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The BBC’s ‘Les Miserables’: Adapting a French Classic for the Modern World

Viewers tuning into the new “Les Miserables” series will see a very new, very modern take on the 150-year-old French classic. The team behind the lavish BBC and Masterpiece television adaptation are sticking to Victor Hugo’s story, but have ignored the famous musical and have embraced an ethnically diverse cast, as well as regional British accents.

When the BBC and Netflix cast actors of color in another period epic, “Troy: Fall of a City,” it provoked some ire, mostly among the right-wing press and commentators. A similar group of naysayers has taken aim at the new season of “Doctor Who,” labeling it “politically correct.”

But for the stars and producers of “Les Miserables,” it’s a case of speaking to a contemporary audience. “Our director Tom Shankland wanted to bring the story right into the 21st century and to make the power of the story resonate for audiences today,” BBC director general Tony Hall said at a premiere event for the series at BAFTA’s London headquarters.

“We live in a society that looks like this,” British star David Oyelowo (“Selma”) added, referring to the diverse cast. “To make a 150 year-old novel feel like it’s relevant to everyone here you want to see yourself in it.”

Oyelowo said he was wary of taking the key role of the relentless Inspector Javert, but writer Andrew Davies’ adaptation won him over. “My immediate thought was, do I want to play the villain?” he said. “I knew it was a miniseries and thought that’s going to get tired over six episodes, and then I read Andrew’s scripts and there was all that layering there I was hitherto unaware of.

“I realized the opportunity being afforded to me was to bring context, complexity and dimension to a character who has largely, in my opinion, been marginalized as an antagonist.”

The series, produced by Lookout Point and BBC Studios, was filmed in Belgium and France, and bows on flagship channel BBC One on Dec. 30.

If the look of the series deliberately reflects a modern, diverse society, so does the sound, in the form of a variety of British accents. Dominic West, who sounded thoroughly American in “The Wire” and “The Affair,” plays the wrongfully convicted ex-con Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” and speaks with a brogue closer to that heard in his hometown of Sheffield, a historically working-class industrial city in northern England.

“The novel, amongst other things, is about a very divided society in France,” Shankland said. “Particularly in Britain, there are class divisions that we perceive on the basis of accents, so the simplest rule that we found was to nod towards those rules that we have in our own divided society.”

The background voices, however, changed to French during production. “The extras in the background are all speaking French….All signage and art direction is very French,” Shankland said. “It’s something Andrew picked up on in the rushes. Whenever you had Brits barking away in the background, it felt a bit distracting, so we started to weave in lots and lots of French in the background in a way as a bit of music, a bit of context.”

Lily Collins plays the ill-fated Fantine with a London twang that she said was “an opportunity to play it in a different way, to play it more Cockney, more working-class.” During a break in shooting, the British-American actress inadvertently picked up some advice when she ran into Anne Hathaway, who played Fantine in Tom Hooper’s 2012 “Les Miserables” movie. “She said to me, ‘Don’t lose yourself because it can get really tough because that’s a really overwhelming character, and it goes very deep and it’s very emotional.’”

The series has modern sensibilities, but for Davies, Fantine’s story and the theme of social injustice resonate. “It has got an obvious contemporary relevance,” he said. “We live in a society that’s really as divided into rich and poor as the society that Hugo was talking about. It often seems there are a lot of people like Fantine that don’t really have solid ground to stand on if something goes wrong.”

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