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The Greatness of Les Misérables and Anna Karenina: The Books Not the Films

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are great works. Having recently watched on a big screen TV (via Netflix discs) their latest film versions, I can’t say the same for them, though Les Mis seemed better than Anna.

anna karenina

In his review of Anna, A. O. Scott pointed out that good screen adaptations of great novels, which he thought Anna was, often succeed by boldness in shaping such novels to the demands of cinema. Partly by creating elaborate and obvious “stage sets,” instead of trying to whisk viewers back to an 1870s Russia by combining less obvious studio shoots with location shooting, the director Joe Wright, in Scott’s opinion, “turns a sweeping epic into a frantic and sublime opera.” Obviously, I disagree about the sublimeness of Wright’s creation.

The problem, however, is not with the film’s staging and scenery, but the failure of the director and the screenplay by Tom Stoppard to capture more of the greatness of Tolstoy’s novel. This is especially surprising because Stoppard, one of Britain’s best dramatists, displayed considerable knowledge of the Russian intellectuals of Tolstoy’s time in his trilogy The Coast of Utopia (2002).

We all arrive at great literature from our own unique perspectives and life experiences. What is often true of the greatest novels, however, are that they can be enjoyed on many different levels by a wide variety of people. This fact probably helps to account for the immediate and long-lasting appeal of both books.

A friend wrote to Hugo shortly after his book appeared in 1862: “For the last six days all Paris has been reading, devouring, Les Misérables. . . .Everyone is raving! Everyone is carried away! There is a complete absence of petty objections and pedantic reservations. The crushing weight of so much grandeur, justice and sovereign compassion is all that counts." Critics, many swayed by political considerations, were more split in their reactions.

In the years and decades ahead, Hugo’s novel also had many admirers abroad, including Russia’s two greatest novelist of the era, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. The former read it and reread it and was influenced by it in some of his own great novels. In Tolstoy’s What Is Art? (1897), he listed Les Misérables as one of a small number of fictional works that were “examples of the highest art, flowing from love of God and man.”

Tolstoy’s Anna first appeared in serialized form from 1875 to 1877 in a Russian journal, and people kept a close eye on the bookshops so as not to miss out on each installment. In 1878, it was published as a complete book and included a last part dealing with Russian volunteers going to aid Serbia in its war against Turkey. Because the journal’s editor had considered this last part unpatriotic, he had refused to publish it in the serialized version. The first English of the book appeared in 1886, and by the end of the century it was also popular in German, French, Japanese, and other translations.

Anna can be appreciated by some combination of it being a tragic love story; a depiction of different approaches to love and marriage (primarily those of Anna and the other chief figure of the novel, Konstantin Levin); Levin’s search for wisdom and how to live a good life; a mirror reflecting Russian life in the 1870s, including the position of women; and a reflection of Tolstoy’s own struggles for the meaning of life in that same decade. Underlying all these topics is Tolstoy’s extraordinary skill at creating real-life characters and depicting how they interact.

Levin’s seeking for a meaningful life has always seemed important to me. For what is more significant in our lives than leading them well? And there are no easy answers regarding how to do so. The various characters’ thoughts and actions regarding love, marriage, and family life are also of universal interest, and perhaps best appreciated by people who have been married for a while and have come to understand some of the many complexities of marriage and family life. Regarding the novel’s mirroring of 1870s Russia, several professors of Russian history now teach courses on “The World of Anna Karenina” (see here, for example), finding the novel to be “a penetrating portrayal of Russian life and society” in the 1870s.

In fairness to director Wright and screenwriter Stoppard, one could hardly expect them to capture all of the long novel’s breadth and depth in a film running just a little over two hours. But what they did portray was inadequate. The main focus of the movie is Anna’s adulterous affair with the cavalry officer Count Vronsky and the consequences which follow. But as portrayed by Keira Knightley she awakens less compassion in us for her plight than does Tolstoy’s Anna. Contrariwise, her husband, as rendered by Jude Law, comes across as less dislikeable than Tolstoy portrayed him. And Levin, who in the novel so often struggles over life’s meaning, as Tolstoy himself did, evokes less empathy and interest as acted by Domhnall Gleeson than we feel when reading about him in the pages of the book. About Tsarist Russia and the matters that concerned people like Tolstoy in the 1870s—the plight of the peasants, all the non-Russians (e.g. Poles) in the Russian Empire, the role and rights of women, modernization and urbanization versus more traditional rural life, panslavism and aid to the Serbs against the Turks—very little of this is touched upon in the film except perhaps its conveying some idea of the disadvantageous position of women.

One example should suffice. In the film there is a scene where both Anna’s husband and Levin are dinning at the house of Anna’s brother, Prince Stepan Oblonsky (Stiva), who is married to Dolly, whom he has cheated on and who is the sister of Kitty, the eventual wife of Levin. Around and at the dinner table about the only topic discussed is love and infidelity, and Levin says the following: “An impure love is not love, to me. To admire another man’s wife is a pleasant thing, but sensual desire indulged for its own sake is greed, a kind of gluttony, and a misuse of something sacred which is given to us so that we may choose the one person with whom to fulfill our humanness. Otherwise we might as well be cattle.” Although these sentiments are true enough to Levin’s way of thinking, in the novel he does not utter these sentences.

les miserables

Les Misérables

Instead, there are several other characters, two of them Moscow “intellectuals,” who are left out of the film’s dinner scene. One of them is Levin’s half-brother, a writer. The novel’s men while at dinner, except for Levin, who is focused more on Kitty, discuss the Russification of Poland; classical versus modern (more emphasis on science) education; the rights, duties, and education of women; and the Russian peasant commune—in the 1870s Russia was still an overwhelmingly peasant society, and the peasants, though living in separate households, still overwhelmingly farmed in communes of one type or another. In the film, such discussions never take place.

Director Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is also quite different than Hugo’s 1862 novel, the original source of all later adaptions, including the amazingly successful play that the film more closely resembles—according to the play’s website, it has been seen by over 65 million people in 42 countries. But the movie (lasting 2 hours, 37 minutes), like the play, does a better job than the Anna film does of conveying some of the greatness of the novel on which it is based.

Central to any discussion of Hooper’s Les Mis is the fact that it, like the play, is a musical (see here for the screenplay). One reviewer walked out before the end of it because she thought that many of the songs were sung so poorly, especially by Russell Crowe, who plays the key role of police officer Javert. Although having all of the actors sing almost all their lines with none of them being lip-synced to recorded songs was certainly a gamble, I thought that they added to the emotional vivacity of the movie, especially ones like the popular I Dreamed a Dream, sung well by Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine in the film.

Yet, its main appeal is the story that Hugo wrote a century and a half ago. It’s chiefly about the heroic Jean Valjean, who before being freed serves nearly two decades as a prisoner and galley slave—for stealing bread for his sister’s children and then for multiple attempts trying to escape. Soon after his release he steals from a bishop who gave him lodging. But in one of the key developments of the novel, the bishop refuses to accuse him when he is caught by the gendarmes, and instead insists he had given the goods to Valjean. The bishop also tells him to become an honest man and that he has bought his soul to give it to God. In the film, the bishop’s speech is rendered in a song addressed to the former convict (played by Hugh Jackman) that ends with, “God has raised you out of darkness: I have bought your soul for God.” Comparing the movie’s songs to Hugo’s text, they generally seem faithful to the spirit of it.

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The bishop’s act of compassion sets Valjean on his path of redemption. Under a new name he eventually becomes a successful and enlightened owner of a factory and mayor of the small town where it is located. In his factory Fantine, through no fault of his, is treated unjustly, and he offers her help. After her early death he assumes care of her little girl, Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried in the film. First, however, he has to pay off the Thenardiers, a nasty couple who had been paid to look after Cosette—in the film the pair are portrayed with entertaining relish by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Valjean’s care for Cosette and periodic confrontations with Javert, who has become a police inspector, form the main threads for the remainder of the novel. In his dealings with the law and Javert, he repeatedly displays his noble nature, even allowing himself to be discovered as Valjean and rearrested rather than see an innocent man suffer.

He escapes, however, and the cat and mouse encounters between him and Javert continue until Javert finally takes his own life, unable to live with the confusion and doubts that Javert’s noble deeds have awakened in him.

Meanwhile the lives of Valjean and Cosette become entwined with that of a revolutionary-minded student named Marius. Cosette falls in love with him, and Valjean overcomes his initial reluctance and allows their love to blossom, even saving Marius’s life by carrying him through the Paris sewers.

In the novel, Hugo deals with much of the history of the times, including a long section on the 1815 battle of Waterloo, in which Napoleon was defeated. He also describes King Louis Philippe, who ruled from 1830 to 1848. From the French Revolution of 1789, followed by Napoleon and then the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, up until World War I French society was split between those favoring the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity and those supporting more conservative ideas and some form of authoritarian government.

les miz

Les Miz

The film details little of this complex history, and viewers of it are sometimes confused as to the significance of the 1832 barricades thrown up by Marius and his friends. Actually, no big revolt occurred that year, as it did in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870. Rather the barricades stemmed from constant injustices, inequalities, and simmering dissatisfaction with the monarchy. The movie does, however, make clear, primarily through the activities of Marius (played by Eddie Redmayne) and his friends, Valjean’s sympathy with the student rebels as they fight government forces. As often occurs in the film, the songs attempt to convey some of the rebel’s grievances. The young street urchin Gavroche, for example, sings:

There was a time we killed the King;
We tried to change the world too fast.
Now we have got another King;
He is no better than the last.
This is the land that fought for liberty—
Now when we fight we fight for bread!
Here is the thing about equality—
Everyone’s equal when they’re dead.
Take your place!
Take your chance!
Vive la France! Vive la France!

The death of Valjean, which comes almost at the very end of both the book and the film, although treated somewhat differently in the two formats, in both cases reflects his emphasis on love. In the novel, he tells Cosette and Marius, “Love each other well and always. There is nothing else but that in the world: love for each other.” In the film he, joined by a few departed souls, sings, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” In both formats at various points in the story, Valjean’s Christ-like behavior is suggested. For example, one of the novel’s chapters in which he carries Marius through the Paris sewers is entitled “He Also Bears His Cross.”

Besides all the songs, the film also presents us with many powerful images, especially the opening one. In it as Jarvet, in pouring rain, stands high above them grimly looking down, hundreds of prisoners, including Valjean, pull on ropes hauling a large ship into dock. They are in chains and they together sing “Look down, Look down. . . .” From the very beginning of the film then, our compassion is awakened for such unfortunates, who are part of les misérables (meaning the miserable ones). This is entirely in keeping with Hugo’s intention in writing his book. In 1862, he wrote to the publisher of its Italian translation that “it was written for all nations. . . . to Republics which have slaves as well as to Empires which have serfs. Social problems overstep frontiers. The sores of the human race, those great sores which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him.”

For many years before and after 1862, Hugo remained living on the English Channel island of Guernsey, where he had eventually settled after leaving Paris in opposition to Louis Napoleon’s declaring himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1851. A prolific poet and dramatist, as well as writer of fiction, Hugo was also politically active. At different periods in his life, he served in French legislative chambers and wrote political pamphlets. He also crusaded against the death penalty and undoubtedly contributed to sparing some people’s lives in various countries, although he was unable to save John Brown from execution in the USA.

What has ensured the popularity of Les Misérables in various guises since its publication over a century and a half ago is primarily the nobility of Jean Valjean, one of the greatest heroes in fiction. Of course, all of his adventures, the classic battle between him and Jarvet, the tragic hardships of Fantine, the love story of her daughter Cosette and Marius, the goodness of the bishop, the colorful historical background, and Hugo’s many skills as a novelist also help.

Fortunately, in a little over two and a half hours, the film reflects some of the greatness of the novel. Although not a great film, it’s a pretty good one.

Reading about Valjean when she was still a young girl, Dorothy Day was inspired by his compassion for the unfortunates of his time. She went on to become the cofounder and director of the Catholic Worker movement and one of the twentieth century’s greatest aiders of the poor (see here for more on her). She also read and reread Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and admired Levin’s concern for the peasants, and she followed the example of Tolstoy, after he completed Anna, in advocating pacifism and a non-violent form of anarchism.

We can all profit, especially in a more cynical and ironic age, from the examples of noble people like Jean Valjean and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy’s confused wisdom-seeker Levin.

walter moss

One of the great advantages that classical novels like the two reviewed here have is that most of them can be downloaded for free in various electronic forms, including Kindle. So do yourself a favor and do so at Annaand Les Mis)

Walter Moss

Walter Moss is the author of Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky(or online edition).

Tuesday, 3 June 2013