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.

Continue reading “Les Mis BBC, a review”

I thou thee!

Time to talk about linguistics as it pertains to literature — specifically Les Mis, and even more specifically Valjean and Javert. This is going to get pedantic and also very passionate, so buckle up, y’all, it’s gonna be a fun ride.

Several languages — French, Dutch, German, Russian, just to name a few — use two forms of address when speaking to another person (2nd person). French has a handy flowchart here which explains the difference pretty succinctly.

Basically, if a stranger bumps into you on the street, and you don’t want to get into a fistfight, you call them “vous.” But if you do want to get into a fistfight, you call them “tu.”

The nouns and verbs in French to describe this phenomenon, of addressing people in/formally, are tutoyer/tutoiement and vouvoyer/vouvoiement. The same way that gender is hammered into every single part of speech in French (even the chair has a gender, which, that doesn’t make sense to me but you do you, chair), so is in/formality. It’s not something they really emphasize in written literature because to them it’s just as natural as swimming is to a fish. For native English speakers, though, it’s a struggle to convey that cultural and linguistic difference without a couple paragraphs’ worth of explanation.

English used to have an in/formal dichotomy in the 2nd person address. “You” used to be the way a person addressed their teacher or king or possibly their parents, and “thou” was the way they addressed their friends, their children, and their underlings.

The interesting bit about English in/formality is that nowadays the “thee” form is only actively consistently used in places like Rite One of a Christian Protestant church service. We call God “thee” — we address Him informally.

(Yeah, there’s a theological reason for that, but I am not anywhere near qualified to answer that question.)

But in modern media depicting ye olde days, the “thee” form is used pretty haphazardly, addressing any old person any which way, when back in the 1600s that really wasn’t the case. If a princeling talked to some commoner on the street, the prince used “thee” on the commoner; if the commoner used “thee” back at the prince, he would probably have been beaten for the impertinence. There’s a reason all the best Shakespearean insults start with a “thou” — it’s purposefully conveying, through the dang pronoun even before you get to the good part of the insult, that the speaker is the hearer’s superior in every possible way.

With that in mind …

… Javert calls Valjean “tu” throughout the entire book — when he knows it’s Valjean he’s addressing.

Continue reading “I thou thee!”

Les Mis, overview

I’m almost exactly a month late for Victor Hugo’s birthday (the man would have turned 416 on February 26th), but it’s never too late to talk about the man or his work. As far as I know, there is no other author who has managed to motivate a city to completely renovate and curate a crumbling building that had been around for several hundred years, just because he thought architecture was kind of cool.

As far as I know, there is also no other author who would mail someone else a live bat in an envelope. Yes, Victor Hugo was that kind of guy.

Though Lord Byron had a pet bear in college, so who knows, really. Those Romantics were all pretty crazy no matter which side of the Channel they were on.

Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris is probably the single most influential book he ever wrote, purely because we can see the concrete effects it had in the real world. I could natter about that one, but Lindsay Ellis is much more eloquent on the subject than I am.

No, what I’m qualified to talk about is Les Mis.


Fans call it The Brick because, well, you could probably kill a man with a hardback version. I own six different English translations of the book, some in hardback and some in paperback, because I wrote my senior thesis in college about the differences in those translations as well as translating a few passages from original French into English myself. (Does that establish my nerd credentials? I hope so.) My favorite translation is Fahnestock and MacAfee (FMA), but Hapgood is also really good for getting the historical context of the original text, although I do have a few bones to pick about the tutoiement and vouvoiement in that version. (And … that’s a subject for another post.)

The Denny translation is an okay starter if you’re just dipping your toes into the novel for the first time, though the translator does … take some liberties with the original text. A lot of the original punning is lost, and that’s just a crime.

The Isabel Hapgood English translation of Les Mis is actually available online for free, if you’re ever interested, and handily separated into the discrete chapters/sections for ease of browsing. Let it not be said that classic literature is only for rich snobs. Anyone can be a book snob, rich or poor. Equal opportunity snobbery.

I’ve nattered about Les Mis before now, and if you already know what I’m talking about, it’ll mostly make sense. But if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, it’s a bit like car jargon. They go on and on about this and that and the other, specs and doodads and stuff, and meanwhile your eyes glaze over and you wait for the salesman to run out of breath.

So! In the spirit of not blabbering on incomprehensibly! Here is a brief run-down of the main characters in Les Misérables:

Continue reading “Les Mis, overview”

adaptations, Hugo style

A couple weeks ago they came out with the main cast of the new Les Mis BBC miniseries that’ll be coming out sometime in the next few years. Filming apparently starts this February on-location in France and Belgium.

Guys, I am yelling about this.

Which, you know, isn’t surprising given that I’m a humungous nerd about the book. A tv mini/series gives you the chance to spread out and really delve into the fun details of a monster like Les Mis (they call it “the brick” for a reason – the unabridged novel is almost 531,000 words long). And while the musical adaptation is a lot of fun, and there have been scads of movie adaptations in the last four decades, most of them haven’t … well … really been all that accurate to the book.

I know, I know. Treat adaptations like they’re completely separate entities and you’ll have more fun. It worked with Neil Gaiman books like Coraline and Stardust, it worked (mostly) with the Harry Potter series, it worked with Wicked by Gregory Maguire. The book-to-movie or book-to-musical transition, which naturally involves snipping a lot of things to make sure it’s at the generally accepted 2-3 hour time limit, means that something’s gotta give. And that’s only taking the plot and characters into account, let alone the execution.

Anytime that you switch media, there are going to be changes you have to make. A graphic novel transmutes fine to a movie or tv series because it’s essentially a storyboard; a novel transmutes fine to a podcast because it’s essentially a script. But going from something with only one medium (pure words, pure sound, that mix with the reader/listener’s imagination to produce an experience unique to each individual that consumes it) to something multimedia (words and image, or image and sound) means that the image in the reader’s head isn’t going to match what you see on stage or screen. How can it? Unless we develop telepathic technology to project our imaginations onto a screen, there’s no way to tailor-fit someone else’s thoughts into a movie. Even a movie or stage director won’t be able to do that exactly, because the actors or the set designers or someone will throw in something different. And sometimes the things that other person thinks up are really awesome. I sure wouldn’t have pegged Coraline for a stop-motion adaptation. But inevitably there’s going to be somebody complaining that the adaptation “isn’t what I pictured.”

The time constraints create the biggest changes, though, and these can make or break an adaptation. Cutting down a megalith like Les Mis into a two-hour movie or a three-hour musical is … well, that’s why a miniseries or a full tv show is a better multimedia idea, just off the top of my head. I mean, heck, just look at the Mortal Instruments series, or A Series of Unfortunate Events. Both had movie adaptations that kinda bombed at the box office, but that are doing really quite well on the small screen. (I still need to watch ASOUE on Netflix … one more New Year’s resolution, I suppose.) It gives the adaptation creators a chance to really take their time with all of the plot.

Wicked the musical and Stardust the movie? Almost completely unrecognizable from their original books. I found the adaptations more enjoyable, but then again I’m prejudiced; as much as I respect Maguire and Gaiman’s writing (and I can’t thank Neil Gaiman enough for introducing me to Terry Pratchett’s books), I … really just don’t have a taste for a lot of the weird stuff that went on in Wicked and Stardust. Sorry, but nihilism and unhappy endings just aren’t my cup of tea. I’m an escapist at heart. And probably, for all the same reasons that I love the adaptations, other people might think they’re too saccharine and dopey and prefer the original books. Whoops. To each their own.

Les Mis? Well …

… This requires a Part 2.

Stay tuned.

favorite books, revisited

Let’s talk about formative influences. I can natter about books all day.

The Discworld series of course is a given. I’ve mentioned before that Carpe Jugulum was the first proper Disc book I read, back in ninth grade along with Good Omens (another big one – I met my best friend through Good Omens), and Carpe Jugulum has a special place in my heart. Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats is a pretty minor character in the sprawling Discworld canon, but he and Agnes Nitt were the perfect protagonists for ninth grade me to meet. I can’t really pick just one Disc book as a favorite, though. Unseen Academicals might be about football (or soccer to us Americans), but it’s also about rejecting the status quo, and about overcoming prejudice, and a lot of other things. AndNight Watch, the darkest Disc book but honest and painful and still hopeful for the future; and Reaper Man which taught Death how to be something like human; and Monstrous Regiment, and Going Postal, and The Truth, and, and, and.

The Animorphs and Guardians of Ga’Hoole series were pretty much the basis for my childhood, which explains a lot about me if I think about it; morally ambiguous alien centaurs and a kingdom of talking owls gave me a definitive taste for big character-driven plots in fantastic worlds.

Les Miserables is another huge one, and I’m not just talking word count. I first read the Denny abridged translation of Les Mis as a lark in fall 2011, after having seen the 25th anniversary concert recording (with a surprisingly apt Nick Jonas as Marius) and reading a webcomic about Javert and Commodore Norrington living down the hall from Goblin King Jareth and the Phantom of the Opera. (Yes, it’s on DeviantArt. Yes, I was in high school. Yes, the webcomic is still ongoing.)

The Denny translation is a good starter translation for them as are intimidated by the Brick, so named because even the abridged version is big enough to do serious damage if you hit someone with it. But the Denny translation is not The Best translation; Denny took a lot of liberties with the original text; I personally stand by Fahnestock and MacAfee, or Hapgood for some of the phrasing. Charles Wilbour’s English translation is the one F&A based theirs off, and it’s pretty solid, if slightly archaic; it came out the same year the original French was published, as far as I remember.

Yes, this is what I wrote my senior thesis on.

I have this big old Brick to thank for a lot of the things in my life. I made some really good friends through the online Les Mis fandom, and because of those friends I was introduced to the Silmarillion fandom and made other friends – my editor among them, actually. And the Brick is why I decided to major in French in the first place, and if I hadn’t majored in French, I probably wouldn’t have studied abroad in France – learning linguistic theory for the first time in a foreign language is fun – and I probably wouldn’t have read Huis Clos (aka No Exit) either. It’s kind of amazing to see how the dominoes line up.