Main menu

Les Miserables - 2012

The newest version of this Victor Hugo classis is excellent. It came out on Christmas Day, which was appropriate, because watching the almost-3-hour film was an experience unlike going to any ordinary movie.

The book, and the musical stage production, are both excellent, but uneven. The beginning consists of Jean Valjean’s conversion, thanks to bishop Bonhomme, Fantine’s downfall and death, and the adoption of Cosette. This first part of the story is much more moving than the second part, in which an adult Cosette takes the place of Fantine, and Marius enters as a major character. Marius and adult Cosette are unattractive, almost repugnant characters. Unlike Jean Valjean, Fantine and Bishop Bonhomme, who are three of the most admirable, loveable characters in the history of Western Literature, Marius and adult Cosette are stupid teen-agers. The 1998 movie had this same weakness: the first part, in which Uma Thurman played Fantine, was much better than the second part, in which Claire Danes played Cosette as an adult. This new version of the movie is the first version of “Les Miserables” in which the second half is as great as the first. I would even go so far as to say that Hugh Jackman, who plays the part of Jean Valjean, improved as the film progressed. Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, was intense in her sorrow (as also Uma Thurmon had been in 1998). Russell Crow did a decent job as Javert.

“Les Miserables” depicts events in France from 1815 to 1832. It shows the troubles brought by the transformation from a medieval agricultural economic system to a modern industrial economic system. In the Middle Ages, most people were farmers, and their lives did not change significantly for centuries. Agricultural techniques improved somewhat during the Middle Ages: crop rotation improved soil fertility, horse shoes and the horse collar made it possible to use horses to plow more land, including rocky fields. Food production increased in Europe during the Middle Ages, but the work peasants did in the year 1500 was nearly identical to what it had been in 500. In the modern word, there is ‘creative destruction’. The economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) coined the term to describe the phenomenon in which the creation of a new product or technique destroys the economic viability of suddenly obsolete products and the companies that produce and sell those products. As the Danny DeVito character said in “Other People’s Money”, when millions of people rode around in buggies, there was need for millions of buggy whips, and those who made buggy whips had good jobs, but when people drove cars instead of buggies the demand for buggy whips shrank to almost zero. As the demand for buggy whip diminished, those businesses that produced buggy whips went bankrupt and those who worked for those businesses found themselves unemployed. Those workers who were the most skilled and who worked hardest kept their jobs longest, but eventually even they had to find another profession. Unemployment can be a terrible thing. It existed during the Middle Ages, and is well depicted in the two novels by Ken Follett Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. The two characters in the Ken Follett novels who suffered from unemployment were in unusual situations. Tom Builder was a master builder; builders then went from project to project. Some projects, like the building of a cathedral, lasted decades and could provide life-time employment, but other building projects were smaller. Workers on smaller projects would face unemployment at the conclusion of each project. Normally, they could have saved enough while working so as to survive their periods of unemployment. People always need buildings, so builders will never be unemployed for long. The character in World Without End who had difficulty finding work was a known criminal who had had his hand chopped off for stealing. In every age employers are reluctant to hire known criminals. Unemployment existed during the Middle Ages, but it was rare. During the Modern Age, on the other hand, unemployment is common, it is a normal part of economic life. In the Modern Age, economic changes can cause hard-working, highly-skilled workers to lose their jobs permanently and find themselves unemployed for long periods of time because their skills are no longer valuable. This is psychologically painful.

More to come in the next few days.