Words my Molly Openshaw

Looking at the journey of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, we can see how revolutionary it has been in the process of developing a novel into a musical and a film adaptation. Arts Print Editor, Molly Openshaw, looks at the history of the musical and its roots.

Les Misérables is the most significant example of the power of the theatre. Giving a stage to the narrative, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel has been revolutionary, not only in its plot but in its development from novel to theatre. 

Growing up in a family of theatre lovers, musical enthusiasts and amateur performers, I have always engaged with theatre and musicals. From seeing the 2012 adaptation in the local Odeon at the age of eleven to reading Victor Hugo’s novel to watching the theatre show at the Sondheim Theatre, Les Misérables has always been my greatest love in art.

No matter your level of expertise in the antics of the stage, it is universally acknowledged that Les Misérables is a masterpiece.  It is evident that the revolutionary aspect of Jean Valjean’s story is not limited to the pages it is bound to. Starting this exploration with Hugo’s mammoth novel, we can see the emergence of Les Miserables’ extraordinary genesis. In his preface, Hugo explains that ‘so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless’. This motif mirrors that of Les Misérables’ timeline, we can see its universal nature, social reform is inseparable to this story’s success and thus is essential to its creation. 

In his letter to his publisher, Albert Lacroix, Hugo expressed that he wanted his work to go  ‘wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: “open up, I am here for you’.  Hugo wrote this novel during his political exile in Guernsey after being outcasted by Napoleon, Les Misérables was born out of political strife and has excelled due to the ubiquitous nature of struggling. The creation of this epic story reflects the tale being told. The publication of Les Misérables was unlike any other book at the time. In his book, ‘The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables’, David Ballos explains the financial risk Lacroix ensues to ensure the publication of this novel. With vocational risk, financial gambling and social embarrassment, the story of this novel’s publication is similar to the narrative of Jean Valjean. Lacroix was determined for this novel to succeed with a press release like no other, advanced copies were released under embargo six months before the publication as well as adverts all over Paris. Taking out a large loan to provide this campaign, Lacroix succeeded in using this risky move in the nineteenth century without any insurance or fallback. Despite Lacroix knowing that Hugo was an exiled political outcast, he put his career in jeopardy for the novel. 

However, Les Misérables was not an overnight success, Alexandre Dumas, a French writer and critic at the time, disliked the novel, comparing the experience of reading the novel to ‘wading through mud’. As well as Gustave Flaubert, a literary critic mocked Hugo’s work as a ‘book written for catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack’. Despite this negative reception, the novel sold out immediately in Paris and as a result all over Europe. After the popularity of Hugo’s magnum opus, it was adapted into a stage show by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel in 1980. Despite this adaptation occurring 118 years after the publication of the novel, the story of Les Misérables has remained popular and relevant. After a short run of Schönberg’s production in Paris, it was picked up by Cameron Mackintosh. Creating version in English with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mackintosh’s Les Miséreables opened in 1985 at the Barbican Centre. With a complete sell-out in its first run, the show was moved to the West End, starting at the Palace Theatre where it stayed from 1985 to 2004, then moving to the Sondheim Theatre, formally the Queen’s Theatre where it remains today. 

Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in history, showing how a story of social reform, protest, love, feminism, rights, criminality remains popular and meaningful, even to an audience three centuries later than initially intended. With three runs on Broadway, eight Tony Awards and three Academy Awards, Victor Hugo’s nested, multi-narrative novel has gone on to be one of the most popular musicals, films, novels and television shows- a cultural phenomenon. 

Theatre was essential to this success, seeing music applied to this epic novel of love and loss creates atmosphere and emotion, bringing the audience into these emotions. Having seen Les Misérbles in theatre a handful of times, it is evident that Hugo’s work is brought alive through theatre. Les Misérables’ revolutionary nature is not limited to the plot but is exemplified through the timeline of popularity and adaption. Theatre has been the bridge between Hugo’s novel all the way to a film in 2012 with the likes of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway demonstrating the legacy of Hugo’s novel. 

We can see the role of theatre as the influential medium of popular art in other franchises, such as ‘The King and I’, ‘Oliver!’ and ‘Into the Woods’ all demonstrating how theatre is essential to the development of a story from a novel to a film. Using Les Misérables as the most significant example, we can see how revolutionary it was. Looking at Les Misérables from a literary perspective, it is evident that this story of ‘The Wretched’ has been loved, passed on and adapted, showing how in the face of misery, death, revolution, the story will live on.

Categories: Arts Theatre

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