Les Miserables and the many faces of Jean Valjean

One Beloved Tale; Dozens of Movie Versions

Jean Valjean as drawn by Gustave Brion for the novel.

Jean Valjean as drawn by Gustave Brion for the 1862 novel.

By Edward McNulty

Every generation wants its own Jean Valjean. That’s why we have dozens of film versions, going back to a 1909 short that focuses on just one episode from the Victor Hugo novel. What amounts to France’s official national novel is so rich and rewarding that it allows for many different interpretations.

There also is a practical reason that movies change the basic story of Les Miserables. Hugo’s great, sprawling story contains so many subplots that any film, given the time restraints of the film medium, cannot possibly incorporate all of them. As we shall see, each filmmaker chooses some episodes from the novel, leaves out others, and combines many. Here are brief looks at eight adaptations that are available today through various video services.

Les Miserables (1934)

Director Raymond Bernard. Screenplay Raymond Bernard and André Lang. 281 min.

1934 Harry Baur as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables by Ramond BernardBecause of its length, the film was released in three parts: Une tempête sous un crâne (Tempest in a Skull), Les Thénardier (The Thenardiers) and Liberté, liberté chérie (Freedom, Dear Freedom). Originally shown over three evenings, many cinéastes regard this as the definitive version because it covers virtually every part of the novel.

Tempest in a Skull begins with Valjean being released from imprisonment because he has used his enormous strength to shore up a large statue that threatened to fall from a building onto villagers below. Then comes his one-night sojourn with the bishop that leads to the transformation of his soul. This first part ends as Valjean is wracked with moral turmoil over the news of the arrest of a man thought to be him.

The Thenardiers begins with Valjean becoming a benevolent owner of a factory. Under the assumed name of Monsieur Madeleine he is elected Mayor, meets the unfortunate Fantine, and buys her daughter Cossette from the conniving innkeepers. When he reveals his identity at the trial of the prisoner accused of being him, he and Cosette flee from Javert to Paris. Notable is the extended role of the little girl at the Thenardiers’ inn—one of the best sequences in this version of the film.

Freedom, Dear Freedom is about the romance between Marius and the now grown-up Cossette in Paris, unfolding amidst the tragic student revolution of 1832. The Thenardiers and Javert play out their dark roles to the very end.

Actor Harry Baur with his plain face and beefy build makes a better Valjean than most of the later actors who often are too handsome for the role. Charles Vanel is just so-so as a balding Inspector Javert. In this version Javert does not go through the sewers, but waits at the grated outlet to capture his prey. Later Valjean dies happily surrounded by those whom he loves, declaring, “God is just. It is man who sometimes is unjust,” and before fading out, the camera shows us the bishop’s two candlesticks.

Les MISERABLES (1935)

Director Richard Boleslawski. Screenplay W.P. Lipscomb.  108 min.

1935 Frederic March as Jean Valjean in Les MiserablesHollywood’s mid-1930s version followed just a year after the French one. Cut to less than two hours, Boleslawski’s script leaves out large portions of the novel. Handsome leading man Fredric March stars as Jean Valjean, and the great English actor Charles Laughton almost upstages his co-star as Javert. Few actors can match Laughton’s sternness of voice and the cruel glint in his eyes. Cedric Hardwicke, another great English actor, plays the kindly bishop whose gift of silver will radically change the ex-convict’s life. The supper is beautifully staged—Valjean and the bishop sitting on one side, the housekeeper and the bishop’s sister at either end, and the two candlesticks between them—suggesting that they are at a Communion table.

There is a welcome touch of humor in the conversation when the bishop and Valjean prepare for bed, and the latter asks, “How do you know that I will not murder you in the night?”
To which the prelate humorously replies, “And how do you know that I will not murder you?”
“Nah,” his guest grunts—and the bishop replies:
“You have faith in me it seems. And I must have faith in you, musn’t I? Good night.”

The next morning, after the police have left, some of the bishop’s last words to his guest are worth remembering, “Long ago, Jean, I learned that life is to give, not to take. Let me give. And in return, promise me that you will give, also.” Although Valjean is still speechless with relief and shock, it is a promise that he does make and keep throughout the rest of the film. Indeed, many years later in Paris he will repeat these words to Cosette and Marius.

The rest of the film differs in many ways from the others. When Valjean goes to get little Cosette at the inn, there is no mention of Thenardiers, just a nameless woman barking orders at the little girl; and the bedridden Fantine lives long enough to see her child. A very touching addition is a scene in which Valjean, now posing as Monsieur Madeleine, standing before the fireplace—and we see the bishop’s candlesticks on the mantle. He has just told his housekeeper to order the carriage brought up so that he can start for Arles to save from prison the falsely accused man. Hearing Cosette’s voice in her bedroom, he changes his mind, goes to a closet, takes out his old prison clothes and throws them into the fire, declaring that there is no more Jean Valjean. But as he tosses one of the garments into the fireplace, it snags onto one of the candlesticks, causing it to fall to floor. He kneels to retrieve it, the item treasured because of the loving man who had given it to him with the reminder that “life is to give…” His Gethsemane-like temptation now past, he reluctantly decides to set forth on the journey after all, even though it will mean the end of his freedom.

This and other well-directed scenes in Paris make watching the 1935 version a truly inspiring experience. And, if you do not like to see a main character die, Frederick March’s Valjean is very much alive and united with Cosette and Marius at the end.

Les MISERABLES (1952)

Director Lewis Milestone. Screenplay Richard Murphy.  104 min.

1952 Michael Rennie as Jean Valjean in Les MiserablesMany have criticized this version because the rapacious Thenardiers were cut from the story! Thus there is no journey to the inn where little Cosette is held as a virtual slave, and, without her parents, Eponine, the unrequited lover of Marius, is also absent from the story. (What would the recent musical be like without the three of them?!)

However, I still enjoyed this version because of so many details that it does include. For example, we see the cold ruthlessness of the law at Jean Valjean’s trial. The judge ignores the prisoner’s plea that he stole to feed his family, even though the impoverished family members stand before the bench in a mute plea for mercy. After declaring Valjean guilty and pronouncing the severe sentence, the judge orders, “Dispose of the evidence!” The camera shows a close up of the stolen loaf of bread with a chunk out of it. The clerk throws it into a wastebasket!

The episode of the bishop’s candlesticks is one of the best that I have seen, partly because the great character actor Edmund Gwenn plays the bishop with the same warmth that endeared him to those who saw him as Kris Kringle in the hit film Miracle on 34th Street.

In the second stage of his life, Jean Valjean, well played by Michael Rennie, fresh off his successful portrayal of the alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still, becomes accepted in the new town after rescuing a child in a runaway carriage and buying the grateful father’s rundown pottery factory. A new character is introduced in the person of Robert, a senior employee of the pottery who becomes Valjean’s faithful confidante throughout the rest of the picture. Robert Newton, the actor known best for portraying the pirate Long John Silver and Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, truly turns Javert into a ruthless fanatic.

The third part, unfolding in Paris, is much shorter than in the other versions, with Marius (Cameron Mitchell) meeting Valjean and Cosette after he climbs over the convent wall to escape the police round-up of political protestors. The couple’s love affair is greatly telescoped, and in the famous sewer scene Javert himself descends into the depths and follows Valjean all the way. The film concludes with a well-staged shot: Through a window in Valjean’s house we see the bishop’s candlesticks atop a mantle. In a reflection in the large mirror between the candlesticks we see a doctor tending to the wounded Marius, with Cosette and her father standing over them. Cue up the music and “The End.”

Les MISERABLES (1958)

Director Jean-Paul Le Chanois. Screenplay Richard Murphy. 217 min.

1958 Jean Gabin as Jean Valjean in Les MiserablesLeave it to the French to do justice to Hugo’s lengthy novel! Although shorter than Raymond Bernard’s earlier film, this 1958 version still includes most of the novel’s subplots. This film was produced as a showcase of the iconic French actor Jean Gabin, who plays  Valjean. At the age of 60 he was obviously much older than Bernard Blier, cast as Javert. Thus when we see the manacled Valjean smashing up rocks in the prison quarry, Javert is the son of a guard who makes a disparaging remark about the convict. Blier plays both father and grown son, but this Javert looks more like a typical movie banker than an obsessed policeman.

I love this version because of the more extensive focus on Monsignor Myriel (still another filmmaker-assigned name), the Bishop of Digne. This sequence begins with a Paris-bound cardinal stopping at the bishop’s palace to request room and board for the night. He is surprised to learn that the palace has been given over to a hospital for the poor, the bishop having moved into a small house. Going there, the cardinal is so underwhelmed by the crude lodgings and plain supper that he decides to go and stay with the town mayor instead. A good thing, because when Valjean is directed to the bishop’s domicile that night—the extra bed is available.

Jean Gabin might have been old for the role, but he is a big and robust Valjean, and somewhat similar to Harry Baur of the 1934 version in that his plain and worn face looks as if he has suffered much. We can see that he still is physically powerful during the attempted kidnapping scene in Paris when Valjean fights off the Thenardiers and their hired ruffians. The Thenardiers come off as even more slimy, the film flashing back to the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo where the husband ghoulishly prowls the battlefield and steals a watch from the pocket of a fallen French officer. Marius’ estrangement from his monarchist grandfather is also included in this version, and it is to the latter’s mansion that Valjean brings the unconscious Marius during the film’s climax.

Les Miserables (1978)

Director Glenn Jordan. Screenplay John Gay.  150 min.

1978 Richard Jordan as Jean Valjean in Les MiserablesThe British TV version stars Richard Jordan as Valjean and Tony Perkins as Javert—yes, that Tony Perkins of Psycho’s Bates Motel. Jordan is a handsome and winsome Valjean after his conversion, but beforehand his huge beard and disheveled hair give him such a fearsome appearance that it is no wonder that the bishop’s housekeeper shrinks at the prospect of letting him in the door. However, it is Perkins who soars in the film as the driven inspector—his performance was apparently considered so good by the producers that they put Javert’s picture on the DVD cover! The implacable policeman expresses his creed when he says, “There is no God. There is only the law. Good and evil do not exist outside the law.”

Valjean’s back-story, taking up almost a half hour, is the most distinctive feature of the film. It begins in 1796 with Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family. He is chased through the streets (the first of several chases in this film), caught, and sentenced to prison. Embittered by his unjust sentence, he tries to escape several times, each attempt resulting in additional years added to his unjust sentence.. At last he succeeds, fleeing to the little town where the bishop resides.

Thus there is no yellow passport in this version. Jean Valjean is already a fugitive from justice when he encounters the bishop. When he tells his host he has no money (which in the other versions he does have—his prison “wages”), the bishop replies that he would not accept money from him. The next day when his housekeeper reports that the silverware has been stolen, the old cleric says, “Madame Magliore, I have wrongfully held back this silver which belongs to the poor. And who was this person? Evidently a poor man.” Again, after the gendarmes have left, the bishop tells his guest that he has bought his soul, and when Valjean breaks down and sobs, the cleric adds, paraphrasing Christ’s words from the Gospel of Luke: “And I promise you, there is more joy in heaven over the face of a repented sinner than the white silk robes of a hundred just men.”

This excellent version also boasts other distinguished thespians: Ian Holm as Thenardier; John Gilegud as Marius’s grandfather Gillenorman; and the boy actor Dexter Fletcher as Gavroche the young friend of Marius who dies at the barricades (the actor has gone on to act in over 80 other films and TV programs). Cut by the writer are the scenes involving the Thenardiers and their gang in Paris who attempt to kidnap Valjean for ransom. There is no Eponine here. The film ends with the wedding of Cossette and Marius.

Les MISERABLES (1995)

Director Claude Lelouch. Screenplay Claude Lelouch. 175 min.

1995 Jean Paul Belmondo Les MiserablesI loved this French director’s dramatic revision of Victor Hugo’s story—so that the action now unfolds a century after the events in Hugo’s novel. Lelouch’s tale is set amidst the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Henri Fortin, who is orphaned when his father is falsely accused of murder and then dies in a prison escape. Henri’s mother commits suicide. He grows up to be an illiterate boxer and furniture mover. He is so big and strong that he is called “a real Jean Valjean” after he lifts a piano that has fallen onto a co-worker during a moving job.

As the Nazi invaders enter Paris, Jewish defense attorney Andre Ziman, his ballerina wife Elise and their young daughter, Salome, ask Henri to drive them with their belongings to the Swiss border. Henri agrees to do so if they will read him the book he has longed to read. And so as they travel away from Paris, Henri gets to hear the story of Jean Valjean, with the camera often switching to scenes from the novel. Belmondo, of course, plays Valjean in those scenes.

Many parallels are developed, with “the wretched ones” of the title now being Jews as well as Jean Valjean. The kindly bishop becomes a mother superior who, along the way, agrees to take in young Salome. She teaches her prayers so that the girl can pass Nazi inspection as a Christian. Later, when the other Zimans become separated before they can reach the Swiss border, a farm family serves as the film’s Thenardiers, not to the girl, but to Andre whom they have hidden on their farm. They are profiting so much from his payments to them that when the war ends they do not tell him the news.

In the film’s press notes the director tells of his personal interest in the novel. When he was a five-year-old boy fleeing with his mother from Nazi occupied France into a safer section, a controller at a police checkpoint seemed to detect that their papers had been falsified. His mother reluctantly gave over her gold watch, whereupon they were passed through. “What a Thenardier he is!” his mother sighed. That night at bedtime she began to tell her curious son the story of the novel, thus implanting in him such a love for the book that he would one day bring it to the screen, but in a very different way than before.

Les MISERABLES (1998)

Director Billie August. Screenplay Rafael Yglesias. 134 min.

1998 Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean in Les MiserablesDanish filmmaker Billie August is best known as the director of the classic Pelle the Conqueror, which I regard as a European Of Mice and Men. His remake stands up very well in comparison to the other versions, as well it should, with such fine actors as Liam Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert. Neeson is a large-framed man who resembles Hugo’s description of Valjean. His rugged long-suffering expressions are convincing. Rush is apt as the brusque and cruel Inspector. He sneers convincingly as he sums up his creed, “Reform is a discredited fantasy. Modern science tells us that people are by nature lawbreakers or law abiders. A wolf could wear sheep’s clothing, but he’s still a wolf.”

This version also retains the playful banter between the bishop and Valjean about the possibility of the host murdering the guest, hence their need to trust one another. However, the note of humor is replaced by violence during the night when the bishop, hearing Valjean stealing the silverware, rises from his bed to investigate. The ex-convict knocks the old man unconscious, and then runs away into the night with the sack of silver. Thus the next day the bishop’s forgiving spirit seems all the greater than in the other versions, his effect upon the violent thief even more radical.

Before they part, their conversation is memorable.
Bishop: “Now don’t forget, don’t ever forget, you’ve promised to become a new man.”
”Promise? Wha, Why are you doing this?”
”Jean Valjean my brother you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.”

The Thenardiers’ roles are greatly reduced in this version, only their daughter Eponine showing up in the third section in Paris. Nor is there any trace of Marius’s grandfather. At the end, when the shattered Inspector Javert turns Valjean loose, he says just before his suicide, “I’ve tried to live my life without breaking a single rule.” No wedding death here, the closing shot being of Jean Valjean walking down an empty street away from the Seine.

Les Miserables: the Musical (2012)

Director Tom Hooper. Screenplay William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, etc. 158 min.

2012 Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les MiserablesThis most recent version of the great novel might seem long—until you compare it to the two French versions described above. Even at this length, the musical version shortens far too much of the novel for the sake of the songs, especially the pivotal scene in which the bishop redeems the soul of the newly released convict Valjean. It does partially make up for this at the film’s rousing conclusion by the unique death scene in which we see the bishop once more as he welcomes the spirit of the dying Valjean into paradise.

The songs sung by the characters, of course, most distinguish this version, songs that have drawn people around the world to see the stage version. In director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the stage play, the music becomes as much a part of the storytelling as the camera and the actors. The songs capture the disturbing inner struggle of Valjean, surprised and puzzled by the bishop’s unexpected gifts of his silverware and candlesticks. In the later song, “Who Am I,” his conscience struggles with the moral dilemma concerning the unfortunate man who has been accused of being Valjean. The actors playing Valjean and Javert, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, are far more Hollywood handsome than those in the two French versions. Fortunately, they are both excellent actors, so they and their songs convey the wrenching emotions of the pair very well.

There is a brief moment showing that Javert still retains a shred of humanity, not shown in the other films: After the troops have stormed the barricade and killed its defenders, Javert surveys the bodies of the student rebels laid out in rows. As he sees the body of the little boy Gavroche, he takes off his medal, and lays it on the breast of the boy out of respect for his brave manner of death. Then, at the climax, we feel his despair when all his suppositions are shattered by his quarry, who has refused to treat him as a mortal enemy. He cannot fathom Valjean’s sparing his life when he had the opportunity at the barricades to rid himself of his pursuer.

I should also add that the film follows the musical tradition of relieving drama and tragedy by inserting comic roles and scenes. The Thenardiers are turned from the utterly despicable leeches of the novel and dramatic versions into the almost likeable rogues at whom we can laugh—indeed the pair deliver at their inn the show-stopping song “Master of the House.”

A complete study guide … and more …

Edward McNulty also provides a complete overview and study guide for the newest 2012 Les Miserables.

Did you know that there are connections between Abraham Lincoln, Victor Hugo and Les Miserables? It’s true! Visit this easy Index to our ongoing coverage of Lincoln’s 150th anniversary events, Thanksgiving plans and Season of Gratitude. Or, simply click on the ‘Lincoln and Les Miserables’ series link below …

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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