I’ve loved the story of Les Misérables for a long time – ever since my friend Kate played part of the musical’s soundtrack for me, one afternoon when we were in about eighth grade. I fell instantly in love with Jean Valjean and Fantine, Eponine and Cosette and Marius, and that plucky, saucy urchin, Gavroche. Then and now, the opening chords of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” send chills up my spine.
Back in January, after seeing the new film version (which made me weep), I picked up a beautiful hardcover edition of the book. At 1232 pages, it’s too bulky for subway reading, so I’ve been reading a few pages before breakfast nearly every morning for the last six months. And as of July 8, I am finished.
(Warning: major spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book or seen the musical or film.)
My husband asked me, early on, if the book was quite different from the musical adaptation, and at the time, I answered, “Not really.” Reading about Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and the Thenardiers, Javert and Marius and Enjolras and all the others, felt like revisiting old friends. The outlines of the plot, from Valjean’s initial encounter with the bishop to his death at the end, were familiar.
Part of the joy of reading the book was tracing the story arc I already knew. I felt a prick of recognition every time I came across a familiar detail: the silver candlesticks; Fantine cutting off her hair; the ABC Cafe; the red flag Enjolras holds up before his death. During the scenes that also appear in the musical, I could hear the songs playing in my head. (Yes, I am a serious musical theatre nerd.)
However, over 1200 pages, Hugo (obviously) has much more room to roam than the writers and producers of the musical. He uses quite a few of those pages to recount the Battle of Waterloo, muse on argot, the dialect of Paris’ criminal underworld, and explore the structure and history of Paris’ sewer system. (The latter was a low point, in several senses.) Although the subjects of the digressions are all at least distantly related to the story, I found myself wishing frequently for a red pen. The man needed a good – and ruthless – editor.
But what I loved about Les Mis – what kept me going through five parts, 1200-plus pages and all those digressions – was the deeper insight into these characters I already knew.
Rich though the musical is, it contains polished-up versions of several characters (Grantaire, Eponine, Marius), and its portraits of others, particularly the Thénardiers, often slide into stereotype. The book contains the full history of these characters, presenting them in all their complexity, filling in the broad strokes of the musical with plenty of shadow and depth.
For example, we find out what happens in the nine-year gap between Valjean’s rescue of Cosette and the rumblings of revolution in Paris (the gap is briefly mentioned midway through Act I in the musical). Hugo serves up a generous helping of political and social context for the 1832 uprising (never mind that I hadn’t heard of half the politicians he mentions). Marius’ grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand (who does not appear in the stage musical) holds the key to understanding Marius himself, and we learn vital information about all the characters, including Gavroche’s parentage, Fantine’s ill-fated love affair (which produced Cosette), and the telling fact of Javert’s birthplace (a prison).
Besides feeling virtuous for tackling such a hefty classic, I was moved by the novel’s themes of grace, hope and redemption amid squalor and despair. I loved peeling back the layers of these characters whose songs have lived in my head for years. The musical and the book are separate but intertwined entities, and I’m glad to know them both now.
Have you read or seen Les Mis? Do you feel the need to seek out the book when you see a theatrical or film adaptation of a story?