The Les Misérables Movie: Fact Check

The Les Misérables Movie: Fact Check December 27, 2012

When a presidential candidate gives a speech, members of the media often follow up with a “fact check” commentary. They evaluate the accuracy of the candidate’s claims, something that often reflects poorly on his or her grasp of reality.

Russell Crowe plays Inspector Javert in the film version of Les Misérables

I propose to offer a handy fact check for the recently released film version of Les Misérables. I saw the movie yesterday and found it to be a stirring cinematic version of the stage musical version of the Victor Hugo novel, Les Misérables. For the most part, the movie script closely follows the stage script, which closely follows the book. But, at certain points, the movie diverges from the play. As I watched it, I sometimes found myself a bit relieved (when my least favorite song from the musical was not included in the movie) or a bit perplexed (as in, “Wait a minute! Was that in the stage version? Or the novel? Or is this completely new?).

Of course, I won’t be offering a fact check in the literal sense, as if the characters and events in Les Misérables are historical. Rather, I propose to evaluate innovations in the movie in light of their faithfulness to the Victor Hugo novel. Where the film differs from the play, is the film more accurate? Less accurate? Or simply a different telling of the same story?

Before I get into the details, let me lay out of few basics:

1. There will be spoilers ahead. If you have not seen the movie and plan to do so, I would encourage you not to read beyond today’s post until you have seen the film.

2. One minor spoiler has already been revealed: The movie version is mostly like the stage version, though with some deletions and some additions. If you’re a Les Mis lover, you will notice several differences.

3. In my opinion, the stage musical does an amazingly accurate job telling the core story of the novel. I first saw Les Misérables onstage in 1991, thanks to a couple dear friends who took my wife and me to see it. I was deeply moved by the production and became a fan. In the last twenty years, I’ve seen the musical onstage perhaps ten times. I’ve listened to a recording of entire musical perhaps fifty times. I’ve watched the tenth- or twenty-fifth anniversary editions at least twenty times. And I’ve read the original novel in translation twice. (This is no small feat, because the book is well over a thousand pages long. No, I have not read it in French. That would take me the rest of my life, given how much French I have forgotten since grad school.) Both times I read the novel, I was struck by the brilliance of the musical. It manages to condense an extremely long story into a comparatively short musical, while maintaining extraordinary faithfulness to the original. For example, there is a line in the musical, sung by Jean Valjean about the bishop: “Yet why did I allow that man, To touch my soul and teach me love? He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother.” In the novel, the scene where the bishop calls Jean Valjean “brother” is a powerful and watershed one, part of Jean Valjean’s transformation. The musical gets this precisely right, in only a word.

4. The movie version of the musical is even more accurate than the stage version. When the film changes the script from the stage version, in almost every instance the result is something more faithful to the novel. (At the moment, can think only of one exception to this rule, though I expect there are others I have overlooked.) So, in general, if you are a fan of the musical and the film version seems somehow wrong, chances are good that you are getting closer to Hugo’s original story. Bottom line: You can trust the film in its telling of Victor Hugo’s gripping story.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll examine some of the significant differences between the stage and film versions of Les Misérables, evaluating these in light of the original novel (translated into English).

In the meanwhile, I’d urge you to see the movie. I have some discerning friends who say this is the best movie they have ever seen. Others have some minor reservations, but still deeply appreciate the film. I sure did.

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  • steve

    As a fan of the musical, like you, some obvious differences are immediately noticeable as I was watching it. Again, [SPOILER ALERT!]:

    Sequence in the Musical:
    “The Runaway Cart” scene was after Valjean sends Fantine to the hospital
    “I Dreamed a Dream” was before Fantine joined the “Lovely Ladies”

    Missing Parts (or whole):
    Valjean’s Arrest (policemen’s part)
    Fantine’s Arrest (first half)
    Master of the House (2nd verse)
    Attack on Rue Plumet (Thenadier & gang)
    Dog Eats Dog
    Javert’s suicide song (2nd verse)
    Beggars at the Feast

    I’m not sure if the missing parts are due to cuts made by the local authorities (here in Malaysia), or an attempt to release an Extended Version later. 🙂

    Overall, I thought it seem to have patched some holes in the musical story a little better, with script and a new song. Overall, it’s still a wonderfully crafted story for the big screen… and it was such a pleasure to see the man himself, Colm Wilkinson play the Bishop. And Hugh Jackman did pretty well in most of his songs.

    I found one thing sorely lacking was Javert’s intensity and conviction. His suicide song was void of any anger and perplexity! What a let down… I’m both angry and perplexed – how’d he get the part????

  • markdroberts

    Thanks for your input! Yes, this Javert was relatively non-expressive. I also missed some of the intensity and emotion of other Javerts (like Philip Quast, my favorite).

  • steve

    Yes, Quast was superb as Javert! I’m curious about your “least favorite” song. 🙂
    I too have one – and that’s “Dog Eats Dog”, so I was rather glad it was not in the film, though it would’ve added a bit more depth to Thenardier’s character as an atheist (and a scumbag) in the movie.

  • markdroberts

    Yep. “Dog Eats Dog.” I never quite got that song. You’re right about it giving more depth to Thenardier, though. In the book, he’s not a comic figure, but a scoundrel of the worst kind.

  • Joanna

    Thank you for the insights and comparisons!

  • livegoodinboston


    saw the movie last night. I have to disagree on couple of points. I think the
    stories moves way too quickly (but I guess no one has 10 hours to spend in the
    theater). We get so little information from Monsenieur Myriel, which is really
    the perfect opposite of the clergy at the time (kind and poor). The worst to me
    are the Thénardier. The movie shows them as funny characters, which is
    terribly wrong. They are so Evil that we have expressions in French referring to
    However, I never saw the play and I really liked the songs. I might try to go see it
    now. (PS: I am French and studied the books in high school)

  • Ellen Hoffman Picciano

    I am just now reading this “devotional doodle” in preparation for a presentation of the film at my church. I am a mental health professional and work with individuals who often have a flat affect. I wonder if this was the goal for Javert in the film. Considering how much effort went into this masterpiece ( I love it) I can’t imagine the director would have just missed the mark here. An individual like Javert, born himself in a jail but as am adult is committed to never be guilty/to receive his deserved punishment if he was/ to assure that justice by “the God of his understanding” would be carried out is one who has built a wall to protect himself from any arguments to the contrary. There is no room for emotion in such a person. He works for the government. He is like a robot. I wonder if anyone else has ever considered this.

  • Rose

    i completely agree! as someone who has seen the movie before any of the stage productions, i have to say i really, really enjoyed Javert in the movie. and i have to say i found him not necessarily flat, but well-guarded and very controlled. also, i love his rendition of ‘Javert’s suicide’ because i thought the subtle desperation he conveyed in the song was much better than the anger preferred in the stage productions. tbh, i was quite shocked the first time i listened to the song when sung by someone other than Crowe’s Javert, because the spitting anger took be a little aback – not that i don’t adore those renditions as well. just, for me personally, i feel that quiet desperation fits the mood of someone who is about to throw himself into the Seine better fitting than rage. especially in connection to the lyrics.
    the same goes for Hugh Jackman’s rendition of ‘Who am I’ at the very beginning, which in the stage productions is also more angry than sad. it also makes me think that Crowe probably aligned with that, seeing as the song is supposed to be linked to Valjean’s first solo.
    sorry for the rant, loved your posts :)!

  • kitsieefr

    I study french and am currently writing a comparative piece on les miserables. What are the expressions which you refer to here? I would love to know!