Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Les Miserables

The movie ‘Les Miserables’ was released here last Friday, and I’d already booked for the very first showing in the afternoon. By Friday morning, I was so excited I couldn’t concentrate on anything, as it my favourite show of all time!
I’d already had a taster. I saw the original trailer (online), some interviews with the cast, and a TV programme about the making of the movie. In the past two weeks there have been several different trailers on TV and I’d read reviews, both professional and amateur.
I’ve seen the show about ten times on the stage, both in London and Manchester, and was ‘hooked’ by the sheer power and emotion of it the very first time I saw it. I wasn’t sure how the stage show would transfer to the big screen but, from the moment the movie started, I was totally enthralled. It surpassed all my wildest expectations! The real settings, whether they were the docks at Toulon or the Parisian streets or the sewers (yuck!) added to the drama in a way that the stage couldn’t do. The battle on the barricade was more dramatic than the stage version, and the close-up shots of the characters’ faces gave a deeper insight into their emotions.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the stage version and would go to see it again, but the movie paints a much bigger picture, and the visual effects are stunning. All the power and emotion is there, even stronger than on stage.
It occurs to me that in our writing we are trying to do the same as the movie does - and here I am talking about the movie and not Victor Hugo's novel.
We want our readers to experience the setting, not as an onlooker, but by seeing it through the character’s eyes. Recently, I wrote a chapter where the hero and heroine were exploring a room that had been abandoned for over a century. One of my CPs said she felt she was right there with them as they explored. Wonderful music to a writer’s ears! If we can involve the reader in the setting, we’ve hooked them!
We also want the reader to experience the character’s emotions, whether those are anger, love, despair, fear, or whatever else. In the movie, we saw all this in the actors’ faces or in their voices. With writing, we can get inside their minds. Only then can the reader feel with them, rather than be told how they are feeling. (I’m making a determined effort not to use the word ‘felt’ in my current WIP, because this is telling the reader, not showing the feelings).
One of the main strengths of ‘Les Miserables’ (in my opinion) is the enormous diversity of characters. What’s interesting is that the ‘good ones’ all learn more about themselves as the story develops, whereas the ‘baddies’ remain stuck in their own obsessions (as with Javert) or their sleaziness (the Thenardiers). Maybe we can learn from that. Our main characters need to develop and discover more about themselves and the villains need to get their just desserts!
Of course, there is conflict too - the external conflict between Valjean and Javert, Fantine’s struggle against injustice and poverty as she seeks to support her child, and of course the students’ revolt. The internal struggles of the characters are equally as powerful, especially Valjean’s struggle with himself, Eponine’s acceptance of her unrequited love, and Marius torn between his newfound love and supporting his friends. In my opinion, the internal struggles of the characters in our books can prove even stronger than the external conflicts they may have to face.
Last but not least, ‘Les Miserables’ stirs our emotions. ‘Can You Hear The People Sing?’ always sets the hairs on my neck on end, ‘One More Day’ blows me apart, ‘On My Own’ fills me with sympathy (and empathy too), and ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ makes me cry. And of course there’s the anguish of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. Do our stories give the reader the full gamut of reactions and emotions like this?


  1. Paula,

    I have to say, I don't have an interest in that particular play or movie, but a friend of mine has already seen it three times and she and another friend have spent hours disecting movie versus play.

    That's great kudos to you on your scene. I know I tend to get caught up in writing what's happening and I forget to describe where my characters are at. I know what the 'background' looks like of course, I just need to remember to let the reader know!

  2. Debra, I think Les Mis is one of those musicals you either love (almost geekily so in many cases!)or have no interest in!
    Must admit I tend not to describe places (rooms or other settings) in my stories unless there is a specific need to do so. In my current WIP, the two characters were exploring an abandoned room, and in the first draft I was exploring it with them!

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed the movie. I've heard such negative reviews here that I was afraid you'd be disappointed--I loved the show when I saw it on Broadway, but haven't had the time to go to the movies to see it.

    Someone once told me we have to be careful when we're writing books not to make it too much like a screenplay. I'm not sure their reasoning, and I don't know if I agree. I think the points you've enumerated are valid and make sense. If you can draw out the emotions, your reader will be more connected and enjoy the story more.

  4. I've seen some negative reviews too, Jen, but maybe the fact that I went to see it again today is evidence enough of my personal reaction! I think it's fantastic!

    Personally, I think there's a world of difference between a screenplay and a novel. In a screenplay you're relying on the camera to portray the setting, and the actors to portray the emotions. I've read some screenplays of 'The West Wing' and they are very 'flat' somehow. It took the skills of the actors to bring those scenes (and characters)to life. When writing a novel, we have to become the actor(s) to show the reactions/emotions etc, and also to show the setting through their eyes.

  5. I've heard bad reviews, too. But the film won some Golden Globe awards. I tend to "see" scene as if they were films. Not sure if this is good or bad...

  6. I think if you see scenes as a film, you're in danger of 'describing' it to the reader, rather than showing it through one of the character's eyes. Just my opinion, as I know everyone is different!