04 November 2014

A Miserables Cup of Tea Isn't for Me

Joyful day.

I don't have a fond opinion of Les Miserables, but it hardly bothers me enough to get me worked up for the rest of my life about it. It's not the kind of fiction I've experienced that scarred me permanently. Yet this story has tried four times to stir a response from me, and I had a different reaction each time.

The musical version by far has the most inconsistent yet paradoxically consistent track record: it has always been a profoundly disappointing experience short of such infamous torture sessions as Gladiator and The Dark Knight. My high school's version of Les Miserables put me to sleep thanks to the lousy and chaotic sound production; the 25th anniversary had me mock a Jonas brother through the entire second act; and the 2012 film adaptation made me take out my iPod to play sudoku and alleviate my torment.

Just as I was ready to throw the towel and forever give up on Les Miserables, I found another film version to take a stab at on Netflix: the 1992 one with Liam Neeson. I was happy with the glorious absence of singing, and enjoyed it for being a decent movie. Unfortunately by November 1st, the movie is possibly gone forever for streaming. For shame.

Anywho. As a whole I can conclude from my experiences - as I presumed back in 2012 - that for me Les Miserables the musical has a competent source material that fails as a story adaptation.

I love you too. Spoilers ahoy.

Overture/Rant Song

Last year in celebrating my pumping out 200 blog posts, I briefly went over my relatively negative views of the Les Miserables adaptations I have seen. Good ol' Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results. That's the story of me and Les Miserables in a nutshell. I'm starting to take that saying to heart now, as several experiences in life have lead me to believe that giving up on something that just won't work is best for my sanity and wellbeing. My trying to enjoy Les Miserables THREE times is madness, so watching the film version to mark round four was suicidal lunacy. In spite of it I somehow survived, and learned exactly why I detest the musical so much.

One of the biggest offenders.
Part of the problem might be that I'm not a huge fan of musicals in general. My favorite is Phantom of the Opera (partially in thanks to the 2004 movie... which I liked a lot), and in spite of its cheesy love-triangle nature I still greatly adored the operatic and orchestral music. Wicked is another decent one, though I think it had more to do with my liking the story and characters more than the music itself. (Still adore "Defying Gravity" though, and I squeed when I learned Bentley Jones covered it for his latest album.) Other than those two, musicals sound really bland and stale to me. Either the music sounds really cliche and predictable or the plot is so basic and sophomoric, I can't find anything to make it worthy of endless praise.

Maybe I'm too cynical for my own good, or I just need a good reason to care about a character and plot besides the fact that I have to or else I'm an antisocial psychopath who needs to be institutionalized. Extreme happy-joy themes in Rent set me off, but depressing-somber tales can anger me profoundly too. (1)

Granted, this is still subjective. I know lots of people hate Phantom for straying from the source material and helping crossing the line in making Erik the most sympathetic woobie before vampires made self-flagellation mythologically canon. Wicked probably gets hate for it being The Wizard of Oz fanfiction.

But perhaps my great resentment of "Les Miz" is because it's a highly abridged interpretation of Victor Hugo's classic for common people who hate to read. Or it's a digestible Spark Notes recap of the tale for those who loved the original and want some spectacle added to it. Or it's a power-show of beautiful, epic music from the cheesy decade of the 1980's. Or it's a masterpiece told in a medium I can't bring myself to care about. Or it's a horrid adaptation that completely glosses over anything that can answer the five "w" questions that English class taught us in elementary school.

Ok, for real now. Let me get to the bottom of this.

I Dreamed A Reasonable Story

Instead, I got this.
I won't deny that my tastes in storytelling can contradict frequently, especially when determining if the plot matters more than the characters and vice versa. I ideally prefer to have both elements be equally important, though sometimes one feature can outshine the others enough to overlook problems. But suspension of disbelief and/or being invested in the story matters just as importantly as well. A story can be absolutely terribly written, but if it was mindlessly entertaining, it can pass a standardized test but fail at the Oscars. Overall, what matters is that you make something competent and meaningful/entertaining/worthwhile/informative. That's it.

Les Miserables definitely succeeds for enough people to make it such a powerhouse of a musical for over thirty years. It does have a cohesive narrative structure, character motives are clear and understandable, and the music is relatively captivating and gripping. In my experience, I'm still conflicted by what consistently continues to disappoint every time I try to experience the story in musical form.

But I know I always had one colossal flaw with the that stands above any nitpick I will ever bring up here: it's rushed.

One plot thread is birthed, only for seven or eight more to gestate, abandoning the first newborn to raise itself on the street until Social Services arrive to investigate eighteen years too late. Every important detail that shapes that child in that time will never be recovered due to a lack of focus or consideration, and now no one can precisely understand why the child is a waitress trying to raise three babies of an abusive drunkard. With no contextualization, exploration, or investigation how am I to truly empathize and connect with her plight, whether she recognizes it or not?

Anne Hathaway is the best thing about the 2012 movie.
To drop the metaphor, Jean Valjean's change of heart was swift but tolerable until a humongous leap through time shows him again as a town mayor and clean-shaven. Neither the musical nor the 2012 movie cares to explain how he overcame his issues with parole passports marking him unhirable for anything in civil society. Hardly anyone mentions his reputation, and no events but apologizing to Fantine for indirectly forcing her into prostitution shows his redemption-inspired compassion. It seems only five minutes is focused on the Valjean-being-the-mayor story-arc, only for him to barge into court to declare his true identity for no reason in context and have Inspector Javert obviously want to drive a sword up Valjean's criminally dodgy butt. After that fight accomplished nothing, Valjean picks up Cosette after a goofy musical number that is pointless filler. Suddenly, time jumps another eight years, completely skipping over any interactions between this new foster father-daughter relationship. Rather than salvage any of this, Valjean and Cosette's family bond is completely dumped down the toilet in favor of a love-at-first-sight triangle with Cosette and Eponine singing for the profoundly boring Marius.

Nearly three-fifths of the original book's context has just been covered, and over 80% of the material feels abridged to the point of having irreplaceable supportive body parts getting hacked off. Sure, some nonsensical points have been removed (i.e. a friend warned me that nearly two pages were dedicated to describing a single flower), but that does not excuse a lack of exposition and character development that provide flesh to the bones of the plot. The musical comes across as a fashion model, or a romanized superficial ideal of an already likely acceptable, but meaty original work.

The 1998 movie, however, had the decency to spend nearly the first hour going over everything without long musical diatribes describing nothing but how upset someone is that they can't read. So much time is placed into how Valjean runs the town as major; down to observing how the police force patrols the area. Javert transfers to the town's force; Valjean keeps reasonable discretion and demonstrates respect despite their ideological differences. At one point Javert investigates Valjean after seeing him save a man stuck under a cart by demonstrating exceptionally trained strength from his time in prison work. (Fun fact: the man Valjean saved ends up helping him when he and Cosette need to find refuge in a Parisian monastery. Another interesting consequence axed from the music.) Javert's plans to expose go on hold multiple times thanks to bureaucracy, lack of proof, and suspension for threatening to incarcerate a victimized Fantine.

Stuff in between major plot points happen to conjoin and support them at the roots. The 1998 movie shows AND tells why Valjean reveals his name in a public court and how much he nurses Fantine and why wants to raise Cosette on her behalf. I know how different Valjean and Javert's ideologies are because they argue frequently and consistently on multiple cases. The consequences for actions and the weight they bear makes so much sense when you understand detailed exposition. Valjean frequently displays his acts of generosity and selflessness in letters and in person, making his redemption arc and his belief system so much more powerful than emotionally heartbreaking music ever could.

The only progression of a story arc the musical bothered with is Fantine's expulsion from her job and being forced into prostitution. Even then she dies unceremoniously and suddenly.

As another note in the 1998 movie's favor, the court scene had Valjean use multiple bits trivia between him and his fellow former inmates to prove his identity rather than shout it to the high heavens. It not only adds more to Valjean's character, it fully displays his straightforwardness and desire for fair justice. As yet another bonus, this along with the hints regarding his strength and below-average literacy combine for Javert to finally make his move against his sworn enemy.

This would have never happened in
the musical... except the end, b/c
dying is depressing.
The movie pushes aside characters like the Thenardiers and Eponine, but the decision to do so helped strengthen what seemed to be the most important part of the narrative that the musical loves to gloss over. (Less "Masters of the House" and more "Stars".) This version made me see why Valjean is a good person and character. Javert's inner conflict seemed to wrap up too subtly and quickly in the end, but at least there were plenty of tense scenes of arguments and cat-and-mouse games with Valjean. Even Cosette was wonderful in the 1998 movie for one fundamental reason: she and Valjean felt like a real family. They held secrets from each other and caused anger and confusion due to a lack of communication. Cosette rebels as she falls in love with Marius, but the focus remained on her and Valjean. His overprotectiveness and her innocence clashed multiple times until they finally open up to each other and deal with Valjean's second hiding attempt being jeopardized again.

The student protests still happen of course (and the barricade is more modest than the musical but better designed than the 2012 film). More historical context is described as both the protestors and the police plan out how to manage each other's opposition in Paris. Minor characters and several plot lines are removed, but I felt more fulfilled in watching the 1998 Les Miserables because the plot remained focused and contained. It knew what ideas to juggle and executed them to make a story that I never read enjoyable.

Even Gavroche had a presence, helping Marius find Cosette, looking after other orphan boys, and receiving food from Valjean. How the musical didn't do anything with this character other than have a kid get shot at to tug at heartstrings is beyond me.

While many will claim I wasn't paying attention to the musical's story, I still felt that things just happened because they happened in the book. The 1992 movie had fewer events happen with fewer characters, but there was plenty of buildup, dialogue, and exposition to help support the events. I felt like I cared more because the movie took its time to explain things; the musical was too busy trying to impress with sweeping scores to mask it's recapping without context tendencies. In my case, I'd prefer a close, semi-faithful adaptation than a singing Spark Notes entry.

A Little Fall of Blunders

For a moment, I need to reference the film adaptation of the Phantom of the Opera musical. It had one awkward elephant in the room that one version of Les Miserables can relate to: weird casting and bad singing.

I'm in the minority who actually really enjoyed Gerard Butler as the phantom. He's far from the best; I have seen various other versions of the Phantom production and listened to the original cast recordings. I know Butler is easily outclassed by nearly every single man who conquered as Christine's angel of music. But the main issue from what I found was that he's not a trained singer, making him vastly under-qualified compared to his fellow cast members. He tended to struggle in holding notes and keeping an even tone; Butler either whispered frailly or he growled. Sometimes when he's found his way, he sang quite decently. Just don't ask him to hold one note for over eight seconds because he tended to end abruptly to spare any embarrassing mishaps. (2)

Given this obvious inexperience problem, he still made up for it in his acting. Overall, I think he was best in being threatening and pulling "pranks" on everyone who dared to stupidly cross him. And seeing him sad kind of made some people forget what kind of person the phantom is, but it's still a sympathetic sight. Butler emoted very well, even if that's not the primary necessity for playing a character in a musical.

Yes, ideally someone else should have been in that role. Joel Schumacher deserves a slap upside the head for that selection along with the reveal of the so-called "deformity" that greatly diminished the impact of the plot point in the original story. Still, Butler seemed engaged in the role enough that he was trying to make his odd placement work. With what he was given, I think he made up enough for his handicap by being presentably competent, menacing, and sympathetic during dramatic scenes.

Les Miserables is in a similar position with Russell Crowe. Except while Gerard Butler had no musical training before doing Phantom, Crowe has sung before... in a completely different genre. As I said in my 200th post: Russel Crowe is a rock singer in a musical; no shit the two don't work well together. The contrast is sharper than a spotless cleanroom and a corpse-filled pigsty.

Rock music can be emotional and operatic, but only in select sub-genres and if the singer has been classically trained. A good portion of the ladies in symphonic metal bands aren't natural-sounding brooders or grouchy screamers; several are operatic powerhouses that could demolish a city of you gave them a megaphone. Even a handful of male singers would willingly die trying to emote as powerfully and beautifully in similar acts. Still, rock singers are held to a different standard and undergo different training if such an idea is considered; some guys weren't ever professionally trained at all. Thus, from glossing over Wikipedia briefly, I don't think Crowe attended similar classes of training in stage performance like Sir Kenneth Branagh or Hugh Jackman. And last I checked, even if he was a woman, he can't sing like Tarja Turunen or Sarah Brightman.

Does this mean that Russel Crowe utterly sucked? Not really. I won't doubt his singing ability in this context, but his style ruffled far too many feathers to make him an ideal candidate to play Javert. I'm honestly less of a fan of his acting than anything else; the man seems more bored and detached than Keanu Reaves after undergoing a lobotomy. He wasn't the best guy for the job, and I feel that his singing gets more scrutiny than his acting performance. All the other musical versions had not only a superior fit vocally, but the men gave off an air of caring about their role and the persona. Again, this may be due to his more naturalistic and neutral style of acting.

To compare: both Bulter and Crowe had no musical performance training. Bulter emoted and portrayed the phantom questionably, but passionately; meanwhile Crowe hardly seemed to give a shit, being far too reserved next to his bombastic, weeping cast members. Neither are bad actors, but they definitely were beyond their comfort zones and usual acting MO.

Another issue that is more nitpicky than anything is the presence of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Thank god the BCD Threesome is fractured for one film, though I still suspect Tim Burton and Johnny Depp pulled some kind of string behind the scenes to press my buttons since they worked on the film version of Sweeny Todd. Ignoring their increased presence that digress the plot, Carter and Cohen strutting around and being weird Tim-Burton styled caricatures killed the mood far worse than Crowe's singing at times.

Casting aside, other than abusing Cosette and being Eponine's parents, why are the Thenardiers even around? Why have two hammy, over-the-top actors take the already forced roles and hijack most of the scenes they appear in? Maybe my growing impatience for Carter and her associations with Burton-esque bat-shit insanity is skewing my perspective, but I found that mechanically and tonally the Thenardiers ruined the 2012 movie despite Carter and Cohen being good actors. While both were cast for pure fanservice, the material the movie gave them was pathetic.

 The other musical versions greatly tone down their comedic antics, but still made me wonder what could have happened if they disappeared forever after Valjean takes Cosette. Or if they stayed and acted like actual people. The 1998 movie at least shows better reasons why these people are awful: they pathologically lie about Cosette's health to bleed Fantine dry, even when Valjean pays a fortune on her behalf. The musical turns them to whacky comic relief with standard period piece domestic abuse cliches.

As for other versions I've seen, my school's attempt was permanently deleted from my brain despite the endless praise everyone gave for taking on a "difficult" production. All I remember were shrill off-key singers and muffled dialogue thanks to horrible sound technicalities or a badly designed "state-of-the-art" auditorium. The 25th anniversary edition had Nick Jonas as Marius; who was the idiot who thought that tweeny-pop tyke was a good idea? (Of course, Justin Beiber would have been FAR WORSE, but I'm still against this in principle.) Easily the Jonas Brother was the weakest, frailest performer that'd make Gerard Butler look like a grand master of musical acting.

Odd Decisions at Odd Tables

Though I have praised the 1998 film to death, it still has glaring problems as well as the musical. The ending is abrupt, leaving us at Javert's suicide and Valjean walking free to reunite with Cosette and Marius. A lot of minor characters were removed to give the story focus, but some viewers may not appreciate the lack of a vast cast. Marius' portrayal in the film seems a bit pathetic and desperate to get laid in this version, though it may be in fact due to more emphasis being placed on his budding romance with Cosette than planning the revolt. It was nice to see them have more interactions, but it took away from the background and secondary storylines.

As much as I enjoyed Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as Valjean and Javert respectively, some of their character transitions seem sudden and somewhat jarring. Neeson very well plays a curt ex-convict deeply skeptical of the priest who gives a place to stay. Him choosing to turn his life around after the priest mercifully lies to the police about Valjean stealing his silver seemed a bit underwhelming. The priest had little reason to protect him, as Valjean punched him while robbing him. Saying he's a kindly priest who sees the good in everyone is part suspension of disbelief and part bullshit. Valjean being so inspired from a bizarre little lie to serve his life as a philanthropist is either inspiring or underwhelming. Still, this may be an issue with the original material.

Javert's perspective, however, had more clarity in the musical. The film succeeds in having him butt heads with Valjean, but seeing Javert have inner turmoil has more light shined upon it in the musical. "Stars" has him having a monologue about his doubts and how he could effectively catch Valjean for good. The most the movie does is have Rush argue with superiors and throw a few tantrums about not fulfilling his duty properly. He also comes across more as an asshole in the film, which may diminish one's sympathies for his character than in the musical, where opportunities to express real emotions are more plentiful. The lack of sympathy is what helps ruin the end of the movie, where Javert's solution to his problem is suicide truly makes little sense. We don't see him think through his issues enough to see why he logically made that choice and why he feels no others exist.

The pacing of the movie may also be a problem if you hate the lack of constant changes in setting, character focus, and plot progression. The movie doesn't simply let events happen; it explains the causes and effects of numerous actions taken throughout the story. The musical has hints of it (such as the Thenardiers showing up to spoil Cosette and Marius' wedding), but the story wants to cover as much basic ground from the novel as possible without going in-depth. Sometimes only one encounter is needed to get a point across, while the movie uses two or three. This may seem repetitive and redundant to those who just want the whole picture presented within at least a two-and-a-half hour time limit.

The soundtrack to the 1998 movie is standard for a film. Of course the musical will kick it's behind in that field, even if the musical still has 80's charm on it at times.

In regards to other praises of the musical versions: as much as Eponine feels like extra baggage with a flimsy story arc, I still adored Samantha Barks and her singing. And though I complain about the character being around, but I preferred her to Cosette in the musical because at least she not only loves Marius but she also takes action in the uprising. Hugh Jackman is painfully shrill, but he has enough heart to make me forgive him, even if Alfie Boe was far better and consistent in the 25th anniversary version.

Otherwise, nearly every version of Les Miserables gets technicals right for the most part. Except the 2012 movie. It's been said to death, but I'll list the issues I had anyway:

- The camera angels are more claustrophobic and uncomfortable than warm and cosy. I don't want to count how many freckles Marius has; I want to stand by the gate, give him breathing room, and hear him passionately profess his love for Cosette.

- As dumb as the shaky camera style is, I can see it working in highly tense action set pieces. In an epic musical based on a 1500 paged magnum opus and drama it's unnecessary and dizzying to the point of nausea. Why can't the cameraman get a stand and keep the instrument still and afar so I can see the people AND the environment around them?

- Watching Hugh Jackman pace around the church during his change of heart is as enthralling and captivating as watching an empty cradle rock endlessly on loop for five minutes. No amount of passionate singing can make the walls come to life, sparkle, and have fairies dance to spice things up.

- Singing live as the camera rolls may give the illusion of realism, but it allows for more mistakes to slip through. No one is perfect, and sometimes studio recordings and mixing can combine multiple takes to create one very beautiful piece. No one can have a perfect performance in one shot, even when you're doing it seventeen times a day for a month.

- The barricade was a joke. Compare:

musical version

2012 film concept art

2012 final cut version 

- To be fair, the concept art version was used for the barricade in the grand finale, but a pile lumped in an tunneling alley is still disappointing.

- The shots can be brief, giving you little time to appreciate the cinematography and the world around the cast. Instead it feels like we are running over, under, and through obstacles between us and the next singing number with a close-up of someone's face. Guess we take personal space for granted, don't we?

- Some of the shot compositions seem off as well. The camera doesn't always frame a scene correctly, having the subject of interest not in focus or off to the side, leaving a ton of empty space of nothing for us to look at. The image becomes asymmetrical and, in worse cases, our eyes are drawn to the character who's face is dangling on the side of the screen because nothing else is there to look at.

- Seriously. Someone crop off a third of the right side of the screen or zoom in on Valjean and Javert. It's not rocket science. CROP IT. No one wants to see half the set and destroy the immersion.

- Hire a new cameraperson who knows how to organize objects so balance, contrast, and movement create an image of meaning emotionally, thematically, or tonally. Basically, hire someone who knows enough fundamentals of art theory so they can capture pictures worth a damn.

These are generalizations for sure, but there are numerous camera problems that could have made the final product more relaxing. This experimental trick failed, and I hope present and future filmmakers will understand how NOT to shoot a movie. Other issues point to fixable design flaws and directing choices.

Hear the Fangirl Declare...

... that Les Miserables makes me miserable.

Yes, I'm serious.
Someday I may have to read the book and make my final judgement on the story as a whole, because I am done with the musical. Pretty set pieces and music won't make me see it again. I felt I learned more about the story through the 1998 film, so I know that the musical is something I should at all costs avoided. Any film version is fair game along with the book after I take on other items on my bucket list. Les Miserables may be one of the most famous musicals out there, but I see it only as that and a condensed oversimplification of a classic.

No one will like what I have said, and I'm sorry I don't like "Les Miz". I have honestly tried FOUR TIMES. Any more attempts will drive me off into the deep end. I know I don't like it, and forcing me to watch it A Clockwork Orange-style will make me hate it more irrationally. And I cherish my relative sanity.

Seems that The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked are the only musicals I thoroughly enjoyed, despite their glaring faults. Oh well.

And long live Anne Hathaway. *tearfully salutes* ;_;7


(1) - The prime example of a dark story failing to impress me was The Dark Knight. I have no plans to make a post on it anytime soon because that would require to see the movie for the first time since I saw it in theaters. Heath Ledger was amazing as the Joker, but he alone can't make me give that horrendously torturous slog of boredom a second chance. My feelings for it are too irrational and unfounded for me to explain why I loathe The Dark Knight. But it being a Christopher Nolan movie is more of a gripe than it being a Batman movie.

(2) - At least Gerard Butler didn't sound whiny like Ramin Karimloo did sometimes in the 2011 Royal Albert Hall production. Otherwise, even Karimloo's performance is technically superior to Butler's.

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