There are so many adaptation of Victor Hugo’s deathless 1862 novel that it’s impossible to call any one version definitive; from the celebrated stage musical to the various film adaptations to the novel itself, there’s a Les Miserables for any taste. In fact, there’s even a Les Miserables for those who prefer their cinema ’70s-style, thanks to this sturdy made-for-television production starring the underrated Richard Jordan as long-suffering hero Jean Valjean and veteran screen villain Anthony Perkins as dogged Inspector Javert. Efficiently directed by Glenn Jordon and intelligently scripted by John Gay, this version of Les Miserables delivers the familiar characters, moments, and situations with an acceptable replica of human emotion. Jordan achieves more than Perkins, as Perkins is mostly relegated to sneering, but the combination of a melancholy musical score, solid production values, and the vibrancy of Hugo’s incredible narrative makes this trek through familiar terrain worthwhile.
Presenting a somewhat faithful adaptation while adding a few bits, deleting many more, and generally streamlining the storyline of the novel, the picture begins in France circa 1796. Poor Frenchman Jean steals a loaf of bread from a store window in order to feed his starving family, but he’s captured and sentenced to five years in prison. As more and more years are added to his sentence, Jean attempts to escape several times until finally breaking free once he’s reached middle age. Prison commandant Javert, well aware of Jean’s resilience, considers it a personal failure when Jean escapes. Upon gaining his freedom, Jean reverts to thievery for survival—until an encounter with a saintly clergyman gifts Jean with both wealth and the determination to live righteously. Jean becomes a successful businessman under an assumed name. Then, once fate brings him back into Javert’s orbit, Jean realizes that his liberty is tenuous. The situation is further complicated by the onset of the French Revolution and by Jean’s selfless choice to become the guardian of an orphaned girl.
Even though the filmmakers excised plenty of material, the telefilm of Les Miserables contains a lot of story, so the filmmakers wisely focus on the most dramatic scenes. Jean saving a fellow prisoner from certain death. Jean’s epiphany with the clergyman. Jean’s tense standoffs with Javert, during which they debate the value of the individual versus the need for social order. Jordan does some lovely work, showcasing his charismatic blend of masculinity and vulnerability, though he’s burdened with overly ornate dialogue and, in later scenes, questionable old-age makeup. Perkins, meanwhile, play-acts the role of Javert instead of inhabiting the character’s hatefulness; that said, Perkins is such a pro that his sour expressions add weight whether or not they’re backed by real intentionality.
It’s easy to complain about episodes that get glossed over, and this probably shouldn’t be anyone’s first exposure to the story because certain things end up feeling too pat and predictable. However, there’s enough human feeling pumping through the piece—both from the DNA of Hugo’s novel and the earnestness of Jordan’s take on the leading role—that this Les Miserables comes across like meaningful entertainment instead of just another musty literary adaptation.
Les Miserables: GROOVY