With over one hundred film, television, and radio adaptations to its name, Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel Les Misérables is hardly in need of a new one. But the BBC’s production is welcome nonetheless. Its glittering cast puts it in league with the 2012 adaptation of the West End musical, while its length and dedication to the original text puts it in league with the reigning master of adaptations – the four-hour 1934 Raymond Bernard film.
But the real gem of this series is its writer, Andrew Davies, who has adapted classics for the BBC from Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Vanity Fair (1998), all the way to War & Peace (2016). Davies is no stranger to grand, swooping historical dramas with hefty narratives, and, judging by its first episode, his Les Misérables adaptation will have no trouble fitting in with the rest.
The first instalment opens with a scene befitting of the series’ name. The screen is darkly coloured and filled with the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. A crow sounds, a dead horse gazes lifelessly upwards, and rows and rows of dead French soldiers fill a wide-shot to its horizon. Most of the Waterloo scene is voiceless, though there is a brief interaction between Colonel Georges Pontmercy (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar), who is trying to rob the dead and convinces the Colonel he has saved his life. No screen adaptation could – or should – replicate Hugo’s lengthy digression on the minutiae of the Battle of Waterloo, but this opening fulfils an emotional duty towards the Waterloo chapter.
Dominic West and David Oyelowo, as ex-convict Jean Valjean and unforgiving police inspector Javert respectively, are an engaging duo as their decades-long enmity germinates in the Bagne of Toulon. The length of this adaptation allows us to see the development of Jean Valjean from a man hardened by the penal system to one sent on a journey towards the highest code of virtue. Shorter adaptations must make do with a generally honourable man, who exhibits a moment of weakness in stealing a bishop’s silver. Here, however, we also see Valjean’s crueller moments, from contemplating harm towards the compassionate bishop to stealing from a young boy. David Oyelowo appears only briefly in the first episode, but is still convincing as a paranoid, insecure Javert, over-reliant on order and rules.
Lily Collins’ Fantine is innocent, naïve, and gentle, but still manages to be likeable. In the wrong hands, Fantine’s role in Les Misérables could become a weepy, droopy Victorian cliché – she is misery incarnate – but Collins gives us a Fantine who is competent, if idealistic and a little gullible. We know she has misplaced her trust in her lover Tholomyès (Johnny Flynn), but her readiness to love him comes across as endearing, rather than pathetic. As the episode ends, she cradles her daughter and looks out onto the streets of Paris. She asks herself and the child, “Oh Cosette, whatever are we going to do now?” A line like this could crumble into self-pitying lamentation, but Collins’ delivery gives a sense of genuine questioning. We are led to believe that Fantine really is considering her options, while still recognising the hopelessness of her lot.
But the highlight of Sunday’s episode was Derek Jacobi as Bishop Myriel. It was, as would be expected from Jacobi, a stunning performance of a great character. It can be hard to read Hugo’s satire of the Catholic Church in Myriel’s unblemished virtue, but Davies is keen to point us in the right direction – such as in Jean Valjean’s comment to Myriel, “you’re a funny sort of priest” – and Jacobi’s subtle hints do the rest. The ethos of relentless forgiveness and devotion to a churchless form of universal love is quintessential Hugo, who a few days before his death wrote “I reject the oration of all churches, I ask for a prayer for all souls, I believe in God”. What is not inherited from Hugo, however, is the sternness and solidity Jacobi grants Bishop Myriel, who can be interpreted as a bit of a pushover. When he presses the candlesticks to Jean Valjean, mere moments after Valjean’s attempted theft, Myriel is almost frightening, ordering Valjean to become a better man – declaring that his soul belongs to God. Myriel’s act of compassion is no polite offering.
The first episode covers around a half of Volume I of the book. A whole volume involves a lot of narrative, and at times the episode does seem to move around a bit too much and a bit too quickly. There are a multitude of characters spread across France who need to be introduced. Episode one shows us Jean Valjean, first serving time in the Bagne of Toulon, then suffering abuse in a French village, then seeking refuge at the Bishop’s house, then wandering the roads. We also see Fantine meeting Tholomyès, deep in the throes of her love affair, and finally with her infant daughter.
There’s a lot to cram in in an hour, but it can’t really be helped; Davies’ mission to stay true to the novel can only really be achieved through piling in narrative. However, a “group urination in the forest” scene seemed a little unnecessary, especially as it must have come at the cost of more valuable scenes. It is likely that, with the main players now established, there will be enough space in successive episodes for the characters to develop fully as believable emotional beings, and that we will see the psychological repercussions of events, rather than just the events themselves.
The photography of the series is, however, very appealing. A scene in which a happy Fantine goes rowing on an idyllic lake, eats a decadent lunch at a finely decorated table, and soaks in the sunlight through the trees is particularly effective. The series has been described as big budget, and its visuals certainly support this claim; it’s lovely to look at.
The dialogue suffers from the insertion of a tiny amount of random French in an otherwise wholly English script – the odd “monsieur” or French song – which is distracting, and seems to serve no other purpose than to reassure the audience that this is indeed set in France. Other than this and the pace, however, the script is faultless. There’s no reason to suspect that this won’t continue, though hopefully more screen-time will be devoted to the inner workings of the characters who are, at their core, deeply sympathetic and worthy of close examination. Sunday’s Les Misérables debut showed a dynamic, glossy production with all the makings of a classic, albeit cannon-fired at 100mph.