“Les Mis” From a Theater Perspective: Screen adaptation lacks musical’s spark

Avi Small , Columnist

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Christmas, you’ve probably heard there’s a film version of “Les Miserables,” the epic musical theater production. In fact, you’ve probably heard a few bars of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” even if you have been living under a rock, given the scale, magnitude and decibel level of director Tom Hooper’s film.

Let’s be blunt for a second: This is not a very good movie. It plods along for more than two hours, introducing and then killing off character after character. In fact, even after almost every single principal character (spoiler alert!) dies, the film still has more than 30 minutes to go. As Hooper transitions the epic from the stage to the cinema, he opts for maximum, overwhelmingly grimy realism. And, for a story that is not particularly grounded in reality, the whole film ends up as one big mess.

Of course, at heart, “Les Miserables” the musical is also a mess. Characters, plotlines, waving flags and dead bodies pile up over hours of in-your-face emoting. The difference is the musical takes Victor Hugo’s sprawling epic novel and transforms it into a messy thicket of emotional catharsis that is appealing in productions around the world. Even if the story seems ridiculous or the music seems saccharine (I think both are), there is something unique and heart-wrenching about a live performance of “Les Miserables.” It is a musical that transcends good taste.

The film adaptation lacks that immediacy, the visceral emotional power that can make “Les Miserables” so exciting in the theater. Hooper’s much-ballyhooed decision to make his actors sing live leaves much to be desired. By creating a cast filled with actors who can sing rather than singers who can act, Hooper dilutes the score’s poignancy, handing over songs that require more musical prowess than his actors can muster. The underwhelming cast is led by a vibrato-heavy Hugh Jackman as the righteous convict Jean Valjean, with appealing performances by musical-theater veterans Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit as the tragically smitten Eponine and the feisty revolutionary Enjolras, respectively. Special credit goes to the post-production team for their Herculean effort in auto-tuning the lackluster Russell Crowe.

The audience is ultimately left with a film that keeps the ridiculous aspects of the musical and discards anything that could make “Les Miserables” emotionally powerful. If we think of Hooper’s film as a sing-along, a sort of big-budget “Rocky Horror Picture Show” where the audience knows all the songs and all the words, this film adaptation is adequate; it’s enough to make you look back fondly on the first time you saw the show with your cool aunt, or maybe on your high school’s production where you totally had a crush on that kid who played Marius. But as a stand-alone film, “Les Miserables” is sorely lacking, a monotonous slog that retains none of the magic of the original theatrical production.