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Clio's Temple

Truth, history, and complexity

My wife and I finally got around to seeing the latest movie version of Les Misérables yesterday. We'd seen the stage production twice before and loved both experiences. Since I wasn't sure how well the musical would adapt to big-screen presentation, there was some chariness about plunking down the funds to buy two tickets. My curiosity finally overrode my parsimony.

It was a pleasant surprise. Les Miz is one of those rare works of literature where a dramatic presentation may be better than reading the entire book. While Victor Hugo is rightly considered a titan of French literature, he is notorious for his bombast and for inundating his subject matter in a flood of prose (his poetry is better). The book is less complex than, say, your typical Dickens masterpiece, so there's less to be lost from the oversimplification that is required for dramatic presentation.

So how did the cinematic version compare to the stage production? The movie grabbed me at the outset, when it depicted Jean Valjean and his fellow convicts hauling a sailing ship into drydock. By contrast, the stage version depicted them doing roadwork; however, what I know of French history makes the maritime version seem more plausible.

Commentators have noted that the 1832 urban street fighting, depicted so vividly in the fight for the barricade, was inconsequential in the grand sweep of French history. 1848 was much more important, but it occurred after Hugo had already started writing his great work. Nonetheless, the silver screen version is superior in at least one key respect. While the on-stage presentation accurately conveys the close-quarter carnage of the final battle, the movie version gives a much better sense of just how out-of-the-way and insignificant the battle for this one barricade was. It makes the sacrifice of the students and workers more poignant.

So how would I rate this experience? I'd have to say that this is one of those cases where technology may actually advance stagecraft. Too often, that's not the case. I'll probably invest in a DVD at some point in the future.

1 Comment to Truth, history, and complexity:

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