How Les Misérables Forced Me to Retune My Thoughts on Adaptation

Earlier this year, I finished reading the 1,400 plus page unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the definition of a monumental book that packs a punch.

I had consciously avoided all mentions of Les Misérables in its various forms before reading the book. I had heard “I Dreamed a Dream” but didn’t know its context. I knew that hero Jean Valjean had been a prisoner, but that was it.

I went into Les Misérables cold.

When I emerged from the book, I found myself craving its adaptations. I had a plan to go see the Broadway musical, then watch the 2012 film adaptation of the musical, and work my way back from there to other film adaptations.

I saw the Broadway play four months ago, and I have not yet picked up any of the adaptations.

Why? Simply put, the play let me down.

Musing on what led to think more deeply about how book readers approach adaptation – and how we can come to judge them for their merits instead of their faults.

My Former Adaptation Rules…

I never used to see a movie or any other adaptation if I hadn’t read the book or other source material upon which it was based. I thought I should experience the original form of the story first, and the original form was usually the written word.

I later realized that this was impractical, especially with the multitude of classic films that are based on books that have faded into relative obscurity.

Now, if I want to see a movie or other adaptation and it is based on a revered or classic novel, I’ll definitely read it; if it is based on a contemporary best seller or non-fiction book, I’ll read it only if I’m particularly interested in the subject matter.

Les Misérables, then, fit the bill. More than that, I wanted to read it first since I was genuinely interested in reading Hugo’s words.

…Reconsidered

As I sat in the Imperial Theatre watching Les Misérables, I was next to a girl who was brimming with emotion at key points and in tears towards the end.

I couldn’t muster any similar emotion. The play was simply moving too quickly for me to make any sort of connection with what was happening on stage.

I had previously had a similar experience with Elia Kazan’s famous 1955 film version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which covers roughly one third of the novel (the last third) and thus seemed devoid of any context and, by extent, depth.

To be fair, East of Eden is a sprawling novel that would take quite a feat of adaptation to fit it all into a coherent film.

Les Misérables is no different.

The first act of the musical covered about three quarters of Hugo’s novel in order to spend more time at the barricade in the second act. Characters came in and disappeared from the narrative before I had a chance to remember why I cared about them in the novel.

All I could think about was what a missed opportunity this adaptation was – and what everyone else saw in it that I was missing.

In retrospect, I have realized the folly of my thinking – and perhaps the folly of my expecting a full adaptation of East of Eden. How could a two and a half hour adaptation through any medium ever do complete justice to Hugo’s tome? An adaptation couldn’t include every plot point, nor could it include the various essay segments of the novel, including my personal favorite, the look into “argot” and the importance of studying vernacular.

So, in reality, by reading Les Misérables first, I was setting myself up for disappointment. The book wholly colored my approach to the musical, which is phenomenal in its own right. More so than any other adaptation, Les Misérables has made me rethink whether I want to be reading books before seeing adaptations.

The Difficulty of Objectivity

I’ve long thought that adaptation can shed new light on its source material. I’m all for re-adaptations (a term I much prefer to the negatively-connoted “remake”) because I think that new time periods and new voices can bring out something different in an older text. (So, for the record, I am very interested in that announced new film of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, if it’s still happening, even though I quite like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film version.)

But something I haven’t been able to shake is that sense of disappointment when an adaptation removes something I see as key in the text – like how Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban removed most of the background about the Marauders.

In thinking about Les Misérables again, I realized that I cannot have an unbiased view of the musical, and by extent, we book readers cannot approach an adaptation objectively. Having read the book first, we view any of its adaptations with that knowledge in mind. And this knowledge may – and often does – overshadow their strengths.

I often wish that I could experience a work and its adaptation each for the first time – to come at them both without any prior background and make an objective evaluation of them. But this is not possible.

Conclusions

We book readers often approach adaptation with a mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety. We have images from the book in our heads, and we’re excited to see them play out on stage or screen. But we’re worried that the stage or screen won’t align with what we have in our heads.

What we book readers can do is use our knowledge of the books to illuminate what the adaptation did well – to use our knowledge of both media to analyze the process of adaptation on a level deeper than mere plot points.

Just as the academic field of adaptation studies has moved beyond fidelity criticism, it’s time to stop that knee-jerk reaction to judge an adaptation by what it left out or changed of its source material.

Les Misérables made me see this more clearly.

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