Victor Hugo's epic novel Les Misérables was published in 1862. Several adaptations for radio and film were made throughout the 20th century, but the most famous adaptation is the stage musical by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. The musical was first staged in French in 1980, then reworked and staged in English in 1985. At a concert marking the 25th anniversary of the English version of the musical, producer Cameron Mackintosh announced that a film version of the musical was in the works.
The 2012 film adaptation of the musical was directed by Tom Hooper, by this point well known for directing the Oscar-winning The King's Speech. The film starred Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers, Samantha Barks as Eponine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.
The film received generally positive reviews, with some caveats for some of the musical performances. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three (makeup, sound mixing and best supporting actress for Hathaway). One of its most unique aspects was the fact that, unlike in many other movie musicals, the singing was not pre-recorded. The actors sang live on set, with the accompanying music being played live and fed to them through hidden earpieces. Orchestration was added in post-production.
I make my own decisions when it comes to these things, but the reaction of people I know — people who grew up on the musical, like I did, and whose opinions I trust — was akin to a balloon being deflated. Opinions ranged from quiet contentedness to bitter disappointment. Not sure which camp I would wind up in, I decided to wait to rent it. (Besides, it was two-and-a-half hours long; I generally prefer to be able to pause films of that length when nature calls).
I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting to, possibly because I didn't go in with the highest of expectations. But the things that irked many of the people whose opinions I trust didn't bother me as much as I thought they might.
For one thing, the film musical is not an exact adaptation of the stage musical. This was tantamount to blasphemy for some people whose sole exposure to the story was the stage musical. That's cool — to each his own — but the stage musical is not an exact adaptation of the novel. Many of the differences between the musical and the film were reversals of changes made when adapting the novel as a musical. It may well be that the creators of the musical had to make certain adjustments in order to make the story workable for the stage and that the freedoms afforded by film — editing, for one thing — made a more novel-faithful adaptation possible. But not everyone has read the novel and so not everyone knows this.
I, for one, liked the fact that the film restored the novel's chronology when it came to Javert confessing to "Monsieur Madeleine" that he had suspected him of being Valjean. I was thrilled to see that they'd restored the novel's description of Enjolras and Grantaire's deaths rather than killing everyone off on the barricade in one fell swoop. The musical lacked the scene where Valjean and Cosette escape Javert only to wind up on the grounds of a convent, where they meet Fauchlevant, the man Valjean had rescued from beneath a cart some time earlier. The film doesn't explain why, but it does include the bell Fauchelevant wears around his ankle (to warn the nuns, who are forbidden from contact with men, when he's around). And that won the movie a lot of brownie points as far as I was concerned. (I would have liked to have seen the restoration of the bit where Javert helps Valjean get Marius to his grandfather's house after finding them in the sewers, but you can't win them all.)
There were other changes that had nothing to do with the novel, but I didn't find them terribly irksome. The filmmakers moved "I Dreamed A Dream," Fantine's heartwrenching description of how her life's gone to hell, from immediately after she loses her job at the factory to after she resorts to prostitution. I suspect that it was much earlier in the original musical so the audience could become emotionally invested in Fantine, making it more devastating when she hits rock bottom. But the song packs more of an emotional wallop once she's actually hit rock bottom.
For the most part I thought the casting was generally OK; Jackman did fine (though I thought his "Bring Him Home" was lacking). There was some critical gnashing of teeth about Seyfried, with some (correctly) noting that the role of Cosette is intended for a soprano while Seyfried is a contralto. I didn't see much wrong with her performance. Hathaway had already won her Oscar by the time I finally saw the movie, and I think she deserved it. The casting of Colm Wilkinson — the original and ultimate Jean Valjean — as the bishop of Digne was probably one of the very best parts of the film. (I do not generally cry at movies, but when he turned up to offer Valjean shelter towards the beginning I got choked up.)
No cast member endured more criticism than Crowe, who was woefully miscast. The conspiracy theorist in me is convinced his casting had a lot to do with his more than passing resemblance to Philip Quast, who is basically the Javert as far as a lot of people are concerned, but he brought none of Quast's intensity to the role. I suspect that great care was taken, given the source material, to avoid the emotive overacting of which musicals are sometimes guilty; Crowe was understated to the point of almost seeming bored. Only towards the end, when the student rebels discover that Javert is a police officer spying on them, does he really break loose. But he's back to being blasé even as Javert (apparently) has a moral crisis and decides to take his own life. It may well be that the team behind the film was trying to make Javert into less of a one-sided villain (which he sometimes comes off as in the stage musical, depending on the actor) and into more of the wrong-headed but otherwise virtuous man Hugo described in the novel. I don't think it worked; Crowe probably had good intentions but turned Javert into someone tailing Valjean because he had nothing better to do.
The other aspect of the film that I didn't much care for was the inclusion of "Suddenly," a brand spanking new song for Valjean immediately after he rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers. The idea was ostensibly to illustrate how (suddenly) being responsible for a child marked another turning point in Valjean's life, but it was largely forgettable and generally thought of as a ploy so the film could be nominated for "Best Original Song" at the Oscars. (It was. It lost to "Skyfall.")
On the whole, I liked it. A coworker who saw it when it first came out said that he'd also liked it, but that it was probably best suited to devotees of the musical. I'd take that a step further and say it's best suited to devotees of the musical who can accept that the musical isn't canon and that it is itself an adaptation of a novel. I suspect that had I not read the novel, my opinion might have been closer to those who didn't approve of the "liberties" taken by the filmmakers. I love when filmmakers throw sprinkle in little details that will only make sense to people who've read the original book.
In summary, if you're a fan of the musical, see it. But read the book first.