Thursday, January 24, 2013

Biittner's Book (& Movie) Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Our January book club read was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. We deliberately timed it so we could read it over December and then go see the new feature film. First, the book...

I must admit getting through the book was a little bit of a struggle for me (I read the unabridged version). This was mostly because of all the sidetracking or contextualizing Hugo does; there are pages and pages of descriptions of neighbourhoods or battles or people that are only marginally connected with the main story line. Now I'm sure some would argue this makes the story, that this is what makes Les Miserables a piece of literary history, but in my opinion it is all this extraneous description that makes the book a difficult read. That said, the storyline glorified on screen and on stage as "Les Mis" is excellent, and Hugo's detailed descriptions of the characters and their back-stories is what makes Les Miserables great. I found myself hurrying through the extras to get back to the main story. I really liked the following the interweaving lives of the characters over time. I would recommend this book but suggest that most readers stick to the abridged version.

Now for the film...with a confession...

I have never seen Les Mis on stage. It's not because I haven't wanted to; I've just never gone. I love musical theatre. I love going to see plays and performances. So when I went to the film I only had the book for context and was only familiar with some of the more famous songs from the soundtrack. Honestly I am a little lukewarm on the film. Some parts were fantastic - I loved the sets and costumes (especially the "ladies of the nights" with all their scabs and sores). I hated all the close ups when the leads were singing; I loved the ensemble cast numbers. I liked Hugh Jackman at the beginning of the film but grew tired of him towards the end (I think he would have made a more intriguing Javert as Jean Valjean just seemed too easy for him). I think many reviewers were too hard on Russell Crowe, that he held his own for the most part. I think Anne Hathaway is over-rated; she sang a great song but her minimal screen time is not award worthy. Samantha Barks was amazing and deserves the kudos that are being sent Anne's way. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were ridiculous and over the top and, as such, were absolutely perfect; they stole ever scene and I just adored them. The film was also too long (a current trend in Hollywood!). If you are a huge fan of Les Mis then go see the film and take your tissues.

In sum:
- Les Miserables (the book): recommended in abridged version.
- Les Miserables (the film): for fans of Les Mis and who want to see all the Oscar buzz is about.

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