I Dreamed a Dream of a Good Movie: Anticipating Les Mis on Film

by: Courtney Rust 

The trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of the musical Les Miserablés was released a matter of weeks ago, which gives us just over 6 months to process what we think and feel about it until the film hits theaters come the end of December. Nearly 60 million people have seen the stage show since it opened in 1985, so you can bet that there are countless opinions and expectations flying about. Theatre buffs can get pretty defensive of their shows, so it’s always an ambitious project to adapt a musical for the cinema. It’s inevitable that songs will be cut and certain changes will have to be made, but the hope is that the film will remain true to the heart of the show, to that which has made it so enduring and beloved by so many. Les Mis is one of my most favoritest things, and it has played a significant role in my life. Before I give you my take on the trailer, please allow me to tell you about how Les Mis and I go way back.

Freshman year of high school, I didn’t really know a lot about myself. I listened to the Billboard Top 40 Hits, not because I particularly enjoyed them, but because that’s what most everyone I knew listened to. I wore polos and khakis from American Eagle because jeans weren’t allowed by my school’s dress code and I didn’t yet know what kind of clothes I liked. I loved playing tennis, but I’d been playing for so long that it never really felt like something I’d chosen, but more like an assumed part of life. And then I discovered musical theatre. For the first time, I felt like I’d found something I was interested in because of how it affected me. The exhilaration this newfound love brought was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, and it was a catalyst for self-discovery by enabling me to recognize the feeling of being passionate about something.

One of the first shows I fell in love with was the long-running musical sensation, Les Miserablés. I promptly acquired five different cast recordings, learned the lyrics to the entire show, watched countless YouTube performances, read about the production history, began the task of reading the original novel written by Victor Hugo, started to try a heck of a lot harder in French class, and spent hours on a Les Mis forum I discovered. You could say that Les Mis was my first experience with fandom.

I’ve had the great fortune of seeing the stage show on tour three times, and I have never been so stunned by a production. Les Mis is a period piece with a large cast, a vast number of locations, battle scenes, and two separate time periods. The stage show very imaginatively makes all of this work in a believable and affecting way. It’s an epic show that sweeps you out of your seat and into the world of early nineteenth century France.

Because of its broad scope and all-around epic-ness, I have a feeling that Les Miserablés will translate into a movie musical very well. The movie will be able to take its audience through the streets of France, providing a close look at the gritty and destitute conditions in which the working class lives.

Along with capturing the great scope of the show, the camera lens will also allow for quiet, intimate moments with the characters. In the movie trailer, Anne Hathaway, playing the character Fantine, sings the iconic “I Dreamed A Dream,” a song about lost hope and dreams shattered by hardship. I was a bit upset the first time I viewed the trailer, rather thrown off by the way Ms. Hathaway sings the song quietly, tremulously, her voice breaking on a few notes. I’m used to the stage show, in which a Patti LuPone or other such Broadway powerhouse typically belts out this song. But then I thought about what the trailer provides that isn’t possible on stage. It shows Fantine’s desperation, her vulnerability, her hopelessness in a quiet moment she has to herself where she lets down her guard. We’re so close to her that we see her tremble and a tear roll down her hollow cheek. It’s a much more personal and intimate moment than one is able to witness in a theatre, where the performers need to project their voices and emotional experiences to those sitting in the back row of the highest balcony. They’re both affecting, just in different ways.

The next time I viewed the trailer, I tried to let go of my expectations and pay attention to the ways this story is being brought to life in an entirely new context. The imagery in it is spectacular and I had chills by the end, which was aided by my new attitude toward Anne’s emotional interpretation of “I Dreamed A Dream.”

This new perspective has also allowed me to replace my skepticism about some of the casting choices with optimism. The cast is an intriguing blend of big Hollywood names and Broadway superstars [1]. And then you have Hugh Jackman, who happens to be both. However, I’m choosing to trust that those in charge chose a cast that could both act and sing at the level required to bring these characters and this story to life on screen. Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer, the stage show’s original composer and lyricists, are involved, so I have a strong feeling they wouldn’t sacrifice overall quality just to get big names involved. Tom Hooper, Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech, is at the helm, and I’m cheerfully curious about the approach he is taking. All of the singing is to be done live on-set rather than prerecorded and added in, so as to make the performances more authentic. I have faith that he will deliver a film that realistically tells its story while also embracing its theatrical origins.

Les Mis is a story that, whatever medium it is told through, is ultimately about the human spirit, love, grace, justice, redemption, and recognizing the plight of  “the miserable ones.” From what I’ve seen in the 1:38-long trailer, the upcoming film promises to be visually stunning and emotionally charged. If it stays true to the heart of the story while making the necessary creative choices to adapt it for the screen, I believe that it will strongly resonate with those who see it, leaving them breathless by the time the notes of the finale fade away.

Courtney Rust is an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago pursuing a major in English and minors in Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies. She leaves her room every now and again to take part in Advocate, Loyola’s LGBTQA organization, where she serves on the advisory board. She is continually attempting to learn what it means to be a good ally to the LGBTQ community. Courtney moonlights as a barista, and has a strong love for musicals, coffee shops, big cities, exploring,Doctor Who, the internet, and most everything else in life. She hates olives though. With a fiery passion.

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[1] seriously, check out this cast: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1707386/

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