When Victor Hugo first published his classic novel Les Misérables, little did he know that his French historical novel would be translated into other languages and evolve into various adaptations on stage and film, including an award winning movie version in 2012.
Hugo’s highly complex characters such as Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Cosette and Eponine have become popular all around the world. Though their fictional lives are set two centuries ago, their angst, sorrow, joy, hopes, dreams and even their misery resonate even in today’s times. After all, we still have hope, injustice, love, strife, drama and yes, misery in the 21st century.
Les Misérables – The novel
The French title Les Misérables is translated into English as The Miserable Ones, The Victims or The Poor Ones. Set in 1815, it follows the struggles of many characters, most notably, Jean Valjean. It covers French history, society, politics and even architecture, and at the same time deals with universal themes of injustice, love in its many forms, the quest for redemption and even the evolution of a man’s soul.
With so many themes wonderfully woven into a complex and captivating story, no wonder it is one of the longest novels ever written. In French, the novel spans some 1,500 pages, while its English translation is even longer at 1,900 pages.
Les Misérables has enjoyed tremendous popularity since it first hit the shelves in the 19th century. It was even translated into various languages including Greek, Italian and Portuguese. By 1962, it made its English translation debut.
Les Misérables – Other forms
The novel inevitably found a home in various media. By 1935, a film version was made, while in 1937, Orson Welles adapted it for radio.
Perhaps the most famous of the adaptations is the stage musical brought to life by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who captured the novel’s soul in songs such as On My Own, Castle on a Cloud and I Dreamed a Dream.
Not to be outdone, TV adaptations were also made, such as the one starring Liam Neeson in 1998, and a miniseries featuring Gerard Depardieu in 2000.
Les Misérables – The film version
The 2012 film version features some of the most notable actors in Hollywood, led by Hugh Jackman. In fact, at the recent Golden Globes, the movie walked away with three top honors: Best Musical or Comedy Film; a best lead actor trophy for Hugh Jackman; and a best supporting actress nod for Anne Hathaway.
Not so miserable anymore
When Hugo’s novel first came out, it was a critical failure but a commercial success. The critics may not have loved it, but the people certainly did.
This was quite similar to the experience of the first English-language production in 1985, where it was met with bad reviews. However, it became a global box-office phenomenon. By 1987, it hit Broadway earning it a total of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score.
Les Misérables is considered one of the longest running musicals in the world, with a 25th anniversary production in 2010. In 2014, there will be a Broadway revival.
In whatever language or adaptation, Les Misérables is an enduring classic.