Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

I have to make a confession. When I was in Year 11 at school, and studying English Literature, Thomas Hardy was the bane of my life. Since that time I have learned to appreciate his Wessex tales, but during those school years, The Mayor of Casterbridge, was for me sheer kryptonite. Such was the difficulty I had reading that particular text, that one weekend I chose to go to the video parlor and take out the movie adaptation of the novel. The pain was then over in a few hours. With renewed confidence I went to school on Monday morning ready to spout forth my recently acquired knowledge of the novel. The problem was however, that unbeknown to me the producer of the film had decided to include in the movie adaptation of Hardy’s classic, a number of characters that did not exist in the book. So there I was in the class sharing my wisdom, while all the while, my Literature teacher allowed me to dig a deeper and deeper grave. What did I learn from this experience? Well since that time I have never begun reading a book without finishing it. This is an important lesson; for you cannot judge any text without being open to the complete vista that the author is painting for you; and in addition, completing a text, however difficult you may find the reading – broadens your mind, and helps you to understand how others think, perhaps vastly different from yourself.

The 2012 motion picture Les Misérables, is a visual and aural work of art – beautiful music, very good acting, and lovely cinematography. I was moved to tears by the movie’s end. Yet in any adaptation of a novel, one relies on the judgment and vision of the individual who has set themself the ardor of taking the work and transforming it into a different genre; in the case of Les Misérables, not only from novel to motion picture, but from novel to musical and then to motion picture. In the 1862 Wilbour English translation of Les Misérables, the novel is just short of 1300 pages. Being so lengthy a work, few people have the time and perseverance to read the text. However, if the individual can find or make themselves the time, my strong suggestion is to read this awesome, spiritually and emotionally jarring work. Les Misérables is a profound novel – a novel that is deeply religious in its nature; a novel of which the central theme, is, what is meant by religion and salvation; and how this theme continually peels away, chapter after chapter, to ask other questions such as: what constitutes goodness – what is the nature of evil – and how the same world corrupts some – and elevates others to sanctity.

In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo sought to challenge and reform the reader’s religious consciousness. He wrote:  In the nineteenth century the religious idea is undergoing a crisis. We are unlearning certain things, and we do well, provided that while unlearning one thing we are learning another. No vacuum in the human heart! Certain forms are torn down, and it is well that they should be, but on condition that they are followed by reconstructions.” (Hugo, 1862, Wilbour trans., p. 442). Hugo uses Les Misérables, as a medium by which to have the reader ask large philosophical and theological questions. Thus Javert, the policeman exemplifies for Hugo those people whose religion is not alive, but a mere prescription for judging the world and others. For Hugo, religion must be life-affirming and soul-nourishing. He exhorts his readers to: “To crush out fanaticisms and revere the Infinite, such is the law. Let us not confine ourselves to falling prostrate beneath the tree of Creation and contemplating its vast ramifications full of stars. We have a duty to perform, to cultivate the human soul, to defend mystery against miracle, to adore the incomprehensible and reject the absurd; to admit nothing that is inexplicable excepting what is necessary, to purify faith and obliterate superstition from the face of religion, to remove the vermin from the garden of God.” (Hugo, 1862, Wilbour trans., p. 449).

Hugo’s religious paradigm for Les Misérables, hopefully now taken on-board; the musical adaptation of the novel lacks a degree of impact due to a number of significant episodes of the novel having been removed – or where the exact nature of a number of the characters have been significantly altered. Let us take the Thénardiers. When one sees the musical and the 2012 motion picture adaptation; the “Master of the House” scene is far removed from Hugo’s depiction of this truly depraved husband and wife. In the novel, Thénardier is the epitome of avarice. Essentially he is a man who loves no one – not even his wife, the latter whose eventual death in a Paris prison, has no effect on him. (After her death he gets on with his corrupt life, as if she never existed). The movie captures little or nothing, of this man, who is forged from the same mould as Bill Sykes of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Thénardier leads a gang of robbers, cutthroats and thieves; and organizes this team of men in a plan to extort and kill Valjean. His wife Madame Thénardier, is a truly vicious and vindictive woman, who seeks at novel’s end, to do all things evil to Cosette. If the Madame were to be alone with the adult Cosette, a torturous death would be a real possibility for Cosette – such is the depth of her jealousy.  In the 2012 motion picture, one does not fully gauge that it was the Thénardiers who destroyed Fantine, by raising the cost of Cosette’s keep to such an extravagant extent (near twenty times the original price set), so that Fantine had to sell her teeth, her hair and her body so as to satiate the Thénardiers’ greed. The Thénardiers care for little but money. One does not become aware in the 2012 motion picture that Gavroche, the street urchin, is Eponine’s brother. He has been sent out of home, by Madame Thénardier, who never wanted a son. On the day that Gavroche is killed at the barricade – that morning, the little boy has picked up two younger boys who are walking destitute and crying. Who are these boys who call Gavroche, ‘Mama’? They are his little brothers, who now have been turned out, as he was by Madame Thénardier, to live or die. The 2012 motion picture has the audience giggling about the various ‘naughties’ that the Thénardiers are involved in; but there is nothing ‘naughty’ about this couple in Hugo’s novel – they are wicked. Thénardier is a known grave-robber, and Madame, a seething cobra, who unlike the depiction of the Madame by Helena Bonham Carter, is like some perversely devoted pet, obedient to her husband in the novel. He calls her to heel. Such is Thénardier’s character, that at the novel’s close he has now journeyed to North America with his youngest daughter Azelma, where he offers his daughter’s carnal services to the sailors of the port cities.

Yet in this cesspit that is the Family Thénardier there is the light of salvation brilliantly shone upon Eponine by Hugo. Eponine, the eldest child of the family, has every reason to grow up like her mother and father; but within her being is a woman crying out to be loved – a woman who has not lost the hope that one day she will be cherished. Her unrequited love for Marius, makes the rags that hang on her body seem to made of richer material; and makes her dirt ridden face, seem to be covered in rouge. She loves Marius, despite his having only eyes for Cosette. She risks everything, even when she realizes that he will never love her. It is her love for Marius – the dream of Marius, that prevents her from becoming her mother. Eponine is transformed by love, and like Valjean crawling through the dark sewers of Paris, blinded by darkness, now begins to see the world anew, even if, as in the case of Eponine, it is only for one, brief, shining moment: “The pupil dilates in the night, and at last finds day in it, even as the soul dilates in misfortune, and at last finds God”. (Hugo, 1862, Wilbour trans., p. 1104). Regrettably by turning the Thénardiers into comic relief for the musical, and hence for the 2012 motion picture, the courage and distance run by Eponine loses much, if not all of it poignancy. For Hugo wished to teach that saints are also to be found striving for goodness in the dark recesses of life and society as they are within cloistered walls.

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