Les Mis BBC, a review

or: the one where I’m tempted to use capslock, and must manfully refrain, otherwise it would be all capslock.

I wrote a post almost a year ago mentioning the BBC adaptation of Les Mis, and made a lot of placating noises about how adaptations are never exactly like the book, and how in some cases I actually prefer adaptations that are wildly different from their origins. And in some cases, yes, that is still true. But with Les Mis BBC …

Oh boy, how do I put this.

Wicked the musical has some of the character tropes from the book, and has the same basic plot beats, but is completely different from the book in terms of tone and outlook. The book is nihilistic and pessimistic; it speaks of terrorism as the only way to combat a totalitarian regime, it speaks of death as inevitable, none of the characters (and I do mean none of them) are sympathetic, and there is so much weird R-rated stuff going on that it’s frankly amazing my parents let me read it in middle school.

Wicked the musical is about none of that. Wicked the musical is about finding meaning in life even when it’s easier not to, and about friendship and love saving people even at the eleventh hour; its characters are all sympathetic, except for the main antagonist, and nobody dies. And yeah, there’s a suggestive scene, but it’s nowhere near as raunchy as something from Heathers or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Frankly, it barely hits the PG mark.

Transforming a pessimistic book into an optimistic show, that’s something I’m fine with. More than fine. Enthusiastic about, even.

But what Andrew Davies did with Les Mis was the opposite.

The theme of the book Les Misérables is, to put it bluntly, hope and kindness. It is about miserable people struggling to survive, and sometimes (mostly) failing because society is cruel; the only ones who can survive are the ones with kindness in their lives. The Brick is about society as the villain, and individuals redeeming themselves and others through kind acts; it is about hope for society in the form of the individual. It is about breaking the cycle of abuse — on the individual level, as with Valjean and Cosette, and on the societal level, as with the oppressive monarchy versus the rebels of 1832.

The Brick has many characters which embody this core theme. Cosette, the abused girl who grows up to be the most loving and kind young woman in the entire story, saves Valjean’s soul and saves Marius’ life. She is on the front cover of most copies of the Brick for a reason. But the main character, the one who saves her from her abusive childhood, is Valjean. And he breaks the cycle of abuse within himself, too.

Valjean is the epitome of love and kindness changing a man. He is the thesis. The story starts and ends with him. He is gentle, he is kind, and he is good. He was once bitter and broken — he was once sullen and hateful — but when Cosette enters his life, he is transfigured. He is, and I can’t emphasize it enough, a good and peaceful man.

Here is what Andrew Davies did: he made this peaceful man violent and hateful until halfway through the final episode.

To say nothing of turning Javert’s oppression into nothingness, and his dedication to his job into obsession over Valjean; or Cosette’s relegation from brave lark to captive dove; or Fantine’s misery put on display for the titillation of the audience and nothing more; or Éponine’s existence merely as someone for Marius to briefly lust over and then even more briefly mourn.

I might not have had such a vitriolic reaction to Les Mis BBC had Andrew Davies not touted his miniseries as the most faithful adaptation to the book ever made. I might have hated it fiercely and briefly and then moved on. After all, we still have the musical, and we still have Shoujo Cosette (available on Youtube, seriously, look it up, it’s amazing). But Davies did say it was going to be book-accurate. And boy, did he fail to deliver.

The problem is, he obviously read the book. There are sections of scenes that are taken word-for-word. There are minor character cameos who would not be there if he had not read the book. And yet this is what he took from it: cynicism and brutality and selfishness, and good deeds only done in the name of self-interest.

The set designers and costume designers clearly knew what they were doing. The actors clearly poured all their passion into their work. (David Bradley as Monsieur Gillenormand, Marius’ grandfather, particularly knocked it out of the park.) But with a script as awful as this was, as soulless and selfish and cruel as only the Thénardiers should have been and not Valjean and the rest, there is no salvaging it.

I can’t imagine what new people coming to Les Mis thought if they saw this. I can’t imagine that they would make it through the first half of the first episode without thinking to themselves, “I don’t feel anything about these characters except mild bored pity. Remind me why this book is supposed to be a ‘classic’ again?”

Wicked the musical made me want to read the book. Same thing with Stardust, same thing with Coraline. But if I were a newcomer to Les Mis, and saw the BBC miniseries adaptation, and saw it being touted as the most faithful version to the book yet, I would want nothing to do with the book.

And that, pardon my French, is a damn shame.