When news of a new Les Miserables adaptation broke last year, it’s doubtful that any of us immediately cheered. There are so many versions of this story out there, including an award-winning 2012 feature film with an all-star cast. We probably all assumed that if Hugo’s work still has anything interesting left to say, we’ve pretty much seen it already.
Well, Masterpiece is here to prove us all wrong about that. This sumptuous new take on Les Mis feels like something entirely different from its very first episode, fueled by an unexpectedly gritty realism and an honest eye toward the real world these characters inhabit. But it must be said early and often that those of us – cough cough yours truly cough – who possess an inordinate love for Cameron Mackintosh’s popular stage version of this story, well, we’ve got a bit of adjusting to do.
If you only know Hugo’s story from the musical adaptation, this new installment is going to feel very strange. (And not just because there’s no singing.) Its premiere episode is entirely comprised of events that occur before the story told in the musical kicks off, and which are primarily mentioned only in passing in the songs. Generally, this TV adaptation is better for it, particularly as the decision to explicitly show us the ways that Fantine’s dreamy idealism and the brutality Valjean faces shapes both of them is a good one. But by the time the episode closes, Marius and Cossette are still children, Valjean has just realized that he needs to change his life, and it’s only been a year since Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.
Les Miserables’ first episode does its best to put the necessary pieces in place for the future, however. We meet Jean Valjean while he’s serving the final leg of a 19 year prison sentence, and though there are glimmers of the man he was and will become again – his decision to save a fellow prisoner’s life, his refusal to look away from the injustice that is one of his fellow inmates being shot – he also seems almost feral, grunting and growling and shouting rather than communicating. And given the way that that this society treats him, you kind of can’t blame him for his obvious devolution, no matter how unattractive it is to watch. (Props to actor Dominic West for just throwing himself into the ratty disgustingness of this part of the series, I guess. He looks like he crawled out of a drain.)
The arrival of an almost too-good-to-be true priest determined to see the best in everyone is a twist that’s almost too precious for the sort of world that this Les Miserables is building. But Derek Jacobi sells the heck out of the man who literally buys Valjean’s soul for God with a figurative thirty pieces of silver (or candlesticks, as it were). So much so that his clear and obvious faith feels aspirational rather than naïve. Smartly, Les Miserables puts some space between Monseigneur Muriel and Valjean’s ultimate desire to change – and also has him steal change from a small child in the meantime – and the distance is enough to believe that this one act of kindness has likely saved, and changed, a man’s life.
Elsewhere, we meet Fantine, a beautiful young working class woman who – as all girls in stories like this do – believes that her life can become something more than its current state. Unfortunately, also as most girls in stories like this do, she believes that the secret to attaining that better, different life is a man. (Spoiler alert: It isn’t.)
She and her two besties fall in with what is obviously a trio of posh boys slumming it in Paris. Her friends seem to realize that these men are trash and behave accordingly, using them for fun and profit as often as possible. But Fantine is won over by sleazy Felix reading her poetry and promising her a life together and subsequently ignores all the warning signs that he, too, is a garbage person. (Such as, for example, his repeated mentioning of the fact that he’d totally understand and not be mad at all if Fantine dumped him, like, any day now, and found someone else.)
“The ground we walk on isn’t solid ground,” says Favourite, trying to warn her friend about the innate awfulness of the men they’ve chosen to befriend. “Maybe it isn’t always like that,” says Fantine, her eyes full of shining hope. “Yes it is,” Favourite says, harshly but not incorrectly. “It is always like that.”
It is, of course, actually always like that.
Felix and his friends literally vanish in the middle of a dinner party, leaving only a letter for the women they’ve been sleeping with for over a year. (Is this like a 19th century text message breakup?? It’s horrible!) Fantine is left with a broken heart, an illegitimate daughter, and a flat her awful baby daddy probably didn’t even pay the rent on for the rest of the month.
It’s easy to view Fantine as a gullible idiot here – and the musical version of Les Mis does her no favors on this score – but one of the benefits to spending so much time with her in this episode is that it’s suddenly much easier to understand her choices. We’ve all been young and in love and full of the surety that the person we’ve chosen would never hurt us.
Fantine is wrong, and it will ultimately cost her her life, and that feels more real and heartbreaking than it ever has in this moment.
What did you think of the Les Miserables premiere? How do you feel about this darker and distinctly less musical take on the story? Let’s discuss in the comments. (And FYI: If you can't wait to see the rest of the series, you can stream all of Les Miserables right now with WETA Passport!)