When adapting a beloved stage musical—especially one that had girls the world over wearing out their cassette tapes of the original cast recording—filmmakers are faced with a puzzling choice. Should the movie version be a faithful re-creation of the stage experience as a collectible curio for fans and a way to bring the show to people who didn’t have access to it at the theater? Or should it be a creative re-imagining of the source material so it can stand on its own as a film? Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables struggles with this question.
The biggest innovation with the production—one that’s touted in multiple DVD features, including Hooper’s dry solo commentary—is the live singing in the movie. Instead of recording the songs with full orchestration beforehand, then having the actors lip synch to their previous tracks while on the movie set, the actors sing live to an in-ear piano accompaniment while filming. This is an extreme technical challenge, especially when it comes to dampening the background sound to capture a perfect vocal. (Raindrops, apparently, are a huge obstacle, as fat raindrops on rubber cobblestones are especially noisy.)
It’s worth the hassle. There’s no doubt the live singing makes a difference. The actors are empowered to make the performances their own, with freedom to pause, stop, speak-sing, or belt out their numbers—and experiment with these in combination during different takes—as they see fit. In this way, the cast is liberated from being locked into one vocal performance; it also allows them distance from the original show, tailoring the songs to the movie in the moment. To hear Hooper tell it, the live singing also embodies the performances with a certain amount of honesty that isn’t afforded to the casts of other movie musicals.
In Hooper’s limited bag of directorial tricks, his go-to is the close-up. He uses it as another way to distance his Les Misérables from the stage version, where close-ups are an impossibility. Repeatedly in his commentary, he talks about how he shot certain scenes or songs with various camera set-ups, only to stay with the close-up all the way through. For the most part, this technique is effective. You can see pain on faces and tears in eyes. This is most prominent in Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) biggest song, “I Dreamed a Dream”. Pulling in tight on Hathaway’ face ratchets up the intensity of he emotion in the song (and helped her win her deserved Oscar). Yet Hooper returns to this setup again and again—for most of the soliloquy songs—and eventually it begins to feel repetitive and lose its power.
And, since the stage version of Les Misérables is performed mostly on black-box stage with few big sets, you can feel Hooper reaching for the other extreme. He breaks away with massive setpieces. This involves shots of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) helping tow a larger-than-life warship into an enormous dry dock, walking over expansive mountains, and mingling with poor masses so gritty their dirt seems almost to smear on the screen. Hooper says his goal was to hit audiences with a “shocking level of realism” that you wouldn’t find in a stage performance.
Going for “realism” is where Les Misérables is less successful. The authenticity Hooper strives for when capturing the live singing doesn’t carry through the rest of the production. Those huge sets are actually on a sound stage (a famous one, Pinewood Studios). They don’t necessarily look fake, but they do, despite Hooper’s best efforts, look stagey. In the end, the movie is still a musical, entirely sung through with little or no spoken dialogue scenes, filmed on a big theatrical set. The production hasn’t strayed all that far from its West End roots.
The authenticity is also undercut by the fact that Hooper’s Les Misérables takes place in a strange amalgam of England and France. In the DVD bonus feature “Creating the Perfect Paris”, it’s revealed that the location shots not filmed in Pinewood Studios are almost all from the UK. The dock that Valjean works out so torturously in the opening of the film was a dry dock in Portsmouth; the ship he was pulling on was modeled after the HMS Victory as opposed to a French ship. The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich stands in for the Place de la Bastille. The foul sewers Valjean traipses through during battle bears no resemblance to the majestic sewer system below Paris as Victor Hugo described it. There’s a certain disconnect one experiences when hearing someone speak in a Dickensian English accent, then throwing in a “monsieur” or ending with “vive la France!”
In the end, though, Les Misérables does stay true to the spirit of its original source material—and that’s a good thing. There’s a reason that those original cast recordings have logged so many miles in cassette, then CD, then mp3 players. It’s the same reason that young women sing “On My Own” for every audition, or that the world can turn the person behind an outstanding rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” into an overnight superstar. It’s because, from loneliness to lovesickness, rigid idealism to sorrowful regret, Les Misérables perfectly embodies the full spectrum of human emotion. And, be it because of live singing or good casting or just sheer luck, Hooper manages to amplify it.