Praise has rightly poured in from nearly all quarters for the film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables, which is itself an adaptation of the massive masterpiece by Victor Hugo. Jonathan Merritt neatly captures the sentiment of many Christian commentators in his observation that “it is perhaps the most ‘Christian’ artwork I’ve seen in some time.”
Among the noteworthy sounds of discord, however, is this review over at Foreign Affairs by Charles Walton.
Adapted from the immensely popular musical version of Hugo’s classic (first performed in Paris in 1980), Hooper’s cinematic rendering is stunningly staged and brilliantly performed, but it cuts the author in half: it gives us the religious Hugo, not the revolutionary one. It tells the story of individual redemption through an odyssey of Catholic conscience, not of France’s collective redemption through political violence.
On the one hand, attaching blame to Hooper seems unfair, since he’s simply rendering on film the musical version spearheaded by Cameron Mackintosh.
On the other, however, Walton’s review is a worthy reminder of the complexity of Hugo’s vision, and the limits of adaptation and different genre. I’m not sure it’s a fair criticism of the film-musical to say that Hugo’s optimistic vision of revolution is not fairly depicted; the novel is more than 1,000+ pages, and a 2 or 3 hour production simply can’t do justice to everything.
You might get the sense from Walton’s review that religion is somehow less relevant to the contemporary world than revolution, however, and that the film-musical does us a disservice in emphasizing the former rather than the latter: “Hugo’s novel speaks to the twenty-first century in ways that Hooper’s film does not. That these opportunities were missed — that Christianity rather than revolution prevails as the means of redemption — is not surprising.”
One way in which the film-musical might reconcile the two, although in a way perhaps slightly differently than in Hugo’s original, is in the theme of reformation and conversion that runs throughout the film. In a recent piece I examine just one of the episodes of Valjean’s moral and spiritual development. There are many others, and it would be profitable to juxtapose a vision of violent revolution with a vision of social reformation.