by Dawn Sands
I have been obsessed with Les Misérables ever since I first heard the musical soundtrack two years ago. Since then, I have listened to it (the original 1985 version, before they decided four hours was far too long and cut parts) countless times, and I’m fairly certain I know the whole thing by heart now, which is a somewhat concerning use of my time, but anyway.
For Christmas last year I received a copy of the book, written by French author Victor Hugo in 1862, and because I was so obsessed with the musical - and possibly because I enjoy the torture of reading long, arguably pretentious books where you have to reach for the dictionary every other word - I read it earlier this year.
I love both portrayals of the story, but the eternal question is - which is better?
The plot of Les Misérables is so complex that it’s almost impossible to describe concisely, but I’ll do my best. At its core, Les Mis tells the story of Jean Valjean, a prison convict who strives to bring good to society despite the adversity he faces after nineteen years in jail - especially from the policeman, Javert. There are also a number of subplots, the main one being the love triangle between the characters of Cosette, Marius, and Éponine. Cosette is an orphan who is badly abused by her innkeeper guardians, the Thénardier family, before being adopted by Jean Valjean and brought up in hiding until she falls in love with Marius, a young, naive revolutionary, in her late teens. Meanwhile, Éponine (who, to make things more convoluted, is the daughter of the innkeeper who abused Cosette) loves Marius, and dies trying to bring herself closer to him.
The other major subplot is the story of Javert and Jean Valjean. I’ll elaborate on this in detail later, because it’s portrayed incredibly effectively in the musical, but - to summarise - Valjean breaks parole and Javert dedicates his entire life to pursuing him. When Javert realises Valjean was not the villain he always thought, he is driven so insane by this shift in his perceived worldview that he commits suicide. It’s not the most light-hearted of stories, which is one of the reasons why I like it.
One of the most noticeable differences between the two portrayals of the story is the sheer amount of detail you can find in the book. The novel is nicknamed “the brick” for a reason - it’s literally the size of a brick, and is notorious for its diversions seemingly unrelated to the plot. The first sixty pages describe in great detail the life of the bishop, who only features in the story for another thirty or so after that. (Sure, he sparks Valjean’s entire redemption arc, but I ask you, Victor Hugo: do we really need to know the entirety of the bishop’s monthly expenditures?) As mentioned previously, around a hundred pages are spent describing the life and death of Fantine, Cosette’s mother (arguably my favourite hundred pages, actually), and another couple of chapters describe the way of life in the convent in which Valjean and Cosette enter into hiding. Hugo spends forty pages explaining the intricacies of the Battle of Waterloo, and another twenty or thirty on the sewerage system of nineteenth century Paris.
The musical, of course, does not have this feature, and as such, we know very little of the backstory of the characters. Éponine mentions that Marius’ grandfather is rich; we aren’t told that his grandfather is actually a fanatical monarchist who pretty much disowns his grandson when he announces his Bonapartist viewpoint. We are told that Cosette’s father abandoned Fantine, her mother; we aren’t told the chain of events leading up to that, or anything about Cosette’s father at all. This extra detail in the novel really immerses you in the lives of the characters, and ornately weaves the plot together in a way the musical cannot. For the most part, these diversions and moments of detailed backstory are actually incredibly interesting and engaging to read, though there are a couple of exceptions which I didn’t enjoy reading so much (like his impromptu essay about the sewerage system 100 pages from the end of the book). Though they make the novel incredibly slow-moving, some of these diversions are actually my favourite parts of the book.
The fact that the novel has so much backstory, too, helps to give the story a lot more depth and context outside the narrow window of story we see in the musical. The musical is captivating, and, through a combination of music and lyrics, tells the characters’ stories in an unforgettable way, but the backstory we are given in the novel presents us with a sense that these characters are part of something much bigger. Hugo’s writing is also extremely poetic and eloquent, and it’s just a pleasure to read.
While the backstory provided in the novel gives the story a lot more depth and perspective, the musical has a totally different way of providing this - through music.
Les Misérables, the musical, was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, originally in French, and I will just state before we go any further that they are geniuses, as is Victor Hugo. This is non-negotiable. Aside from being incredibly compelling and poetic songs, the music and the lyrics woven together help provide an insight into the relationships between the characters which is a lot harder to spot in the book.
The main example of this is the relationship presented between Valjean and Javert, the antagonist. I could write another entire article about the dynamic between these opposing characters, which I won’t (for my own sanity as well as yours) but the essence of it is - Valjean breaks parole; Javert, the policeman, devotes the rest of his life towards pursuing him. Javert’s whole ideology revolves around doing what is objectively right, set by the standards of the law, while Valjean does what is subjectively right, set by his own internal moral standards. Both of them do the right thing, which is why Javert cannot really be labelled as a villain. Arguably, the main villain in this story is society, but that could be another article in itself. Although the two characters work against each other, their lives are actually aligned perfectly in parallel, both working towards the same goal - to do good. While this is noticeable in the novel, the musical depicts this perfectly through sung monologues at the beginning and at the end of the show.
Valjean’s soliloquy at the start of the musical and Javert’s at the end both have exactly the same tune, the same rhyme scheme, and half the lyrics are identical - however, in context, these lyrics mean totally different things. When Valjean says “I’ll escape now from that world/From the world of Jean Valjean”, he means that he will create a false identity, while when Javert says the same lines towards the end of the musical, he means that he will commit suicide. This duality is present in the book, too, but the way in which these concepts are illustrated through repetition of music and lyrics in the musical is what really defines it - it illustrates their similarities through their differences.
It’s also worth looking at the reason why Javert commits suicide. Once he has realised that Valjean is actually a good man, his entire worldview is turned on its head, and he realises that he cannot live in a world where Jean Valjean is a good man - their lives are so dependant on each other. Furthermore, in the song “The Confrontation”, which is essentially a loud shouting match between Valjean and Javert right in the middle of a hospital, Javert cries “I am from the gutter too!” referencing the fact that he was born inside a jail and that therefore, Valjean and he originate from the same place. If I really over-analyse - which is essentially what I’ve been doing this entire article, so I may as well embrace it - the cyclical nature of the tune, and the way the melody so seamlessly swings from one character to another, shows how similar the characters are in essence, and is a musical way of foreshadowing the wild goose chase which is about to take place between them.
Aside from this, Schönberg is also an orchestral genius, and the music is just so chilling and inventive that it’s almost impossible not to like.
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of my unnecessarily long and incredibly niche blog post. But which version of the story is truly superior? Though both portrayals are exceptional, I prefer the vibrant musical format as it really demonstrates the connections between the characters and how their lives are so intertwined with each other - yes, I base a lot of things on their ability to be thoroughly analysed - and has some phenomenal musical moments on top of that.