All of this – this hot mess we’re living through – comes down to matters of compassion. Do we, as a nation, care about each other and try to help each other, or do we let our fears drive us to attack those least capable of defending themselves? I write this in the wake of Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which his supporters can apparently defend a without once realizing what reprehensible swine that makes them. It’s an old story – the haves demonizing the have-nots – and we’ve learned all too well how difficult it can be to vanquish.
Victor Hugo understood the cost of such an assault, both to the victims and to those who presumed to stand above them. Les Miserables, his brobdingnagian beast of a novel, entailed a massive exorcism of pain, guilt, rage and revolutionary fervor that boiled down to the same basic question: why in God’s name can’t we just be decent to each other?
The tragedy of our own inhumanity propelled the novel to the ranks of literary classics and prompted dozens of adaptions in other mediums: most recently in the 2012 film version of the massively successful stage musical. Barring the Oscar-winning performance by Anne Hathaway, it’s not especially well regarded these days. Critics dismissed it as a well-intentioned misfire or at best a minor footnote in the annals of motion picture musicals. I understand the complaints, but four years on, I continue to disagree. And with those old battle lines of rich vs. poor brought into sharp relief once again, its message feels right on point.
The film’s detractors often cited its copious use of close-ups as a central problem. Director Tom Hooper wasn’t interested in canned theater and wanted to make use of the cinematic tools that a live stage play couldn’t offer. That meant downplaying the grandiosity and scope of the story in favor of personal intimacy. In other words, getting right up in the characters’ faces served an important purpose: letting us study every tear, every snarl, every tic and ravaged emotion projected 40 feet high in front of us. I confess it takes a certain mindset, and likely plays much better on the small screen than the large one, but it achieves its goal with a surprising amount of grace. It wants us to feel these people’s pain in the deepest way possible: their dashed hopes, their abject misery, their fears made manifest. The sweep of history becomes background flavor to that. The human beings at the core of it need to occupy our attention.
Consider, for example, “I Dreamed a Dream”: the show-stopping number from easily the miserablest of the bunch, Fantine (Hathaway). She’s just sold her body for money for the first time – a magical moment in anyone’s life – and as she lies there, realizing that her life won’t improve in any way from this moment, her anguish and despair come tumbling out.
First, watch the stage version of the song, performed by Ruthie Henshall during the show’s 10th anniversary performance:
It’s a moving rendition, but it’s also – by nature – a theatrical one. Henshall has to fill the concert hall with her voice, making sure the cheap sets can hear her. She succeeds amazingly well… but the song, by default, becomes defiant instead of hopeless. She’s shouting at the universe, raging at its barbarity and the cruelty it inflicted on her through no fault of her own. Unbowed by her misery, she spits it back with every breath that she can muster.
Again, I’m not criticizing. It’s a stylistic choice dictated by the necessity of the medium. But the song requires a much different tone to work as intended.
Now look at Hathaway’s take (aka How to Win an Oscar in Four Minutes or Less):
Hooper strips everything away from his star: a black background, an unbroken shot, the actress all but naked before us. Hathaway has absolutely nowhere to run, and her song – far from the defiance and anger necessitated by the stage play – becomes the wail of misery it always should have been. It’s small, silent, and lonely: unbound by any sympathetic ear and unheard by a single soul (save God, of course, whose view the camera shares).
It hits you like a wrecking ball, and the more deeply you become entwined in her dilemma, the more you’re affected by it. The same holds true (on an admittedly less devastating scale) for almost every character on screen. For most of them, their battle with the world ends badly. The Paris Uprising of 1932, which Hugo witnessed and which served as the basis of his novel, was snuffed out when the army quickly disposed of rebels hoping to restore democratic rule to France. The figures here who fight on the ramparts largely go to untended graves, leaving the few survivors to wonder why they were spared.
Nor does it go well for bystanders like Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, never better), hounded for fifteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and more interested in atoning for his sins than mixing it up with the local dragoons. Even Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who comes out on the winning side and never questions the righteousness of his cause, radiates unhappiness and woe from every sneer. He drives himself to suicide believing he must never bend: his life undone by a simple inability to put himself in someone else’s shoes.
Larger historical forces engulf them all, and yet Hooper, like Hugo, is less interested in the wave than the swimmers. That’s why the camera stays so tight, why the singing doesn’t involve ADR, and why all those other aesthetic choices that critics derided remain absolutely necessary for the film to achieve its goals. We need that intimacy. We need to stay glued to these figures.
And if we can – if we embrace our proximity instead of being shaken out of the characters’ woes – then the film turns into a thing of beauty. The broader circumstances become crucibles to test those caught up in them: the means rather than the ends. Victory and defeat matter only in the soul of the individual, and how they choose to face their challenges instead of whether they overcome them. The unrighteous fight for themselves. The righteous fight for something better: for those who can’t fight for themselves, for the belief that the world doesn’t have to be like this, or simply for someone whom they care about, as Fantine and Valjean fight for Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), and Eponine (Samatha Barks) fights for her unrequited love.
That effort – that compassion – separates the wheat from the chafe. Empathy is all we have to cling to: empathy and the clarity that comes with trying to make the world a less awful place. Javert’s folly comes with the realization that he cannot be the force for good he thought he was without caring about others. The only other alternative is to embrace monstrosity like the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and take overt glee in the ability to screw over others for your own advantage. Anything else is rank hypocrisy.
The pack of jackals at 1600 clearly made their choice a long time ago, leaving their allies and supporters du jour to awkwardly explain why the horrid things they do really aren’t all that horrible. That, in the end, may be the worst fate of all: knowing that you enabled their all-too-prevalent inhumanity, and couldn’t bring even bring yourself to admit it. Hugo knew it. Hooper knew it. And I suspect a number of people will, like Javert, recognize their error long after it’s too late to do anything about it.