Friday, January 25, 2013

Les Miserables - Part I


Set in the nineteenth century, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s best-selling musical Les Misérables, itself an adaptation from Victor Hugo’s lengthy novel of the same name, is a faithful resetting of Boublil and Schönberg’s production onto the big screen. It is faithful to the novel – in as much as one can be faithful to a novel of such prodigious length – but more importantly it is faithful to the stage musical that has played for more than twenty-five years in London’s famous west end.  Whilst this resetting of Les Misérables has attracted its share of reviews, not all of which are altogether positive, the direction, production and filmography – not to mention the cast’s live singing – when taken as a whole make for a masterly, well directed, produced and filmed piece.
Vive la France! Vive les Misérables!
Hooper, whose previous major production was the well-received tale of King George VI’s overcoming of his fear of public speaking during World War II, tackles Les Misérables setting it amongst the squalor and grittiness that many who can afford to see this movie show will never experience. The viewer is not spared the appalling conditions of the chain gang, life as a prostitute amongst the wharves nor hidden from the reality of the barricades and the young boys and girls who died fighting for the new world when the fighting’s done. This is no old-style Hollywood musical; there is no spontaneous dancing, deviating little from its stage adaptation it is mainly through sung. Hooper’s direction allows the musical, the actors and their songs to speak, or rather sing, to the audience. He has, for the most part, succeeded in bringing the stage musical to life on the theatre screen.
There are three important choices that Hooper has made, which do have a significant effect on the movie:
  1. The actors have sung their parts live with little sound studio retakes;
  2. His direction is to ensure that the singing stands out, almost as if the songs themselves were characters; and
  3. The book has been noticeably altered and amended – it is not the same as the stage musical.
In many, if not most, movie musicals, the songs are recorded in a sound studio before they are performed in front of the camera. Sometimes the actors may not even be in the same studio during the recording. Although it is the director’s role to ensure that the sound reflects the director’s conceptual idea of the musical, this introduces a number of problems:
  1. The actors and the director have to ensure the singing reflects the required mood even before they have rehearsed on the set;
  2. The director cannot easily adjust the singing or sound in case the pre-recorded singing or sound does not fit as the director had expected;
  3. Although directors are there to direct the show, the actors’ interaction can provide feedback to the director who may incorporate these spontaneous interactions into the songs; and
  4. Especially for a show such as this, many viewers can see and feel the difference between lip synching and actual singing.
For the most part, this decision has worked well for Hooper. All of the major actors have played roles before live audiences. Jackman played the role of Joe in the inaugural Australian version of Sunset Boulevard. Hathaway is a trained stage actress and singer. Crowe was the front man and singer for his own band. It is obvious that the singers are mostly singing live and it is equally obvious that there has been little sound studio editing apart from the addition of the orchestra.
In fact, in many parts, the film’s score sounds far more realistic than the Symphonic Cast Recording of the show. The Symphonic Cast Recording, whilst very good, sounds like a studio album and at times the interaction of Gary Morris (who plays Valjean) and the other cast members sounds somewhat forced and artificial. Thus, this decision by the director has clearly benefited the film. The only criticism that might be levelled is that, paradoxically, some of the singing might have sounded better had the actors redubbed it from within a sound studio.
There are many parts of the show, Les Misérables that a director might use to propel the director’s vision of the movie forward. It is a musical that invites fantastic filmography, period costumes not to mention the myriad of ways a director might interpret each of the individual characters and the characters in groups. No director of this show could ignore any of these invitations but the one emphasis that Hooper has clearly required is on the music and the singing. 
This Les Misérables shouts at you that it is a musical. At times, Hooper has clearly driven the film in a way that emphasises that there are people singing and it is the people and what they sing that is important. This is especially clear in Hooper’s rendition of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Take the song out of that scene and, to be perfectly honest, it would be terrible and one would wonder what all the fuss was about. But what Hooper has clearly asked the producer to do is to produce the scene in such a way that the audience is watching Marius (played by Redman) sing.
The songs in this production of the show are characters themselves. At times they take over a scene so thoroughly that they are the scene – it is as though they are so tangible that one could reach out and touch them. When this happens during the movie Hooper gets it mostly right. However, in doing so there are some scenes where this seems to be particularly forced and can be a little distracting. Nonetheless, it is a faithful rendition of the stage musical which, itself, is more about the songs and the people singing them rather than its settings, costumes or how they interact with each other.
Finally, many of the well-known songs have had their words altered or simply cut out. It is not clear this was Hooper’s doing as both Boublil and Schönberg feature in the film’s credits; it is logical that if anyone were to approve the fiddling of the words and book it would be the show’s original creators. However, the wording is sometimes clearer and sometimes more jarring. There appears to be a dual purpose:
  1. Some of the original words do not explain the show well to the audience; and
  2. The movie adaptation is already exceedingly long – including all the songs would simply make for a ridiculously long movie.
As this will be discussed later, perhaps only one example will suffice. In the original book, the bishop sings:
“Come in sir, for you are weary, and the night is cold out there though our lives are very humble, what we have, we have to share.” (My emphasis)
However, in this production the bishop sings:
“Come in sir, for you are weary, and the night is cold out here though our lives are very humble, what we have, we have to share.” (My emphasis)
This change makes sense from the film’s point of view. The bishop is “out here” when the bishop sings this as opposed to having answered the door of his house. However it totally throws out the rhyme totally and it breaks the rhythm of the song. It would have been better to have rewritten it as:
“Come in sir, for you are weary, and the night is cold out here though our lives are very humble, come in Sir, where there’s no fear.” (My emphasis)
In all, Hooper’s direction is faithful to the original stage musical and a good adaptation for the big screen. No director will ever produce the perfect version of this beloved stage musical on the big screen simply because the formats are so different and the stage musical, which came first, assumes that it is being staged on a theatre stage. A person familiar with the stage musical will see or hear the differences between that version and this big screen adaptation – and most likely find the difference unsettling.
What can be said, though, is that Hooper has successfully set the stage musical onto the big screen and has created a movie that is identifiably Boublil and Schönberg’s stage music of Les Misérables. This is one of the most faithful adaptations of an extraordinarily long-running and successful west end musical that one can expect.
It is well done.