Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables: Stage or Screen?

Tom Hooper’s film, ‘Les Miserables’ was adapted from the West End success that tells a gratifyingly beautiful story about the struggle in 19th century France. Victor Hugo’s original story is a wonderful piece of entertainment both live and on the big screen. The film was stunning, its cinematography enhanced the strengths of the performers, and the realistic settings resulted in a more immersive experience, which is particularly difficult with film.  I believe that its loyal portrayal will encourage people to travel to London to experience it live. If this proves accurate, it will prove that theatre and film flourish off one another, each medium possessing unique qualities and not dampening the other’s successes. In an interview I constructed, actor Annie Sutton told me her opinion towards the comparison between the live and film version. “The theatre version of the same material is immediate and raw. You can see the performers sweat.”[1] Although I appreciated the good qualities of both versions, I could not ignore the large scale of attention the film was receiving, especially in comparison to the 25th Anniversary Concert in 2010, which did not seem to be deemed as significant. I personally found the live version better, but was aware that I was biased, being a Theatre Studies student. As a result of this, I created a questionnaire for students at my school as a way of gathering a more diverse selection of opinions in relation to the ‘Les Miserables’ film in comparison with the live performance. I gave the questionnaire to 20 Performing Arts students, and 20 students who did not take any Drama related subject, and my conclusion was that 90% of students who had seen both the live version and the film, declared the live performance infinitely better. This was mostly proven by each individual’s reaction to the live performance, which was repeatedly described as “cathartic” and left people in tears. This is because the live version created a more heightened atmosphere, and the applause at the end of each song allowed the audience to have a real involvement and interaction with the performers. The two groups (actors and audience) thrive off one another’s emotional state, resulting in a significantly more memorable performance. Craig Schulman, who has played the leading character of Jean Valjean on stage comments, “The audience can’t change what is on film but play a major role in a stage production.”[2]  The fact that in a cinema the audience is blocked out of the actor’s performance means that their emotional reaction is much less intense. My overall understanding in the case of ‘Les Miserables’ is that despite the developments in film, those who are educated and experienced in the world of theatre, will tend to place live performance in a higher rank to film. I was aware that the select few people who preferred the film to the live version appeared to be students who had limited experience of theatre, and whose main attraction to the film was the Hollywood names advocated by the film makers, such as Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe. This suggests that people who are not cultured in theatre will generally be enticed to a piece by names and stories that they recognise. Therefore, Hooper’s adaptation of ‘Les Miserables’ is both a brilliant film but also a great tool for the theatre, as it introduces a wider audience to the imagination of the story, and inspires people to see it live. The capabilities of film will not diminish that of the theatre, because theatre is a much more visceral experience, and as someone in my local theatre worded it, “It’s kind of the difference between having the feel, smell and texture of an old book, or the impersonal, changing screen of a Kindle, with files that can be recovered if it’s damaged or lost.”[3]  This perfectly summarises the thing most people prize most about theatre; its unique and personal quality which cannot be replicated in any other way.

[1] Annie Sutton- Actor and Director (Personal Interview)

[2] Craig Schulman, The Observer, 2013.

[3] Anonymous- Harrogate Theatre (Personal Interview)

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