When Victor Hugo wrote the 1900-page tome “Les Misérables” in 1862, he gave the world a transcending and sweeping tale that dissected the division of class while breathing life into complex characters spanning decades. Unfortunately, no matter what your stance on musical theater, much of that tome has since been lost in Broadway and big screen iterations.
Given that the book is one of the longest ever written, that comes as no surprise.
Enter the incoming six-part PBS Masterpiece limited series “Les Misérables,” a music-free offering aiming to introduce the novel’s intricate themes and plots to new and older audiences alike in a more intimate setting. Dominic West, David Oyelowo and Lily Collins star in the ambitious Belgium-shot production, which already aired across the pond on the BBC.
Retelling a classic that’s been told so many times certainly comes with its challenges, but Hugo’s story was one producers and scribe Andrew Davies felt was important to tackle in today’s political climate. Here, Variety talks with Davies and executive producer Faith Penhale to discuss those challenges, recreating memorable scenes in a new way, and why now is the time for “Les Mis” to return.
Why is now the time to retell “Les Mis”?
Penhale: We all felt that we knew the book and thought there was an opportunity to tell the story as Hugo intended with a serialized adaptation. Instead of having 90 minutes or two hours at most to tell the story as a musical or film, we had six hours to really dive into all of the themes and all of the characters as Hugo originally intended. It’s a vast novel. One of the beautiful things about working on a television adaptation, and in the serialized form, is you get the space: You get the opportunity to really tell stories with the breadth and the depth that you just don’t always get when you are working within a much shorter timeframe. That was one reason, and also if you really dig into the story of “Les Misérables” and look back at when Hugo wrote the book, he wrote it with a very clear intention in mind. He wrote it to really tell the story of the underclass who were living with no safety net. He wrote it not just about France, but he wrote it as a story for the world. Some of those themes and questions that he emphasized in the story really resonate today in the challenging times we live in. It also felt as though we had the opportunity by having the story to really connect with today’s modern audience.
Davies: There are parallels between Paris then and London or America today. There seems like a widening of the gap between rich and poor, a society where we have seen homeless people begging in the streets as opera-goers step over them. It just seemed that it was a good time to do it again. I guess another reason why is I wanted to show the book as a whole as distinct from the slice of it that we get in the musical. I started working on this before I ever saw the musical so I already had my version in outline before I went to see it. And I was kind of startled by how shallow and partial the presentation of the book in the musical was — how little drama in fact there was in it. It seemed like there was a big opportunity and a chance to either introduce the story to people who didn’t know it or to show people who only knew the musical there was a lot in the book that they haven’t seen.
Specifically what got lost in the translation to the musical that you’re able to bring back here?
Penhale: Fantine’s story is one that really struck us. In the novel you get a sense from the beginning of a girl who has her life ahead of her, who she has a sort of optimism of a young woman embarking on the rest of her life. As you follow that story and [learn] what happens to her you begin to really feel and understand the story of a young girl living with fallen circumstances where society and all levels are working against her. I’ve never felt that story has been really brought to life in a way that we’ve been able to do with this adaptation. You’re really able to get under the skin of these characters.
Davies: Recreating [the early bits with Fantine] and putting it on the screen it felt a bit like the world of a Renoir painting. Renoir, Degas, working class pleasures. Boating on the Seine, open-air picnics, pretty girls and wealthy students. … The other bit that I find particularly engaging and moving was Jean Valjean’s relationship with Cosette. A man who had never really learned to love finding out what love was all about through adopting this little girl, and how intense and happy their relationship was. And then having to let her go, which in a way is emblematic of something all fathers know about, certainly I do. Watching Dominic play that relationship and having to let his daughter go was very powerful for me.
How did not having the musical requirements open up casting?
Penhale: We approached this as a really premium, quality piece of drama and for us where this was hugely exciting is we could really think about the casting in terms of who are the most exciting actors working at the moment and who was right to come into this. It was an enjoyable process of looking for the best actors.
What other challenges did you face in bringing this story to life for the small screen?
Penhale: One of the biggest things you feel when you take on an iconic piece of literary fiction is this huge responsibility to deliver the story really powerfully and well for the audience. There are iconic moments in “Misérables” that everybody knows, everybody is aware of. Everybody knows of the barricades. You have to be able to really deliver that to the audience. So part of it is that we set the bar very high for ourselves. You have to do that really well and you can’t disappoint.
Davies: There were huge moments in the book and they were what I set out to dramatize. They were also what I was interested in — bringing out all of the interesting connections in the way the characters link up. The chronology of the book is quite eccentric and I thought it would be valuable to straighten it out and begin the story with the aftermath of The Battle of Waterloo.
What did shooting in Belgium add to the project?
Penhale: Another challenge is you don’t have a limitless budget to draw on and so you have to have conversations around how are you delivering this authentically and cinematically. That’s a process. [Director] Tom Shankland had a clear sense of how he wanted to portray the world on screen and how he could achieve that and hats off to him for doing the most epic and cinematic job, but at the same time really focusing on performance. We took the decision early on that we wanted to shoot on location as much as possible near to where the story might have played out, so we shot in northern France and southern Belgium so that we could basically capture the feel of these French towns and the French countryside and make it feel as real as possible.
Was six hours enough time to properly tell this story?
Penhale: Six hours is a great length for the story. This will cover 17 years, you have a lot of time to cross and a lot of characters that grow with you.
Davies: As it turned out, that last episode ran an hour and 20 minutes in the U.K. Even then a lot of scenes had to go down in time in the edit; it could’ve been eight hours easily.
How else might themes of “them” versus “us” play out in the wake of Donald Trump’s wall or Brexit?
Penhale: “Les Misérables” tells the story about a whole sort of society finding a voice and speaking out and challenging the establishment. That’s essentially the skirmish that you see that leads to the barricade. It’s about a whole community of people standing up for what they believe in and fighting for a better world. You just have to look around, even beyond Britain or America. It’s a global phenomenon at the moment and much talked about in the news, the connections between those who are making decisions and those who have to live with those decisions on the day-to-day. There is absolutely a rift and gulf between the establishment and the society that people are living in in the world, and this absolutely echoes the sentiment and challenges that we struggle with today.
PBS Masterpiece’s “Les Misérables” debuts Sunday, April 14 at 9 p.m.