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Cinematic Realism: Not a Les Mis Film Review

Les Misérables (musical)

Les Misérables (musical) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I haven’t seen Les Mis, the film, and I’m not sure that I will. Both the novel and the musical hold very special places in my heart, and I am generally cautious about viewing film versions of stories I love. It has too often been a disappointing and disheartening experience. So this post should in no way be considered a film review. Nor can it be considered a comparison of the musical and film adaptations. Each genre has its unique strengths and weaknesses, and I’m not interested in rehearsing those here. Rather, with all this talk about the film, I’m reminded of thoughts I had ten years ago when I first saw the musical.

A few weeks back, Andrew Kern wrote a post about the film. Instantly there was debate in the comments about the sexuality and violence presented in the film. Andrew began his post noting that one of the great strengths of the film genre is its ability to be realistic. And, of course, he’s right. Every detail of a story can be meticulously recreated in a way that other genres can’t come close to portraying. A film can stimulate most of our senses—excepting the sense of smell—and that realism can form a powerful experience.

Filmmakers generally point to that power as a positive, but some commenters on Andrew’s post wondered if certain “realistic” images in the film were appropriate for children—or for any person—to view. And while that is an important question to consider, it is not the one that interests me.

Almost ten years ago I had the true pleasure of seeing Les Mis, the musical, in London. I had read the novel, but nothing could have prepared me for the intense, emotional 3-hour experience I was going to have. Before the show began, I stared at the empty stage—deliberately stripped bare—and I had my doubts. How could this musical adaptation come close to faithfully recreating the themes of Victor Hugo’s massive work?

I should explain for those who have never seen the musical that there are no sets: no backdrops, no curtain, and extraordinarily minimal props. Two chairs tell us we are in a tavern. Remove the chairs and we are in a sewer. There is no realism. Just actors and music. And yet, to my utter amazement, as soon as the first notes hit my ears, as soon as I heard the collective groan of the prisoners, I was transported. I saw it all. I felt it all. And yet none of those images were before my eyes.

I never saw Fantine being violated, and yet I felt all the weight of her suffering. Not a drop of blood fell from Eponine but her tragic death broke my heart. I sobbed in the theatre, and I continued to sob well into the night.

I was overcome—almost undone emotionally—by the power of the performance: the suffering, the grace, the mercy, the ultimate redemption. But what really surprised me was that my own imagination had supplied all the details. I was completely caught up in the story despite the fact that I was only looking at a handful of people singing on an empty stage.

My first thought—really it was an epiphany—was that you can tell a masterful story without all the cinematic realism. I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to have realism, simply that it isn’t always necessary. The more gritty filmmakers argue passionately in defense of graphic violence and graphic sexuality, claiming that those images are crucial to the development of the story. And mostly we’ve accepted those arguments. But I wonder if all the “realistic” detail actually detracts from the story.

Certainly those images are an obstacle for people who have moral objections to sex and violence in film. But even for people who don’t necessarily find those things morally questionable, I wonder if those images actually hurt the story itself and undermine our ability to emotionally connect with what’s happening. (I’m not speaking of any particular image or scene in Les Mis, the film—I haven’t even seen it. I’m just speaking about film in general.)

Can I truly grieve over the death of a character when I am recoiling from blood spattered on the screen? Can I feel the horror of sexual violation more when I see nudity? I’m not sure, but I suspect that the answer is no. I suspect that if I am feeling shock from the image, I am not feeling what I could or what I should. If I am feeling repulsion, I am not feeling sympathy with the character.

Many times I suspect that graphic images are just a substitute for good story-telling. It’s easy to go for shock value. It’s easy to make the viewer recoil in disgust. But it’s difficult to craft a story that resonates with the deepest longings of our hearts.

Years ago I took my children to see a production of Les Mis, the musical. To my delight, they were profoundly moved. The pain of suffering transformed into the glory of redemption was impressed upon their hearts. And I never once had to worry about covering their eyes. As we seek to reclaim the arts, I think that’s something to consider.

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