From Page to Screen · les miserables

Les Mis Movie: Visual Echoes

I’ve noticed that in the 2012 Les Miserables movie, aside from the songs that echo each other, visual cues do as well. One example of this is Javert constantly looking down from high places, at night and over bodies of water, foreshadowing his eventual suicide by jumping off the Pont au Change bridge.

javert looking down

Another visual echo is the way Cosette and Eponine are dressed. When they are children, Cosette is dressed in rags, while Eponine wears a nice dress and bonnet. When they meet again, it’s the exact opposite. Young Cosette and teenage Eponine wear very similar costumes, and vice versa.

cosette and eponine costumes

Both Marius and Enjolras hold up a red flag in almost exactly the same way. Marius does this in One Day More when he realizes Cosette is gone and decides to join his friends at the barricade, declaring, “My place is here, I fight with you”. Enjolras does the same during the fall of the barricade. In both cases, the character holding up the flag is declaring that they are willing to die, although Marius ends up surviving and being reunited with Cosette.

red flags

But one of the most intricate visual echoes in the movie is this:

the bishop and valjean comparison

The two songs that follow have always been mirror images of each other to the same tune, but in the movie, everything from the camera angles to the actors’ movements and facial expressions to the way blood drips down the right sides of both Valjean and Javert’s foreheads make these scenes visual mirror images as well. However, the color schemes are opposites: warm colors for Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop, cool colors and especially dark blue for Javert at the barricade, which give the scenes very different moods despite similar events and images.

From Page to Screen · les miserables

Les Mis as a Musical: Introspective Solos

Les Miserables is a long book filled with everything imaginable, ranging from detailed character backstories and historical background info to intense action sequences and suspense. However, I think some of the most moving scenes are those where a character is left alone with their own thoughts and confronted with some internal dilemma. In the musical, these moments are often transformed into solos, some of which are among the most memorable pieces of music in the show.

For example, the chapter Javert Derailed follows Javert away from Valjean, who he can’t bring himself to arrest, to the Prefecture de Police and the Pont au Change. It focuses on his inner thoughts as he goes over the dilemma of what to do about an escaped criminal who spared his life. The whole chapter is only a few pages long, but it is powerful and haunting to read.

Another very similar section is the one in which Jean Valjean has just met the Bishop and struggles with how to react to his act of mercy. Like Javert after the barricades, Valjean sees two paths before him and has to choose, when before he believed he had no choice at all. He chooses to abandon Jean Valjean and create a new identity for himself. These two songs in the musical share the same tune and have lyrics that are a reflection of each other.

Valjean experiences several moral dilemmas that he must decide on his own, without the help of any other character, since no one knows his true identity. For instance, when he discovers that another man is about to be condemned in his place, he spends the remainder of that day debating what to do, weighing his moral obligation to speak up with his desire to avoid going to prison. This ends up being the song Who Am I? in the musical.

And, of course, there’s Fantine, whose fall from grace is stretched out over a long period of time in the book but summed up in a few powerful minutes of song with I Dreamed a Dream in the musical.

Even the solos that don’t come directly from the novel speak to the powerful emotions the characters are feeling. For instance, Marius does not really have an Empty Chairs at Empty Tables moment in the novel, and Eponine’s point of view is not explored enough for her to have an equivalent to On My Own, but the emotions in the songs ring true at those points in the story and fit with the pattern of deep, heart-wrenching, introspective solos that reveal a character’s inner turmoil.

The characters in Les Miserables are solitary people. They do not confide in many, if any, of the people around them, and aside from a few intense action sequences such as the police chase through Paris, the attack on Rue Plumet, or the barricades, many of the struggles they face are internal ones. Perhaps this is why Les Miserables works so well as a musical. While it would seem silly to have characters in a modern play monologue about their deepest secrets, it seems perfectly natural for them to sing solos about their thoughts and feelings in a musical.

From Page to Screen · Middle-Grade

From Page to Screen: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time has never been one of my favorite books. I feel like it’s important to say that upfront. I liked it but didn’t love it as a kid, and I felt about the same when I re-read it recently in preparation for the movie. I’m a book person, and this is a book blog, but for once, I went into a movie adaptation of a book without any kind of set-in-stone feeling that the book would be better, no matter what they did. This is not one of those books for me.

Many movies based on books fall shortest in character development. While books have hundreds upon hundreds of pages to flesh out their characters, not to mention the ability to show readers what they’re thinking and feeling, movies have to rely on dialogue and acting choices within a much more limited time frame. However, the characters in A Wrinkle in Time were beautifully realized. Charles Wallace in particular comes across as brilliant and childlike at the same time, which is quite the accomplishment for a young child actor playing a five-year-old genius. Meg’s parents and Calvin all remain mostly true to how they were portrayed in the book, but in Meg’s story, the movie actually takes things further and does – dare I say? – a better job of exploring who she is. For instance, in both book and movie, Mrs. Whatsit gives her the “gift” of her flaws to help her on Camazotz, but in the book this just means that she has to tap into her stubbornness to resist IT’s power. In the movie, it’s by accepting herself, faults and all, that she’s able to resist and free her mind from IT’s control.

The characters’ relationships and interactions with each other ring true. Mr. and Mrs. Murray’s love for each other, their love for their children, the growing friendship and attraction between Meg and Calvin, and the mentorship provided by Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit all play out believably on screen. But where the movie really shines is in showing the deep, powerful love between Meg and Charles Wallace. The moment where she realizes that her love for her brother is stronger than IT’s hold over him is already by far the most powerful moment of the book, and would have been one of the worst places to fall short on. Thankfully, the two young actors really do an exceptional job, not only on that scene but on building up a convincing brother/sister relationship throughout the movie that gives the scene a strong foundation to stand on.

My biggest problem with the book is the stilted dialogue, and in that area, I’d say the movie is better. It’s still sometimes a bit cheesy – for instance, Mrs. Who speaking only in quotes gets old pretty fast – but at least the kids do talk to each other pretty much like normal kids, and the three Mrs. W’s aren’t really human anyway.

It’s not until they get to Camazotz that things begin to go wrong. In the book, Camazotz is both far more mundane and far more disturbing. It’s not the origin of the darkness, and it’s not some kind of nightmare illusion planet. It’s just a planet – a surprisingly earth-like planet at that – which has completely given in to the darkness. To me, the idea that a whole planet full of people – humans, because the people of Camazotz are human, or at least close enough that no one can tell the difference – would collectively decide to choose evil over good, to give themselves up to complete conformity and choose to let themselves be mind-controlled pawns of a pure evil entity – is far more terrifying than the more intense action sequences of the movie. The people of Camazotz were explicitly real and alive in the book, and some were even capable of resisting, like the little boy who throws away his ball. In the movie, they’re all just illusions.

By extension, one of the novel’s main themes is lost. Or, at least, it loses some of its power. Camazotz was a place of complete conformity, and a greatly exaggerated reflection of the peer pressure Meg and Calvin experience at school. On a different level, the society shown on Camazotz suggests that evil succeeds when people stop thinking and acting as individuals. Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace actually speak to several of Camazotz’ people, some of whom are too afraid to help and some of whom are simply indifferent. Nowhere do we see a human inhabitant of Camazotz, aside from the red-eyed man, actually doing something evil – but we do see them going about their daily business as if the world that they live in isn’t consumed by evil. Camazotz in the book is sort of a cautionary tale for those of us on Earth, but in the movie it’s not much more than a pop-up book of nightmares.

So, was the book better? Yes … and no. Everything from the moment they arrive on Camazotz to the end of the movie – with the exception of Meg’s love saving Charles Wallace – was completely off the mark. As an adaptation, it can hardly compare when it completely overlooks one of the book’s main themes in favor of pointless action sequences. But from a character point of view, it was excellent, and perhaps even better than the book. I did like it, and I’ll probably buy the DVD when it comes out, but I still wish someone involved had understood what the point was to all those identical houses and balls bouncing in rhythm.

From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

Richard III, with lions?

I’ve often heard The Lion King described as “Hamlet with lions”, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s more like “Richard III with lions”.

Richard III and Hamlet both feature villains who murder their brothers in order to become king, and both of them go on to murder their nephews in order to try to keep their positions of power. However, the difference is that nobody in Hamlet suspects King Claudius of any kind of treachery – nobody except Hamlet himself. Furthermore, while the Pridelands suffer greatly under Scar’s leadership and are immediately restored after his death, the “something rotten in the state of Denmark” goes far beyond Claudius’ own evil and is not so easily resolved. Scar’s openly despicable persona and single-handed destruction of a once-great land feels much more like Richard III’s reign of terror in Shakespeare’s history play.

Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Scar is pretty transparently evil. His song with the hyenas has all the hallmarks of a rising dictator. He has convinced them that the lions (except Scar himself) are their enemies, that it’s in their best interest to help him kill Simba and Mufasa, and that their lives will be infinitely better with him as king – yet when he does become king, it becomes obvious he doesn’t really care about helping the hyenas at all. Richard III likewise uses people as disposable pawns and convinces them to ignore his obvious deficiencies. He, like Scar, is charming in a sinister way and can win over even those who know for a fact what a horrible person he is. Claudius, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an ordinary king, taking the throne after the tragic death of his brother. He doesn’t have to charm or manipulate others into supporting him, because everyone just assumes they should. Even Hamlet requires greater proof than his father’s ghost to be convinced of his uncle’s treachery. While Richard III and Scar are obviously evil, hidden by a thin veneer of charisma and empty promises, Claudius is subtle and secretive about his crimes and very nearly gets away with them.

But, of course, Hamlet focuses the majority of its attention on Hamlet himself, Claudius’ nephew who learns what happened and reluctantly sets out to avenge his father. Like Simba, he initially runs away before returning to challenge his uncle. Both princes also encounter the ghost or spirit of their father, who pushes them to act when they are hesitant to do so. However, Hamlet’s story is all about his philosophical contemplation of death and slow descent into madness. Being a children’s movie, there’s nothing like that in The Lion King. Simba’s journey is toward courage and heroism while Hamlet’s leads to death – his own, and almost every other character’s.

On the other hand, Richard III ends with a bit more hope. Its villain protagonist is vanquished and killed, and Henry Tudor takes his place as the new king, marrying Elizabeth of York and ending the War of the Roses. While the princes in the tower are the more direct equivalents to Simba, being Richard III’s nephews who he has murdered, the triumphant ending scenes of The Lion King are highly reminiscent of Richard III: Simba defeats Scar, replaces him as king, and reunites with Nala, a flash-forward showing them with a cub and implying the beginning of a strong and benevolent dynasty to replace Scar’s violent one – exactly the sort of promises made by the ending to Richard III, which is hopeful despite the play’s overall gruesomeness.

Conflict over the throne is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and many of his villains are willing to kill for power. The brother vs. brother plotline also appears in King Lear, as in well as comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It (although, admittedly, only Hamlet and Richard III also involve an uncle trying to murder his nephew). Nor are these themes and motifs unique to Shakespeare. However, of the two Shakespeare plays it most resembles, Lion King has more in common with Richard III than with Hamlet.

Classics · From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

From Stage to Screen: Hamlet (2009)

Here’s a question to think about: what makes a good adaptation of Shakespeare? Is it one that’s completely faithful to the source, or one that provides a new perspective? Watching the 2009 Hamlet movie with David Tennant, this is a question I found myself asking again and again. Aside from clips of Romeo + Juliet in eighth grade, I’ve never really watched a modern dress version of Shakespeare, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I wasn’t even sure that modern dress could work without taking away from the play. But if anything, it makes it more accessible.

Don’t get me wrong, not everything fits perfectly. Denmark is no longer at war with Norway, for one thing. And what about the fact that Hamlet uses a camcorder during the play-within-a-play? When he hesitates to kill Claudius only moments later, why not record his confession instead and press charges in court? On a different note, the updated setting allows the actress playing Ophelia to emphasize the character’s subtle defiance, but takes her descent into madness out of its original context. In fact, it takes the entire play out of its original context. In light of that, it’s actually surprising how well it works, and how few things seem out-of-place in the modern day. It’s done well, and generally seems natural rather than forced – as well as being more of an alternate present day than simply a historical play with guns and blue jeans. Updating it certainly shows better than any historical-costume production could how relevant the themes of greed, vengeance, mental illness, and death still are in the present day.

The acting is excellent. Hamlet is wonderfully complicated and human, and I found myself feeling far more sympathy for him than I did when I was simply reading the script. He comes across as vulnerable but dangerous, hesitant but determined, and more and more unhinged as the play goes on, before seeming to find some degree of peace in the final scene. Claudius comes across as conflicted and almost – almost – sympathetic in the early scenes, before forgetting his guilt and growing more vicious near the end. Gertrude shows more genuine regret than I imagined, even early on. She seems to realize the cup is poisoned when Claudius warns her not to drink, which is very much how I saw it as I read. Ophelia is probably the character most affected by the updating, because the expectations of young women in Shakespeare’s day and today are quite different. But good acting largely makes up for it, and in my opinion anyone who can say “Woe is me!” not just with a straight face but in a tearful whisper is a very good actress.

The movie was emotionally draining, but it wouldn’t have been a good adaptation of Hamlet if it wasn’t. This is a story that confronts death and evil in a no-holds-bared kind of way, and if one could simply get up from it without feeling the need to contemplate those things, what’s the point?

That’s not to say I had no criticisms. The play-within-a-play relied too much on crude humor, and it seems ridiculous for a modern-day acting troupe to be all men, as they would have been in Shakespeare’s day. The character of Horatio was somewhat ignored, which is a shame because he’s actually pretty important, and his choice to live – one of the few bits of hope in the ending – could have been more powerful than it was. Hamlet himself was perhaps too violent in his scene with Gertrude. While he’s obviously angry with his mother, I was shocked to see him manhandle her the way he does. After all, what’s the point in “I will speak daggers to her but use none” if he then goes on to more-or-less physically attack her?

However, even the best movies are not perfect, and with plays many things are just a matter of interpretation. Overall, the acting choices were excellent, the sets minimal but used well, and the modern update very well-done. I particularly loved the use of security camera footage: the way the ghost doesn’t appear on it, the movement of one alerting Hamlet to the fact that he’s being watched, and the way he later tears down a camera before saying “now I am alone”. Laertes pulling a gun on Claudius is far more chilling than him drawing a sword could possibly be for an audience that has likely never seen one outside of movies and museums. The characters watching through one-way mirrors instead of hiding behind curtains and such is also a fitting change, and the overarching story sadly fits as well in today’s world as in Shakespeare’s. I wouldn’t recommend the movie for everyone, but depending on what exactly you’re looking for, it’s an excellent adaptation that emphasizes the story’s continued relevance.

Classics · From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

From Stage to Screen: Henry V

When it comes to reading Shakespeare versus viewing Shakespeare, I say do both. I don’t think I’d get half as much out of movie versions or live performances without also reading the script, but each time I’ve seen Shakespeare performed I’ve felt like I got something out of it I wouldn’t have from the script alone. Personally, I like to read the plays first and see them afterwards, which is what I did with Henry V. After finishing my reading of it last week, I watched the 1989 Kenneth Branagh movie.

The whole movie is dark and gritty – not inappropriately so, but more than the play necessarily demands. It adds a long, dialogue-free battle sequence in place of several short scenes, and it cuts humorous moments in favor of emphasizing tragic ones. Any adaptation of Shakespeare has to decide what aspects of the story it’s going to focus on, and this is clearly a gritty historical epic. It’s also taken out of its original medium, making the chorus’ request for the viewers to use their imagination redundant. On stage, it’s impossible to show what a real battle would look like, but movies can come much closer. However, that’s something that couldn’t be avoided except by cutting the chorus altogether, and that would be a shame.

The flashbacks from Henry IV make a world of difference. I don’t regret not reading Henry IV first, but I do think seeing that the little group of unsavory supporting characters are King Henry’s former friends changes the way I see some of his actions. In that light, the play is the story of a young king who chooses his kingdom over his friends, a theme that’s emphasized by contrasting his friendly banter with these men in the flashbacks and his harsh decisions in the present day. This theme is even woven into in the scene in which he unveils three of his nobles’ treason. By addressing so much of his speech just to one of the three, Branagh gives the impression that this man was someone King Henry truly trusted, making the betrayal all the more personal and Henry’s decision to execute the men harsher than it would be otherwise.

I’ve said before that King Henry V – as Shakespeare portrays him – comes across as morally ambiguous, but not pointlessly cruel. Branagh’s portrayal captures this perfectly: the relief on his face when the town of Harfleur surrenders; the single tear when he condemns an old friend to death; the desperate tone of his prayer after visiting the soldiers in disguise; the gentle way he courts Princess Katherine after fighting a war against her people. He’s ambitious, he’s ruthless, but he’s not without a conscience. It would be easy to lean too heavily toward making him a flawless hero, or even toward exaggerating his negative qualities, but the movie kept a good balance.

If you can’t tell, I absolutely loved it.