For the month of February, I’m going to do a cool little series which you’re all going to love. 😀 It’s called Book vs. Musical vs. Movie (I am proud of my naming abilities), and I’ll be examining books and comparing them to their musical and movie adaptions. And this week, we’ll be starting with my favourite musical (and one of my favourite books too), namely Les Miserables (you didn’t see that coming, did you?).
Most people are familiar with the storyline of Les Mis, but just to briefly recap you, if your memory is a bit rusty, it’s the story of Jean Valjean, a man who steals a loaf of bread (his sister’s child was close to death!) and ends up imprisoned for nineteen years. After his release, he tears up his parole paper, assumes another identity and makes his fortune. Eventually, he ends up adopting an orphaned girl named Cosette. Throw in Enjolras, and a revolution, and Marius Pontmercy, and Gavroche the street urchin, and we have Les Mis.
There are three major incarnations of Les Mis, undoubtedly the most popular being the 1980 musical. For some reason it became hugely popular and is now one of the world’s best known musicals. However, over a hundred years before the musical hit the stages of the world, it was an enormously long book, originally written in French by Victor Hugo. In 2012, the stage musical was adapted into a movie musical by Tom Hooper. These are the three major versions of Les Mis (though countless other movies have been made, and spinoff books written), and they’ll be what I focus on today!
There are literally hundreds of differences between Les Mis le Book, Les Mis le Musical and Les Mis le Movie, some of them small, some of them major, but if I was to point out every single one (as I, in fact, have the capacity and desire to do), we’d be here all day, so I’m going to point out five that struck me the most. I’ll compare the three different versions and then decide which is my favourite, and of course I’ll ask your opinion at the end!*
*Also, just so we’re clear, whenever I say “musical”, this also applies to Tom Hooper’s movie, since that is actually an adaption of the stage musical, rather than the book. However, there are differences, so I’ll be pointing them out. Basically, musical refers to movie as well, unless otherwise noted.
Difference #1: The Character of Marius Pontmercy
In the book, Marius is awkward and kind of weird. His mother is dead, his father is estranged and he is raised by his monarchist grandfather. He first sees Cosette when she is fourteen years old and he stalks her so persistently that Valjean becomes convinced he is one of Javert’s spies and moves house. He associates himself with the Friends of the ABC, but never joins them. He and Enjolras have vastly different political views and clash majorly. When Valjean admits his identity to Marius, Marius subtly manages to ostracise Valjean from his house and almost manages to manipulate Cosette into forgetting her adopted father.
In the musical, Marius is much sweeter than he comes across in the book. He is awkward, shy and easily embarrassed. He “meets” Cosette and instantly falls in love with her (and she with him, luckily). Nothing is mentioned of his family, or of his father (or his relationship to Thenardier, which is a subplot in the novel), though his grandfather does appear briefly in two scenes of the movie. He is portrayed as being a close friend of Enjolras’, with no differing political viewpoints to separate them. He is also apparently a committed member of the Friends of the ABC, rather than a tagalong. When Valjean admits his identity to Marius, and tells him that he is going away, in order to keep Cosette from disgrace, Marius protests, saying that to leave would break Cosette’s heart.
Which One Do I like the Most?
I have to say, I much prefer the musical/movie Marius, to the book one. The book Marius always came across as selfish, wilful and just plain weird. Musical Marius is much sweeter, and honestly, much less annoying (and he’s also one of my favourite characters in musical theatre).
Difference #2: The Relationship Between Eponine and Marius
Marius and Eponine are neighbours, living in the same building. When Eponine and her sister, Azelma, run away from the police and a drop a bundle of letters, Marius finds them and returns them, bringing on a rush of gratitude from Eponine. Eponine continually shows off to Marius, demonstrated by how eager she is to show him her writing ability. She also flatters him, calling him handsome and praising his generosity. These are all attempts to get him to notice her and love her as much as she loves him. Marius, on his part, views her with a certain amount of pity. When Cosette asks Eponine to deliver a letter to Marius, Eponine keeps it instead, only giving it to Marius as she dies in his arms.
Like Marius, Eponine is made more compassionate in the musical. She and Marius appear to be very good friends. She loves him dearly, and is distraught when she finds out that he loves Cosette instead of her, but she doesn’t hold this against him. She comes to the barricade, disguised as a boy, in order to be close to Marius, and he attempts to save her life, by giving her a letter for Cosette and sending her off to deliver it. However, Eponine delivers the letter and returns to Marius, getting shot on the way back, and only just managing to find Marius before she dies. Together they sing a heartrending duet, and Eponine dies, leaving Marius–and, in fact, the whole barricade–to mourn for her.
The movie does things slightly differently. It still portrays Marius and Eponine as close friends, but when it comes to Eponine’s death, it reverts to the book, showing Eponine taking a letter Cosette had meant for Marius, and keeping it from him. Later on, she turns up at the barricade in disguise, but Marius fails to recognise her (as in the book). She is fatally wounded when she puts her hand over a gun directed at Marius and is shot. She dies in his arms, after giving him Cosette’s letter, and she is mourned as a hero.
Which One Do I like the Most?
I have to say that I love all three portrayals of Eponine. The movie/musical Eponine is sweet, full of love and hopeful, despite her terrible situation and I love her, and feel sympathy for her, especially during the songs “A Heart full of Love” “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain”. However, this Eponine doesn’t change much over the course of the story. There’s no visible difference between her at the beginning and her at the end. In the book, Eponine is a much more complex and difficult character. Her motivation for taking Marius’ bullet is so that she will not see him die, and that she will be waiting for him in the afterlife, not so that he and Cosette can have a happy life together. She is, ultimately, a girl who had lost hope, only to have it rekindled by the kindness of one man, and then crushed so badly that she wanted to–and did indeed—die. It’s hard to choose because the characters are so different, so I’ll leave it there, appreciating both the portrayals.
Difference #3: Enjolras as a Revolutionary Leader
While Enjolras is a very interesting person (and one of my favourite Les Mis characters), he is not the leader of the revolution. He is the leader and head of the Friends of the ABC, but the failed revolution is quite a large thing and he is by no means the leader. In fact, there are several sections dedicated to the actual leaders of the revolution, their pasts and what happened when they fled France after their failure. And while the book focusses on the barricade that Enjolras and his friends build, there’s another chapter where Enjolras visits one of the other barricades and has long conversations.
The musical never explicitly states that Enjolras is the revolutionary leader, but it definitely implies that he is the mind behind it all. Scenes such as “The ABC Café/Red and Black”, indicate that having the revolution after Lemarque’s funeral was Enjolras’ idea and no other revolutionaries–other than the Friends of the ABC–are depicted.
The movie actually hints at the fact that the revolution is larger than depicted, shown when Enjolras tells the revolutionaries that they are the only barricade left, indicating that there are more barricades, scattered around the city.
Which One Do I like the Most?
The book better shows history’s bigger picture, but the musical chooses to focus on Enjolras, his friends and their barricade, thereby making it more personal and eliminating long histories of people that don’t, in themselves, have much to do with story. However, the book is also very personal, so–being the history nerd that I am–I prefer the book’s version (though reading on as revolutionaries assassinate each other, when we only really want to know what happens to Enjolras and Combeferre, is quite difficult!).
Difference #4: The Convent
The convent is a large part of the second act in Les Mis. After escaping from prison, fetching Cosette and moving to Paris, Valjean goes to live in the Gorbeau house, where he regularly takes twilight walks with little Cosette. However, on one of these walks, Valjean runs into Javert’s policemen and makes an escape over a wall into a convent garden, where he eventually takes up residence (after a complicated escape-and-re-entry plan, which involves being buried alive in a coffin on Valjean’s part). Cosette goes to school in the convent and grows up there, but Valjean eventually decides that, though he and the sisters would like Cosette to become a nun, he cannot ask Cosette to give up a world which she has never known. Thus they leave the convent and go to live in the Rue Plumet.
As far as I know (never having seen Les Mis), the convent is not at all featured in the musical, being skipped over entirely.
The convent features briefly in the movie, showing Valjean and Cosette climbing over the wall and coming across Fauchelvent (I have no idea if that’s spelt right at all 😀 ). It is implied that they stay there for some time, but they appear in the slums of Paris ten years later with little explanation of how they got there.
Which One Do I like the Most?
Entirely removing, or glossing over, the convent subplot makes the plot neater and ties it more tightly together, however, Valjean’s decision to leave the convent marks one of the first sacrifices he makes for Cosette. He is content living there, and he is safe from Javert’s investigation, but he realises that Cosette wants something more, and that it is unfair for him to keep her cut off from the world. So he sacrifices his own safety and comfort to give Cosette a taste of Paris, and ultimately, to expose her to Marius and to give her up to him.
Either way, I don’t really mind, but I feel like the whole convert subplot helps add to Jean Valjean’s characterisation.
Difference #5: Fantine’s Life (and Death)
Fantine is an orphan, growing up on the streets. She becomes uncommonly beautiful and eventually falls in love with a man named Felix Tholomyes. She becomes his mistress and hangs out with a group of his friends mistresses, who have a host of strange names (Favourite being one, because in England, she was the Favourite). Unfortunately, Fantine is the only one, out of all these young men and women, who seems to be taking these relationships seriously, and when Tholomyes and his friends unceremoniously dump the girls, Fantine laughs with them, before going home and crying herself to sleep, wondering what her future will be, abandoned by the father of her child. From here she takes Euphrasie (sensibly known as Cosette) to live with the Thenardiers, after noting they have a girl about Cosette’s age, and she gets a job working for Valjean.
Fantine’s backstory is entirely cut from the musical. Cosette’s father is never named and all the events described meticulously in the book are only implied in the songs. The time between her being fired from the factory and becoming a prostitute, and her subsequent death is severely shortened, becoming merely days or weeks, rather than the months it took in the book. It is never actually explained how or why Cosette lives with the Thenardiers.
Which One Do I like the Most?
Well, again, it doesn’t matter a lot. However, it is interesting to see Fantine’s character developed through the pages of backstory and explanation. I have to say though, the musical provides us with the basic information we need and not a whole lot more, making the plot much more concise and less rambling.
So, what’s my conclusion? Which, out of these three versions of the story is the best? It’s hard to choose. The movie earns points for bringing Les Mis to the masses that can’t get to Broadway or the West End, plus, it is simply amazing. The musical wins points for being concise, and having great singing and emotion in the songs and the music. The book wins points for a depth and complexity that no other adaption (and there’s been a lot of adaptions) has been able to fully grasp. The characters are fleshed out much more, with patience and care, and the themes shine brilliantly.
I think, if I have to choose a favourite, it’s the book, simply because it makes more sense and it’s so much deeper and more complex. However, it’s not the kind of thing you can sit and listen to for two hours when you feel like it.
Simply put, the movie is one of my favourite movies of all time, the book is one of my top five favourite books, and the musical is my absolute favourite musical.
What do you think? Do you agree or not? What differences struck you between the book, musical and movie?