Andrew Davies is no stranger to adapting well-known pieces of literature for the small screen. The celebrated screenwriter has brought us gems like War & Peace and Pride & Prejudice, but his latest venture was likely his biggest challenge to date. A brand new version of Les Misérables, helmed by Davies, arrived on BBC One this evening — and no, it’s not another adaptation of the beloved musical of the same name, but rather of the Victor Hugo novel that inspired it.
Davies recently hit the headlines for claiming that his take on Hugo’s classic novel will save Les Mis from the “awful” musical. You know… the much-loved, award-winning, critically acclaimed musical. It’s a bold statement, but with a skillset like Davies’, pulling off such a feat is not impossible, I suppose. But does he manage to do so?
It gets off to a good start that’s for sure, and there really is a lot to love about this new six-part adaptation. The cinematography, for one, is gorgeous, and Tom Shankman really delivers with the direction, bringing this age-old tale to life with a commendable authenticity. The aesthetic of the show, however, does not possess that same authenticity, as it’s incredibly reminiscent to that of the 2012 movie version of the musical.
The dialogue is superb, as is the subtext throughout. Davies’ script enables us to connect with these well-known characters from the off. Perhaps the best thing about the adaptation is how Davies doesn’t rely on our previous knowledge of said characters but rather depicts them as if it’s the first time the world has ever heard their story, allowing us to empathise with them based on his material and only his material.
It’s not all good news, however, as this opener suffers from a few odd pacing issues, which isn’t surprising given the amount of material that Davies has to work with. It’s slow, and there’s simply not enough time to explore the three storylines in detail. If you’re familiar with the story, then you might be surprised by how little of it is actually realised in the opening episode. Similarly, if you’re unfamiliar with the source material, then you might be confused as to how these three seemingly unconnected narratives are relevant to one another, but that’ll undoubtedly become clearer in future episodes. Pacing problems often arise in multi-protagonist pieces — even the almighty Game Of Thrones struggled with this in its early days — so it’s likely nothing to worry about at this early stage.
In spite of being a multi-protagonist piece, I think it’s safe to assume that Jean Valjean (Dominic West) is the lynchpin of Les Misérables. Speaking of which, I can’t not comment on West’s performance as the tormented prisoner, which is truly sublime. Should the series falter in future episodes, then I imagine it would still be worth tuning in for Valjean alone, due to the strength of West’s acting. The celebrated actor conveys Valjean’s conflict superbly, and his scenes with Derek Jacobi’s Bishop of Digne are a particular highlight.
Young grisette Fantine (Lily Collins) is equally as compelling. Most of us are familiar with the character’s tragic story from the musical, but Davies’ adaptation takes us back to a time before her life was so bleak, when she was in love with Felix Tholomyes (Johnny Flynn), a rich man who strings her along, before dumping her in order to return to his parents to fulfil his duties. In a similar fashion, we’re also introduced to Marius (Raphael J. Bishop) several years prior to him becoming a revolutionary, which gives us who are more familiar with the musical some context.
The opening instalment ends on a bit of a sour note given that the majority of viewers will already know that Cosette is Fantine’s child, but overall it’s an impressive opener, aided significantly by West’s performance and Shankman’s direction.
To go back to my initial question, the answer is no, Davies’ does not manage to save Les Mis from the musical. Why? Well, because it simply doesn’t need to be saved. Davies’ adaptation is unique in that it explores several elements of Hugo’s novel that aren’t in the musical — and for that he deserves to be commended — but alas, the musical is, for many, the quintessential version of the Les Mis story, and that cannot be ignored — and it shouldn’t be condemned. I mean, I’d be lying if said there aren’t moments throughout this version that could’ve benefited from a song or two, but that’s just my opinion, which I’m entitled to — much like the millions who’ll prefer the musical are also entitled to theirs.
Don’t let Davies’ comments put you off, however, as he has managed to produce something special — something that’s on the way to becoming a great adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. There are room for both versions and, even though you won’t be hearing the people sing, singing the songs of angry men (sorry) this one is shaping up to be rather good too.
Contributed by Stephen Patterson
Les Misérables continues Sundays on BBC One at 9pm.