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Les Miserables (1952)

It’s a testament to the inherent power of Victor Hugo’s story that even in a lesser film adaptation of Les Miserables, something of that power comes through. The 1952 adaption by 20th Century Fox is definitely a lesser adaptation, but there is something about that story of a convict hunted by the law and struggling to do right that never fails to uplift: redemption, mercy vs. the law, love, suffering, persecution, and revolution – good stuff.

The story occurs during the reign of Louis XVIII, who was restored to the throne after the overthrow of Napoleon, and Louis-Philippe. The convict and fugitive, Jean Valjean, is portrayed by Michael Rennie, fresh off his success as Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still. His nemesis, Inspector Javert, is played by Robert Newton (who ineluctably made me think of a pirate). Sylvia Sidney appears as the doomed prostitute, Fantine, and her daughter, Cosette, is played by Debra Paget. Cameron Mitchell is Cosette’s love interest, Marius. The Thenadiers are entirely eliminated from the film, along with their daughter, Eponine. The good bishop who shows mercy to Valjean is Edmund Gwenn (of Kris Kringle fame).

Adapting Les Miserables is always a challenge, though it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone. There are numerous adaptations. Characters and subplots have to be cut. The key seems to be creating a thread that holds it all together and keeps the film from turning into episodic snapshots. For the musical, the central thread can best be summed up in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing” – “will you join in our crusade/who will be strong and stand with me/somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you want to see.

In the excellent 1935 film – starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton – all other characters fade and the film becomes a deeply felt conflict between the two men, who represent mercy and the law respectively. Their interactions crackle with tension and Charles Laughton in particular is compelling as Javert.

Valjean (Rennie) and Fantine (Sidney)

That central tension is missing in the ’52 adaptation and the film becomes somewhat episodic and aimless. There isn’t a central focus. Part of the problem is the script and the other part is the cast. Robert Newton is a marvelous Long John Silvers and a marvelous Bill Sykes, but as Javert, he lacks the kind of concentrated intensity and conviction to make one believe that he would kill himself because of an inability to reconcile mercy with justice. As my sister put it, it’s like he chases Valjean into the sewers because he’s personally affronted that a convict would show him pity.

Michael Rennie himself looks rather dashing, occasionally reminding me of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his voice and manner. He seems a bit young to be Jean Valjean. The years of suffering and conviction are missing. Which might explain why the last bit of the film turns into a kind of love triangle between him, Marius, and his ward, Cosette.

Debra Paget as Cosette by far gets the most to do of any Cosette I have ever seen. Cosette is usually overshadowed by Fantine, by Eponine. She often comes off more like a plot device, a motivation for nearly every character, rather than an actual character herself. However, in this version she is more integrated (somewhat at the expense of Javert). She knows the history of Valjean. She seems to have more freedom of movement, more agency (deciding whether to stay with Marius or go to England with Valjean). But the film plays around with the idea that Valjean loves Cosette and Marius certainly believes it, thinking Valjean is using Cosette’s gratitude to keep her near him. It’s an odd twist for the story to take, pushing it into soap opera territory.

On the whole, it is an underwhelming Les Miserables, but as I said, some of that inherent grandeur remains. It’s just such a great story. The confrontation between Javert and Valjean over the sickbed of Fantine. The chase in the sewer. The slaughter of the revolutionaries. The forgiveness and grace of the bishop towards Valjean. Javert’s suicide. Valjean confessing that he is the convict to a court about to condemn an innocent man. These are the moments that make it into every single adaptation and never lose their impact, though that impact varies. If you have to see only one Les Miserables, however, I would recommend the 1935 version with March and Laughton.

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Posted by on March 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

515jl42nlcl-_sx329_bo1204203200_It’s amazing how Gustave Flaubert can write such a tragic ending for a story about a provincial town and one rather silly woman. One is hard pressed to find many sympathetic characters, yet by the end I felt devastated by their stories. Those with some virtues come to sad ends, while the venal, greedy and grasping live on.

Madame Bovary was published in 1856 by Flaubert. It’s subtitle is “Provincial Ways” and is a story of the unspectacular and ordinary. What surprised me was how little sympathy Flaubert seems to have for the unspectacular and ordinary. It is the story of Emma Bovary, who is married to the dull and inferior doctor Charles Bovary and constantly finds life a disappointment. She expects grand passion, romance, and occurrences that demand an extraordinary response from her, but life and people remain resolutely common.

(Plot spoilers contained in this review) – Flaubert employs a unique tone throughout much of the book. Somewhat detached, like he is looking at characters through a microscope while they expose themselves as mediocre, self-deluded, shallow, ineffectual, venal, selfish, grasping, and cowardly.

Emma marries Charles and expects an exciting life, only to realize that, though he adores her, he is mediocre (he manages to maim a patient for life) and lacks imagination. The pharmacist, Homais, is self-important and imagines himself a philosopher (he also prompts Charles to perform the risky surgery that leads to the maiming). Leon is a clerk with aspirations to romanticism and is somewhat of a kindred spirit with Emma, but fundamentally weak-willed. Rodolphe is the cad who loves and leaves Emma. Then there is Lhereaux, the financially predatory draper who ensnares Emma in debt.

While one can sympathize with Emma’s desire for something more, Emma herself is rather silly. She is always acting out according to some kind of romantic model. She rarely seems to experience her own emotions because she is so busy trying to experience the heightened emotions she’s read about. She’s playing a part in a world that has no room for such roles; she wants to be Louise de la Valliere (mistress to Louis XIV before becoming a saintly nun), a martyr or sacrificial wife or saint or mistress. She is waiting for a man to arrive who can inspire these passions. The irony is that she is desired and loved by a surprising number of men, but it rarely inspires the glorious feelings she anticipates.

At bottom, Emma seems a deeply unhappy and discontented woman – so much so that she is frequently unwell (always to Charles’ great concern and helplessness). It’s her hollow despair and grasping at some kind of meaning that leaves the reader feeling an equal sense of hollowness and gloom by the end of the book. Flaubert seems to offer no hope of any deep meaning. Religion, love, duty, philosophy? It is all reduced to empty cant by the characters (like when the cleric and Homais debate religion and philosophy over Emma’s dead body at the end of the book).

downloadOne of the problems is that Emma is so selfish. No matter what role she is playing – devoted mother, repentant sinner – she always has more than half an eye on her emotional responses to these roles, which inevitably is less than inspired.

But most characters are selfish in Madame Bovary. An exception is Charles, but I alternate between admiring his genuine love and frustration with his complete and supine cluelessness. The only person who seems to experience genuine and admirable emotion is Emma’s father, a farmer named Rouault. He fondly remembers bringing his wife home on the night of their wedding and is crushed at the death of Emma – all without a hint of irony and possessing genuine dignity.

Ultimately, although the story is often described as though Emma’s world as what lets her down, one can’t help but wonder if she would have always been dissatisfied, no matter what kind of life she lived. That the emptiness is in her, not the world. The book has also been described as expressing Flaubert’s contempt for the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, but he hints that even the aristocrats’ lives are less romantic than one would think, describing one figure who romantically knew Marie Antoinette as sitting vacantly with soup dribbling down his chin. The entirely book is resolutely anti-romantic.

Flaubert also goes into meticulous, though compact, descriptions of nearly everything. His style is celebrated for that, but I must confess that details were never as interesting to me (I’m not as visual as some readers). However, his metaphors are unique (the carriage in which Emma and Leon consummate their affair is described as being shut up like a tomb and tossing in the sea). On the whole, however, I found his tone detached…up until the devastating ending where Emma commits suicide.

She expects even suicide to be a brave and romantic gesture, like those figures who achieve immortality through beautiful death. Instead, death is an agonizing, drawn-out process that ultimately brings grief to her husband, father and child. The emptiness of it all, her extraordinary desire for something to fill her soul with meaning ultimately seemed very human and and very sad and I was surprised at the power of my response to her at the end, as well as to the inherent progress of life that seems to reward venality and punish sentiment.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2017 in Books

 

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Planet of the Apes – The Novel, by Pierre Boulle

414895I have not seen any Planet of the Apes movies, but I’ve been intending to go on a Planet of the Apes watching spree – from 1968 to 2014. However, before I do so I wanted to read the novel that begat such a long-lived franchise.

Planet of the Apes was published in 1963 and was authored by Pierre Boulle (who also penned the novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai in 1952). He was a Frenchman who worked as a spy for the British during WWII, but was turned in by a Vichy Frenchman and spent two years in a prison camp until he escaped.

Most people know the basic idea of the story. Space/time traveler/journalist Ulysse Merou travels through space from Paris with an eccentric, brilliant professor and his assistant to the distant star of Betelgeuse. They leave fully knowing that when they return to earth, thousands of years will have passed. But when they arrive on the planet (Soror) that circles the star, they find things to be rather different than they expected.

The planet is very much like earth, except the humans are like animals and apes are the sentient beings – the orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of Planet of the Apes. I had my dim notions gleaned from references to the movies, but the book proved somewhat different. At first I thought it was a satire of human civilization…the airs we give ourselves, the assumptions of our own natural superiority, the behavior we consider natural, but seems grotesque when carried out by another species of animal.

The apes cut off the hair of humans and wear it in their hats, they hunt humans, they conduct scientific experiments on humans. Even the idea of humans wearing clothes strikes the apes as absurd, just as humans see no need for apes to be attired. Poor Ulysse is reduced to walking everywhere stark naked.

They even have their own stratified society, with chimpanzees being historically persecuted and gorillas historically the aristocrats of society.

They clearly felt that having all the humans naked was a bit much for the movie

They clearly felt that having all the humans naked was a bit much for the movie

The humans on Soror, on the other hand, are like animals, with no spark of intelligence. Ulysse is startled when he meets a gorgeous woman, whom he calls Nova, who he finds physically attractive, but with no soul to respond to him other than has a pet mind responds to an owner.

On the other hand, he forms a deep spiritual bond with Zira, a female chimpanzee scientist. He convinces her of his intelligence through geometry and they bond closely, though they cannot get over the physical repugnance they feel for each other’s appearance. He cannot help feeling physically attracted to Nova, but it is only with Zira that he finds emotional and intellectual communion.

Oddly enough, I found it difficult to really imagine Zira has a chimpanzee while reading, because she is presented as so warm and human. I’m curious to see how much of this would-be romance subplot makes it into any of the movies.

But by the second half of the novel, I realized that the point of the story was not satire, but a look at how the barrier between being savage and civilized is wafer thin. The professor who had traveled with Ulysse becomes so accustomed to captivity and being treated as an animal that he reverts to animal-form. All spark of comprehension and higher feeling is completely extinguished and he acts just like all the other humans. Even Ulysse finds it startlingly easy to drift into a kind of complacence.

While held captive with the other humans – before it is realized that he is on their intellectual level – he finds himself being taken care of, falling into habits of wanting to please the chimps to earn food, trying to match their expectations and just generally letting himself go. He is only saved  from this by Zira.

Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter - they couldn't bring themselves to kiss in the book (though they almost get swept away by emotion), but they couldn't get over how ugly the other looked

Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter – they couldn’t bring themselves to kiss in the book (though they almost get swept away by the their deep bond), but they couldn’t get over how ugly the other looked

In fact, Zira’s scientist fiance – Cornelius – discovers that chimpanzees did not evolve into sentient beings first on Soror, as was previously believed. Instead, he discovers that humans were the dominate species on earth, but taught apes to imitate them. Through imitation, they learned intelligence and while they grew more intelligent, humans grew lazy and unmotivated, slipping gradually back into primitivism while apes took over the world.

And that is Pierre Boulle’s central point: civilizations inevitably die away, people grow lethargic and contented, happy to be taken care of, losing all motivation and desire to push forward and instead slip backwards. It’s de-evolution. In the book (unlike the 1968 movie) there is no nuclear war or folly that brings about the demise of humans, but merely the natural course of nature. And the same thing is destined to happen to the apes, the author suggests.

There is a twist at the end of the book, but it is not the twist of the movie. There is also a framing story: two lovers floating around space who find a message in a bottle that contains Ulysse’s story. There is a kicker to this framing story, but I don’t want to spoil it.

Over all, I found it a fascinating book. The tone is initially lightly-ironic, sometimes mocking. But there is also an increasingly grotesque horror that pervades the book. I am curious to see how the movies compare with this book…and it’s message.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2016 in Books

 

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