The opening of the new movie version of Les Miserables reveals both its virtues and its main challenges. A great ship of the Napoleonic era is being dragged into dry dock by a huge gang of miserable prisoners, dozens of them wrangling it with ropes while themselves waste deep in the turbulent water, dozens more standing on tiers to do their miserable share. Javert, the guard, stands above them, looking down significantly on the prisoners.
It takes you there, as we like to say, in a way that the musical can’t do, and that is precisely the power of film. I was asked recently why I like the Godfather trilogy so much, the implication being that so much bloodshed and evil behavior doesn’t merit so much appreciation. And it doesn’t, of course. I suppose some people like it for the blood and violence and cleverness. However, Aristotle gives a better explanation. He says in his Poetics that man by nature loves imitation. At first I didn’t know what to make of his statement, but over the years I have become convinced that it might e one of the most insightful things ever said about human beings. We are an Image of Another, and as image we cannot be fulfilled until we are like Another. So we spend all our days and nights trying to find others that we consider worthy of our imitation. That drive spills over into our leisure time. A healthy soul delights in things well imitated. (An unhealthy, undeveloped soul always needs some sort of moral or lesson. This soul imitates Javert.) For this reason, we love stories, which are imitations of life. We love music, which imitates the movements of the soul. We love film because it can bring the two together in a basically inexpensive and convenient way (have you been to Broadway lately?) Film can attain a verisimilitude that plays and musicals would be silly to even strive for. This gives them the power to tell a story in a way more emotionally penetrating, though perhaps more risky, than other forms. When I saw these men straining their feeble muscles on the ropes to pull a vast ship into dry dock, I was immediately more intimately connected with the physical world of 1815 France than the musical, live, 10th Anniversary, or 25th anniversary could bring me. Of course, it remained an imitation. I was not there and I couldn’t feel the water washing over me and, thank God, I could not smell the smells of human agony that would have permeated the world of this film almost from beginning to end. The power of Les Miserables is in the story, and the challenge to the production team is to tell the story effectively. See it as a contest if you like. Who can tell it best? What is the best format? How will it have the deepest impact? How will it most powerfully reveal its truth? The live musical? The selected songs? The full movie? Or could it be the novel? I prefer the Classics Illustrated comic book myself, but I won’t pretend it leads me to tears. The film is daring, which it would have to be to assume the challenge of a combined masterpiece of music and narrative like this. Anne Hathaway magnificently imitates the ruin of a woman (Fantine) who yearns to be honorable but loses everything at the hands of a greedy, envious, petty world. While I do not know music so I can’t comment critically on her voice, I can say that her presentation of Fantine’s song is, as I suppose it must be, the high point of the movie. So much emotion and so much loss merits a song that breaks the heart. While her version is not as beautiful as Ruthie Henshaw’s (what could be?), it is powerful, and the context in which it is presented makes it overwhelming. Here at last, I thought, is the cure for the Disneyfication of little girls. If you let your daughter watch the Little Mermaid, please let her watch this too. Yes, this is a mature theme. But so, if you haven’t noticed, is The Little Mermaid. The difference is authenticity. Disney imitates on the screen the most inane fantasies of an adolescent girl. Les Miserables imitates the truth that “there are storms we cannot weather.” Watching her sing, I felt a renewed hope that the movie going world could grow up. I love the way the Fantine is isolated on the screen. I loved it so much I didn’t really notice it until well into the song and it wasn’t driven home until the same technique was used, though less effectively, with Marius’ “Empty Chairs” after the battle at the barricades. Throughout the movie things that the musical could only hint at are presented in their visual fulness. For some of us, that enables the story to penetrate more deeply. Fantine’s song must be the best example. Some mattered less than others, such as the barricade scene, some more, such as the journey through the sewage. The main point of this post is to say that the new film version tells the story with a fresh power, a new perspective, and at times a raw emotion that reaches parts of you that other versions don’t reach. It is not perfect, but it does the story justice. It reminds us again that law seen as an unchanging, merciless force that maintains order for its own sake (the older brother) will always be in conflict with “the song of angry men” who are excluded by the old order. It reminds us of the essential truth that only love matters, that the only one who can save this world is the one who believes that the riches of this world are a mere shadow of the promised inheritance, that clinging to this world turns us into envious, angry, striving, divisive people whose only hope is a good story.