Saturday, May 21, 2011

Les Miz

It is rare for me to encounter a novel that works out better as a Broadway musical than it does as a novel. I'm the sort of difficult individual who will *not* see the movie made out of the book until I have read the book first. This is because I hold the book as a superior interpretation of whatever the author had to express. When one sees the movie made from the book one sees the director's (and script-writer's) interpretation of the author's work--so it's a few degrees of separation from the original. I admit this is a bit pig-headed of me and it has made people mad at me but really--if the book was that good shouldn't I just read it--instead of seeing the movie first?

This doesn't mean I won't see the movie, or the play or the musical--it just means I want to read the book first. With Les Misérables, I really had no opportunity to read the book before I encountered the musical. It opened on Broadway in the 80s--when I was way too young to be reading books that were 2.5 inches thick. My voice teacher in junior high had taught me to sing "Castle on a Cloud*" even before my parents bought the soundtrack (I preferred my voice teacher's suggested cadence to the Broadway version.) I was studying French in middle school, so I was intrigued by the idea of a French musical, and all of New York was crazy about Les Miz. But I didn't see the show until I'd at least taken a stab at reading the book (in English). I failed to work my way through the book at my first attempt at age 14. Of course, at that time I had not yet learned to love big, thick novels and 19th century novels in particular.

I saw the musical some time when I was in high school. We got student tickets and ended up in the second row. I loved every minute of it.

As I've mentioned above, I love 19th century literature and thick novels. I love Dickens and Tolstoy and I also love a lot of what Victor Hugo wrote (I read a bunch of of it--starting with "Notre Dame de Paris" aka "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") while living in Paris, but I found "Les Misérables" to be impenetrable. It was the only book I left in Paris. I see that there's a story to be told-but M. Hugo fails to make it interesting--which is why it's the only novel I've read that actually makes a better musical than a novel.

Part of the reason that the book is so hard to read, in my opinion is because the author intentionally leaves Les Miz-the miserable ones--characterless-so it's hard to sympathize with them. Furthermore, this is a miserabilist novel--designed to show the unhappiness of others. That makes it less-than-fun-to read.

I got into an argument about the book with the former proprietor of Ave Victor Hugo books in Boston (lots of used French books.) The proprietor was into 19th century authors and when I said that I liked Victor Hugo but *not* "Les Misérables" he just got a superior look on his face and said that I just wasn't ready to understand the book yet. It's been 10 years since we had this conversation, and I think I can safely say he was full of shit. I like the concepts that Victor Hugo wanted to present to the world-but he didn't do a good job of presenting them. He did such a bad job, that we must be grateful to the Broadway stage for doing a better job of presenting his ideas than he did himself.

*I also made her teach me "I Dreamed a Dream." She didn't want to--"No sweetie-you are too young for that one"--but when I sang it for her she admitted I had a point--it worked out because I was so young.

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