It’s likely a difficult task to undertake an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Miserables, in the year 2019. The story is so intrinsically tied into representations in other media; most notably, as the longest running musical on the West End. Thus, when you’re trying to make a bare bones, ‘faithful’ adaptation, it’ll inevitably be compared to the global sensation that is the Les Mis musical.
The six part BBC drama does manage to distance itself and creates a well told and compelling narrative, with good pacing, and characterisation…for the first three parts, at least. Unfortunately, some bizarre decisions around character development, rushed writing, and weak storylines let Les Miserables down, tarnishing any potential to be the definitive version.
Let’s get this out of the way now: Dominic West gives the greatest performance by far, and simultaneously gives the strongest presentation of Jean Valjean, across any medium. He’s likeable, brash, brutish, and incredibly strong, in every sense. Other solid casting comes (perhaps unsurprisingly) from the first half; Lily Collins as Fantine, Derek Jacobi as the Bishop, and Adeel Akhtar as Thénardier all deliver powerful lead performances. More questionable is David Oyelowo, who seems a good choice on the face of it, but is let down by the aforementioned rushed writing and a strange choice of accent. If there’s one voice I wouldn’t associate with Javert, it’s cockney. The younger ‘grown up’ cast are also flawed: Marius is unlikable and arrogant (in fairness, a closer representation of his book counterpart), Cosette is unlikable and whiney (much closer to her musical counterpart) and Enjolras is unlikable and boring. So pretty unlikable all around. We also have the sensational Olivia Coleman as Mdm. Thénardier, parading around with such campy acting, that she could be mistaken for a pantomime dame.
The writing is really what lets Les Miserables down, unfortunately. Despite an incredibly emotionally effective opening, the momentum isn’t sustained, and the latter three episodes feel like weak translations of the musical, as they trim about as much character development as it does. The motivations of Javert in particular are laughably muddy; yes, we know he thinks Jean Valjean is the root of all evil, but when he starts fantasising that he’s literally behind every crime in the city, I think its time someone told him to lie down for a bit. Go home Javert, you’re drunk. Similarly, the choice to have Marius as a sex confused puppy, dreaming about bonking literally any girl who smiles at him, while perhaps depressingly realistic, makes him pretty despicable. In fact, he eerily mirrors the cocky swagger of Cosette’s father from episode one. That’s a bit weird when you think about it. Pacing is also a huge issue. This really feels like it should’ve been an eight episode run, as many events are passed over with a line or two of exposition, instead of being given time to properly evolve. In particular, it strangely opts for the time jumps as the musical and novel: Val Jean escaping to becoming Mayor, and Cosette’s upbringing. Both of these could have been explored further, to give the series a unique stamp.
So, Les Miserables doesn’t stick the landing on the characters, which is a pretty major hit against it. However, the cinematography, set design, costume design, music choices, and editing are all spot on. It takes the classic BBC drama approach, with a very serious, naturalistic tone, trying to make it seem as true to life as possible. Unfortunately, when the writing is at its poorest, this often makes it clash tonally, and it becomes difficult to take seriously. The music is also incredibly subdued, perhaps in an effort to distance itself from its bombastic musical sister even further. This decision works far more effectively, and helps to create the droning sense of dread. Otherwise, the look of period Paris is captured perfectly, to the show’s credit. The wide shots manage to show the huge scope of battles, making them even more impressively epic. There’s a grit to the atmosphere too, particularly during battle scenes that also adds a level of intensity and raw realism, making them more akin to a war drama in some places.
Overall, Les Miserables is a mixed bag of an adaptation. It’s disappointing to think what could’ve been, had the momentum of the former half been maintained, but what we have isn’t awful, by any means. The acting is strong, with most characters managing to still leave an impactful impression, despite an often tonally dissonant script. You might leave feeling underwhelmed, but there are still many elements to enjoy.