My Thoughts on Les Miserables (the 1998 film)

With Valjean and Cosette situated safely in the Petit-Picpus convent, we are at a natural dividing point in the story’s action, so I thought we would take a little break.

I recently had the opportunity to watch one of the many film adaptations of Les Miserables.  This one was the 1998 version, which was directed by Bille August and which starred Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Geoffrey Rush as Javert, Uma Thurman as Fantine, and Claire Danes as Cosette.  Those of you who are familiar with the various film adaptations of Les Miserables that are running around out there, I would love to know your thoughts on this version and on which version is the best/most faithful to the text/whatever.

Here are my thoughts:

Liam Neeson delivers a strong performance as Valjean.  This is everything which you would expect from an actor of his stature.  Javert is well portrayed; we don’t see him as an arch-villain so much as someone who struggles with his own inner demons but fails to overcome them.

As for this film being faithful to the text, I give it low marks.  It is faithful to the text, if by that you mean that Bille August doesn’t replace Victor Hugo’s time-honored storyline with something like this:  “Jean Valjean and Cosette are the proprieters of a summer camp in the Transylvania mountains.  One summer this camp is terrorized by a serial killer, initially believed to be the psychopath Angela Baker who had terrorized a nearby summer camp several years before, but revealed in a shocking cinematic twist to be Joel Osteen.  Chief inspector Javert is called in to investigate, but when Jimmy Hoffa’s body is found among the victims he slits Valjean’s nostrils open, saws his legs off, nails Cosette’s head to the floor, and takes them both to an Atlanta Thrashers game.”

But there have been some significant changes to the story.  Some of the names have been changed:  the old man Fauchelevent is called Lafitte, and the town of Montreuil-sur-mer is called Vigau.  Presumably these changes were made for ease of pronunciation.  Marius is portrayed as the leader of the student insurrection; in the book and the musical Enjolras was the leader and Marius was merely a reluctant participant.  In the book and the musical Thenardier has a huge role in the story throughout Valjean and Cosette’s time in Paris; the movie cuts Thenardier out completely after Valjean fetches Cosette.  Also, the love triangle between Cosette, Marius, and Eponine receives no play at all because Eponine does not appear in the movie at all (except when she and Azelma are very briefly shown playing together at the inn during the scene where Valjean comes to fetch Cosette).

I get that shrinking a 1500-page novel down to fit into a two-hour film is a huge undertaking, and that some things had to be cut.  But in my view, the makers of this film cut out some pretty significant plot elements.

Those of you who have seen movie adaptations of Les Miserables, I would love to hear your thoughts.  What are your thoughts on this version (if you have seen it)?  Which version do you like the best?

One thought on “My Thoughts on Les Miserables (the 1998 film)

  1. I think this version might be closer to the book than the musical. I used to LOVE LOVE LOVE this version then I saw the musical film 2013 and thought that was only ok. The best part of the 2013 film was Eponine’s song. I’ve seen so many musical versions of this on stage and loved every one of them. In each version they’ve got very ‘adult’ elements that are strangely somehow different than each other. In this version Javert is doing coke and people (even Cosette) are being hit/beat up where they didn’t have that in the newer version but they had other things. Now many years on from the last viewing of the ’98 version I rewatched it then googled Eponine and found this article and realized that this version wasn’t a musical at all and somehow I thought it was, I could have sworn it was but it isn’t. I can’t decide if I like that anymore. The serious version probably fits the book better, I have it, I’ve just never sat myself down to read it. I’d love to see some of the earlier versions now too.

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