Monday, December 31, 2012

Misery on the Big Screen

If you’ve been anywhere near a theater or television in the past month, you know that the film adaptation of Les Miserables opened on Christmas day. Yesterday, I survived the three-hour viewing (2 hours, 37 minutes of the film, at least 20 minutes of trailers) and I have to say, it was indeed very good.

Adaptation is a tricky thing, the channels through which stories reach people having different settings, often a myriad of methods for telling. I haven’t seen the Broadway version of Les Miserables, although I’ve seen many others. Musicals parlay story through song and pageantry. Big numbers from strong voices, elaborate sets. And they’ve been adapted for film in a variety of ways (and sometimes, films are adapted to musicals) and back to musicals again. It seems to me there are two main things a film can do that a story set on a Broadway stage cannot, and I believe Les Miserables did both of these very well.

First, expansion of scope. Musicals are limited by the stage. To change scenes, the curtains must be closed and new sets brought in. The stage itself is a finite size. Les Miserables, the movie, includes many sweeping and grand shots that give a sense of Paris of the 1800s. From the opening shot of a tiny Hugh Jackman straining in a prison work crew to the overhead views of the crude barricades positioned throughout the city during the fledging movements of the French Revolution, this is film’s terrain: vastness, scope, perspective. The movie has moments of great beauty and poignancy, in terms of setting scenes.

Second, personalization of character. In a Broadway show, ensemble trumps solo and your impressions of the main characters, even if you’re in the first ten rows, are received through large gestures mostly. Director Tom Hooper gives us, in his Les Miserables, many songs by solo performers filmed at such close range that every crease, every emotion, every imperfection, is visible. In fact, these solos, especially Anne Hathaway’s much-touted performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” and several by Jackman and others, are so personal and anguished they grip you by the throat. Really, you can’t look away. This is also film’s domain—the ability to draw you into another life, another individual, in an immediate and sensual way.

All in all, a very fulfilling way to spend three hours and experience this story. At times, these two aspects are combined in group numbers that pan from face to face then back out again. Such as the number “Do You Hear the People Sing.” This finale from the 25th anniversary concert of the Broadway show actually does a good job with the notion of scope and because it’s filmed, there's personalization too. It's a long clip, but you get an idea of what I mean at around 6:30. But see the film too!


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka