scenes together.

One of the earliest attempts to film "Les Misérables" was a series of movies starting in 1909 that followed the book's sections fairly closely. Though I enjoyed the 1935 film, one feels like they're watching the pale shadow of a great story, whispered over a tremendous distance.

I think the only way to do Hugo's masterpiece justice would be a "Lord of the Rings"-style approach, with multiple films and a huge budget. I doubt that will ever happen.

3 stars out of four

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