The classic Q&A exchange when looking at a famous book that has been adapted into a film goes, as you all know it:
Q: "Did you read the book?"If there is one current film to which this exchange most appropriately applies, it would have to be the new film version of the musical of Les Misérables. This film is actually an adaptation at one remove of its original source, of course, per this genealogy:
A: "No, but I saw the movie."
Victor Hugo: Les Misérables (novel), 1862
Alain Boublil (lyrics) and Claude-Michel Schönberg (music): Les Misérables (musical), 1980 (original French version); 1985 (English version)
Tom Hooper (director): Les Misérables (film of the musical), 2012
This made me wonder what sales of the book are like now. It's not hard to guess, but you can surmise the reason why I ask: namely, how many who buy the book, having seen the musical, will actually read it? More below the flip......
First, I checked sales figures on Amazon (the easiest place - sorry) of several editions of the book, as of this afternoon:
(a) Signet Classics paperback (Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee revision of the Charles Wilbour translation), 44
(b) Penguin hardback (Norman Denny translation), 288
(c) Modern Library edition (Julie Rose translation), 4688
(d) Penguin paperback (same Norman Denny translation as Penguin hardback), 826
(e) Modern Library edition (Charles Wilbour translation), 3872
I have the Signet Classics paperback (a), but I've had the copy for several months now, long before I ever realized that there would be a film version of the musical. Since I was getting ready to travel for the holidays and needed something to read that was long enough to get into but that I wouldn't actually quite finish on the travels out and back, it looked like as good a time as any to take the plunge.
The first thing you have to realize about the Signet Classics edition is that the main text is 1461 pages. Granted, the print is fairly large-ish for a Signet Classics paperback, but still, 1461 pages is 1461 pages. I'm now just past page 1000. Marius and Cosette have finally met. Thénardier has just escaped from prison, partly witnessed by one of his abandoned sons, Gavroche. His sister Éponine is starting to take on a larger role, totally separate, of course.
There's obviously not time to discuss everything about what I've read up to this point (and that's not really the point of this diary, such as it is), but this small bit next will illustrate. It's emotionally frustrating to see, for example, how naive Marius is about how evil Thénardier is, and what Thénardier gets away with, not to mention his wife, with their past exploitation of Cosette and her mother Fantine, by proxy. But then such is real life, where we all know that lots of bad people get away with lots of bad deeds. In the musical, that I remember (the only production I saw was 21+ years ago), Thénardier has an element of snark about himself, when he's not being a jerk overall. But in the novel, there's no snark about him; he is truly rotten to the core. He has moments where he protests about how bad rich folk can be, but this doesn't justify his own nasty actions against those weaker than him (which invariably is the case; when he tries to entrap Jean Valjean, he has to have hired hoods as backup).
I'll honestly admit that I'm not poring over every word and searching for deeper meanings behind each word, not at all. I'm pretty much sand-blasting my way through it, if for no other reason than I have so many other books to read. Plus, I'll admit that it's rather odd to read this beached whale of a novel, knowing the whole time how it's going to end. Obviously more than usual, reading this book really is about the journey, and not about the ultimate destination.
Given my particular tastes in books, and my own back-of-the-head naggings about reading the novel, which is obviously a huge time and emotional sink, I wonder what it'll be like for people with more "populist" tastes than me, who decide to take on the novel (and who have caused sales to go up at bookstores and on Amazon) in the wake of the movie. In the most superficial sense, the length of the book, I don't think most people realize what they're in for. They see that it's a big book, but they just don't realize how big. If they have the patience, they'll obviously catch a lot of details that aren't present in the musical or any movie version. There are also a lot of digressions where Hugo philosophizes on matters like the battle of Waterloo, or the nature of argot.
But there's another aspect that many "regular folks" may not be ready for, namely the political aspect. Hugo was a noted progressive, and peppers the novel with calls for universal education. How many wingnuts who will go to see the new movie (and many will, to be sure) will figure out that Victor Hugo was their political opposite? How many of them will realize how inflexible Inspector Javert is in his basic ideology that "once a criminal, always a criminal", especially when it comes to Jean Valjean?
New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, in his foreword to the Julie Rose translation and this blog post for which he recycles (with acknowledgement) some passages, comments further on a difference between Hugo's original and the musical version:
".....it is, crucially, not Inspector Javert's personal malice or mercilessness, as legend has it and the musical suggests, that drives him to hunt down Jean Valjean; it is his absolute commitment to justice, which he interprets as a commitment to rules and their administration, to the parallel paper universe of absolute laws.....Gopnik makes another point about Hugo and his ideology, of which I wasn't aware before finding his blog post:
Jean Valjean's generosity towards Javert is what devastates him. 'A benevolent malefactor, a compassionate convict, offering forgiveness in return for hate, favoring pity over revenge, preferring to himself be destroyed to destroying his enemy, saving the one who had brought him down, this loathsome angel, this vile hero, who outraged him almost as much as he amazed him.' Devastating generosity, loathsome angels — what destroys Javert is not his implacable lack of compassion but his absolute certitude, which is inadequate to Hugo's conviction that life is inexorably two-pathed, even when we struggle for just one."
"Les Misérables has highly specific politics that aren't simply the politics of popular revolt and 'sentimental' liberty. Hugo's whole life as a writer and statesman was devoted to a single vision, the dream of 'the Concert of Europe,' which is what we now call the European Union. It was Hugo, who, during the International Peace Congress that was held in Paris in 1849, declared, 'A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form the European brotherhood.'"....Or indeed read Les Misérables, not just (or only) watch it. After all this, you may fairly wonder if 3CM plans to see the movie. I'll answer that by flipping the opening Q&A:
"....the dream of European union was for Hugo not just a way of preventing the disasters of war and approaching the problem of poverty; it was a larger way of insisting that cultural pluralism — indeed, pluralism of every kind — was essential to freedom. Hugo kept Republican liberalism from seeming fatuous by insisting that the liberal Republican has a singular, mystic insight into the intrinsic doubleness of life. At the height of the twentieth century’s calamities, Hugo's Romantic Republicanism could seem fragile and unconvincing; the Javerts then held the floor. There are many things wrong or encumbering or even foolish about the European Union, but when we watch Les Misérables, we should save a thought for how much of Hugo's vision has now been achieved. What Hugo wanted, and what he used all that melodramatic and storytelling power to promote, was a Europe accepting in its pluralism, and widely based in its prosperity. His ghost now has it."
Q: "Did you see the movie?"In most people's eyes, this probably would make 3CM a loser. But then he already is one, so no change there. With that, for this last SNLC of 2012, time for the usual protocol, namely your loser stories of the week, which hopefully don't involve being lost in city sewers.....
A: "No, I'm reading the book."