While I don’t often review individual shows, this is a unique and rare instance where the worlds of film, musical theatre, literature and TV come together in glorious harmony, or at least like competing relatives forced to be civil at a family reunion. The Les Misérables fandom is home to some of the most intense rivalry going, but I’m pleased to say that Tom Shankland’s direction has materialized a competent script from Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones, House of Cards), resulting in a comprehensive adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, in many ways reminiscent of the 2012 film adaptation.
There will always be petty rivalry within the community, but while the theatre kids and the literary scholars fight it out on Tumblr or otherwise declare battle in public (have a bit of respect for each other, guys) here’s a few thoughts on the first episode, intended to unite the warring factions.
Director: Tom Shankland
Release Date: 30 December 2018 (six-part series)
From the point of view of a TV adaptation, this was off to a promising start. Much like Lord of the Rings, there is so much material in Hugo’s novel that just doesn’t get mileage in the musical (a memorable but condensed version of events) or even in previous film adaptations, such as the 1998 Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush drama. A six-part series gives the opportunity to explore the characters’ backstories, and I was really pleased to discover that the writers had done their homework.
We open with the denouement of the battle of Waterloo, in which a ne’er-do-well Thenardier is attempting to steal from Colonel Pontmercy. It’s a vital link in the Marius-Thenardier story that never really gets the space and time it deserves in the musical or in previous films, so it was a welcome change to see this open the proceedings. Adeel Akhtar looks to be a brilliant Thenardier, the combination of beguiling and devious that makes the character so memorable. While it’s unclear whether Hugo intended the encounter to be played for laughs, I was half expecting some kind of quip from the loveable rogue. There were faint traces of comedy, but Shankland swung more towards the serious and it set up the rest of the drama well.
I also really appreciate the fact that the whole episode concerning Colonel Pontmercy and his father-in-law is explored. When the wizened old man refuses to let his son in law visit young Marius, owing to political differences between the two men, there is a touching series of vignettes in which Colonel Pontmercy is able to observe his son from a distance as they attend the same church every Sunday, thanks to a kindly nurse. That’s characteristic of Hugo: whenever there’s an instance of great cruelty, someone always comes along with the antidote. And the overarching message of his novel seems to be that there is still good left in the world, even when everything seems bleak.
The setting up of Jean Valjean (Dominic West) as a member of the chain gang at Toulon was effective if unadventurous – the similarities in both production design and camera angles were so clear that it was impossible not to bring to mind Tom Hooper’s 2012 adaptation. Although the discombobulating extreme close-ups were thankfully avoided this time, it was a simple, faithful adaptation which didn’t stray too far from the film material. David Oyelowo – who gave interviews about his involvement with this adaptation early in 2018, at the time of Gringo’s release – was a stoic Javert, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was a little too familiar with Valjean (“What was all that about today, then, 24601?”) than he ought to have been for a legalistic militant. I will be keeping an open mind, however, given that this is the first episode and there is often so much expositional ground to cover in the first 60 minutes. Indeed, it makes you wonder how Hugo was able to produce a novel on an epic scale when even doing so for TV isn’t easy.
Yet for its promising start, I’m afraid to say that the introduction of some characters didn’t quite work out according to the book. I appreciate that Fantine was introduced early for economy of space (played by Lily Collins, who narrowly missed out on the film role of Éponine to Samantha Barks), but squashing her equally significant role into a dual timeline in the same part of the city as young Marius just didn’t create the sense of distance that might have otherwise been afforded to her. There’s also, I think, a peculiar way of doing ‘period’ TV adaptations these days – forgive me if I sound old! But I can’t be the only one to have noticed the way that period pieces just seem too modern, too updated, down to the makeup that the characters wear. Not only that, but the accents really put me off Fantine and her gaggle of friends. Granted, it was there to prove that these are the lower-class, ‘Les Misérables’ (‘the wretched’) of Parisian society, but somehow it just had the opposite effect and broke down the suspension of disbelief, unusual for such a big-budget production.
Despite all this, Fantine’s affair with Felix is convincing. It’s clear that she’s young and vulnerable, very naive and easily swayed by a much more sophisticated man. Although I have to say that Felix and his companions were much younger in the novel, machismo students looking for a bit of fun during their semester in Paris, it played out well here on screen and I believed their attachment. The question on everyone’s lips, though – at what point did baby Cosette come along? How did Fantine manage to hide her for all this time, and how did 9 months fly by? Answer: editing.
I’m aware, of course, that a non-musical adaptation would leave a bit of a gap – and it’s almost impossible not to run through the songs when you’re watching. Most noticeably it’s missing during the encounter between Valjean and the Bishop (the peerless Derek Jacobi, and the face of every priestly figure in British television and film) – we’re literally hanging on for a lyric about escaping from the world of Jean Valjean. But instead, we get a cathartic awakening of conscience from the convicted felon and the promise of a new start. Jacobi’s Bishop is one of my favorite characters, a catalyst for the life-changing scenario, and while he contentedly attends to the gardening, he remains unphased by the tumultuousness of life. It’s the compelling thought that his legacy is carried through to the rest of the characters in the epic. While it’s not been perfect, there have been some stand-out performances and I’m looking forward to seeing which direction the series will take from here.