As someone whose first academic love is Shakespeare onscreen (my dissertation, if you will), I am fine with almost any kind of film adaptation: stage to screen, novel to screen, short story to screen, poem to screen, and (to an extent) screen to screen (e.g., we didn’t need another Footloose). Unlike Interview with a Vampire‘s Anne Rice who once claimed Tom Cruise was “no more [her] vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler” or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s Roald Dahl who once dubbed the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) “crummy” and Gene Wilder’s performance “pretentious and bouncy,” I don’t consider such page-to-screen reworkings all that heretical. Then again, I’m not the author/playwright/screenwriter of these things.
The second thing: I’ve seen Les Miserables performed onstage three times: in London’s West End, on the Broadway stage, and via a professional touring company in Dallas. I have watched PBS’s Les Miserables 25th Anniversary special twice. I have a “Les Miserables station” on Pandora. And until the cotton material gave out, I owned a Les Miserables t-shirt like the one above. Thus, without meaning to sound haughty, I know Les Miserables.
With these two things in mind then, let me proceed with my
pummeling consideration of Hooper’s Les Miserables. Regarding any potential spoilers — yep, those revealing plot points over which the Internet community, like Nicholas Cage, often loses its sh*t – I’ll quote comedian Kelly Oxford: ”Bitch, please, I’m not ‘spoiling’ a 150-year-old novel and a 30-year-old musical.”
Universal Gave You Dough to Spend, But Stop Wasting It on CGI
Hooper’s Les Miserables opens with extreme-long, high-angle shots of thousands of “prisoners” hauling a ridiculously huge ship into port. As they toil below and Russell Crowe’s Javert (the police captain) scowls from above, the “prisoners” sing “Look Down.”
You’ll notice I’ve placed the word prisoners in quotation marks. This is because with the exception of Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean and a few of the extras who surround him, all of the other “men” tugging on those massive ropes are presumably fake. Also fake: the sky, the water, the ship, the port, and the cliff on which Javert stands. Yes, Hooper’s computer-generated imagery (CGI) is so unbelievably “CGI-y” here that it’s distracting. Rather than paying attention to the (supposedly) epic features in/of the shots and listening to the song, I was trying to see which of the pixelated “men” were duplicated over and over to construct the “army.”
Unfortunately, the scenes in which Javert stews atop roofs/bridges and some of those featuring the barricades appear similarly. Also, impossible camera movements — e.g., moving from the heavens to Javert’s head in the matter of 3 seconds — don’t help the matter. Here, nineteenth-century Paris is just so noticeably fake, which makes my following comment somewhat ironic.
All That Grunge
Equally off-putting is the dirt. All the dirt. Everywhere dirt. Sure, I understand the world of Les Miserables is gritty and full of poverty; it ain’t titled The Miserables for nothing. But to quote NY Times‘ Manohla Dargis, all that “grunge layered onto the cast can be a distraction, as you imagine assistant dirt wranglers anxiously hovering off camera.” Indeed, sometimes too much “realism” does not enhance the (already solid) story; rather it can detract from it. We need a happy balance here, Mr. Hooper.
Please Step Away from the Camera and Then Nail It to the Ground
I’ve not read many reviews of Les Miserables, mostly so I can come to my own conclusions about the film without being swayed one way or another. But of the few I have read, all mention Hooper’s camerawork, which borders on claustrophobic and then frenetic. Interestingly, a quick search on Twitter reveals that it’s not just the critics (and academics) who notice this. Here are the first four tweets I came to yesterday.
This close shot distance and the wide-angle lenses work well in Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010), an intimate narrative about a king (Colin Firth) literally trying to find his voice through a debilitating stutter. Focusing on Firth’s face and stammering mouth as his character undergoes this process is justified. But in an “epic picture” like Les Miserables, all these recurring close-ups, extreme close-ups, and wide angle lenses make little sense. And aesthetically, it’s tiresome. In addition to the ones above, I’ve read several comments from viewers who’ve reluctantly come face to face with “Anne Hathaway’s uvula” and who’ve been closer to Wolverine’s tonsils than they’d prefer. These are elements of the film we’re not supposed to be paying attention to.
All this and I’ve not even delved into Hooper’s other cinematographic issue: when his camera’s not firmly affixed to the nose of his cast, it’s frantically roaming about. I’ll leave this part to Chicago Tribune columnist Michael Phillips: “Hooper’s camera bobs and weaves like a drunk, frantically. So you have hammering close-ups, combined with woozy insecurity each time more than two people are in the frame. Twenty minutes into the retelling of fugitive Valjean, his monomaniacal pursuer Javert, the torch singers Fantine and Eponine and the rest, I wanted somebody to just nail the damn camera to the ground.” Yes, sir. Preach. (Here, Hooper discusses his camerawork, which is designed “to serve the power of songs.” Whaaa?)
Big Songs, Not-As-Big Voices
Released seven days ago, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” has been downloaded over 20,000 times. Um…no.
While 20K people would apparently disagree with me, this song is too big for Anne Hathaway. Or she emotes too much through it. Or something. (Listen here.)
“I Dreamed a Dream” — like most songs in Les Miserables or in all musicals for that matter! — should generate emotion. Or goosebumps. Or a lump in the throat. Or a tear. Or again, something. But during this song — and I’m sorry to say, most of the others — I felt mostly nothing. (I’m aware others have experienced feelings from Hathaway’s performance(s), but — and this may not be fair — I wonder how many of them have never seen/heard a professional stage production of Les Mis?)
Yes, for the most part, I’m heartless. And with the exception of Pixar’s Up (oh lord, the sadness in Up!), I don’t tear up during moving pictures. But I’m not the only one who left Les Miserables feeling, let’s say, let down. I’ll allow longtime film critic Leonard Maltin, also a fan of the stage production btw, speak for me: “It would take a lot to completely spoil the material, but I never felt the surge of emotion that the play engenders. In fact, I think the movie, for all its pomp and production values, offers a diminished experience. I realize that most moviegoers won’t be comparing the two presentations, but after 25 years of international stage success I don’t think I’m out of line.”
No, you’re not out of line, Mr. Maltin. And reactions like these make more sense when one compares Hathaway’s supposedly “realistic” rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” with other “unrealistic” (?) ones, some of which I’ve featured below. Please note as/if you watch: no close- or extreme close-ups are needed in these performances, and as I watch and listen to them on a 13″ laptop (as opposed to a 30′ screen), I get goosebumps.
Perhaps more than Hathaway’s, the voices of Russell Crowe, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and Amanda Seyfried are also too small/weak for the songs of Les Miserables. Of the big names on the billboard, Hugh Jackman fares the best; he has Broadway/singing experience, so he should. But Jackman’s “Bring Him Home” left me cringing (albeit not as much as the dude who tweeted below). Seriously though, Jackman’s not a tenor (is he?), and why didn’t he go into a falsetto voice on this one?
Those whose performances are a testament to the power of Les Miserables: Samantha Barks (Eponine), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), and tiny Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche) from whom I wanted to hear a lot more. Do you know why their scenes/numbers affected me more than the others’? They are experienced musical performers (well, as experienced as you can be at age 11). Here’s Barks singing “On My Own,” for example.
As I teach my film students, we have to consider ALL stylistic aspects when analyzing an actor’s screen performance: mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound. So I’m aware that Hooper’s unyielding camerawork, editing (or lack thereof in the case of “I Dreamed a Dream”), and all that dirt affect the musical numbers. But in this section, I’m concerned with the quality of the actors’ voices, not whether they can belt the songs to the back rows of a theatre, which is of course unnecessary onscreen. Rather I am critiquing them on their fullness, richness, and weightiness — which these songs require.
Well, It’s Not ALL Tom Hooper’s Fault
So there you have it, a few reasons Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Miserables mostly fails (in my eyes): not enough realism (CGI), too much realism (the dirt!), intruding and claustrophobic camerawork, and several mediocre performances.
To be fair, there are other industry factors that complicate things. For example, coming off an Oscar win for The King’s Speech, Hooper is expected to deliver another award-caliber film, but this time with a big studio (Universal) behind him. Hooper on the matter: “You’ve always got to get the balance right in filmmaking between commerce and art. You are in the end spending a large amount of someone else’s money, so you need to be able to make a proper case that there is a possibility of getting their money back. I take that financial responsibility quite seriously.”
So how might one deliver this “balance between commerce and art”? Take on an epic tale. Make sure that epic tale is a lavish musical (see recent musical Oscar nominees/winners Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd, Nine, Moulin Rouge, and Chicago). Hire recognizable screen stars in the key roles, even if they’re not the best singers. Spend money on CGI to showcase said epic tale. Market the hell out of the film.
Because of this (preordained?) approach, Hooper’s Les Miserables will make money, and I predict it will be nominated for and win all sorts of awards. But that, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s completely worthy of such.
Other Random Observations
- WTH is that new song doing in there? Supposedly “Suddenly,” sung by Jackman’s character to a sleeping Cosette, was written at Tom Hooper’s request to make the story clearer. But I’m gonna go with this quote: “the addition of new song ‘Suddenly’ smacks of awards opportunism — squeezing in an extra tune, just as Chicago and Dreamgirls did, in order to have a chance at picking up a Best Original Song Oscar.”
- The husband: “I didn’t know there were going to be zombies in this.” You’ll see when you get to the prostitute scenes (below).
- Take note; I’m saying something nice! I kinda appreciated that the musical’s two most recognizable songs — “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” — were both shot in one take.
- The lead actors whose physical characteristics best suited their roles: Russell Crowe, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter. Too bad their voices weren’t up to par.