Last year’s release of the opulent screen adaption of “Les Miserables,” drawn from Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel and from the internationally beloved stage musical of mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh, touched off a heated debate among rabid fans (some of whom had seen the stage show multiple times and hated the Hollywood treatment, and some cinema newbies who don’t go to live theater but who came away humming highlights of the highly memorable score).
Both lovers and haters of the movie, however, should find much to obsess over on the printed page in “Les Miserables: From Stage to Screen” (Applause Books, $45), a treasure-filled novelty book that compiles a bounty of background, trivia, artwork, mementos, souvenirs, documents and gewgaws relating to the novel/play/movie that should appeal to even the most fanatical of packrats.
Written and accumulated by Benedict Nightingale, former theater critic for the Times of London, and Martyn Palmer, a music and film freelance writer, the volume resembles a scrapbook that’s comprehensive and fanatical, as well as idiosyncratic and frivolous.
The authors essay the story’s roots in Hugo’s 19th century Paris, trace the novel’s thematic scope and its critical and commercial reception, log its historical significance relating especially to France’s June Rebellion and chart its spreading regard as it was translated throughout Europe. They also painstakingly relate the difficult process of creating the first stage play from the material, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer.
The writers delve extensively into the nature and personalities of each character – especially Valjean, Javert, Fantine and the Thenardiers. And eventually the book tackles the making of the film version by British director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) and the controversial – and much criticized – decision to have the actors sing “live” on camera rather than record their songs in a studio.
The volume is packed with hundreds of photographs and illustrations, but the biggest surprise of all is a series of envelops tucked in throughout that contain surprising treasures and tidbits – a program from the original Paris staging, international press reports on the 1832 Paris uprising, stage schematics and posters, facsimiles of stage prop lists, costume design sketches, a re-creation of Jean Valjean’s passport, a film shoot call sheet and much more.
It’s a quirky and lovely book that’s bound to be a collector’s item for hard-core “Les Miz” camp followers. For everyone else, “Les Miserables: From Stage to Screen” adds multiple dimensions to a story that’s fascinated readers, theatergoers and now film buff for ages.
- Dennis King