Becoming a major Oscar contender overnight with jaw-dropping performances, incredible visual effects, and music that moves the soul, the most recent release of Les Misérables (2012) is garnering a lot of attention. Some may not know, however, that Director Tom Hooper’s work is not the first time this story has been crafted for the silver screen. In fact, only fourteen years prior, in 1998, a straight version of Les Misérables was brought to movie theaters with very familiar faces; Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean, Geoffrey Rush plays Javert, Uma Thurman plays Fantine, and Claire Danes plays Cosette.
The main different between the 2012 and 1998 adaptations is that the former is a musical and the latter is not. The musical element of the 2012 film is what renders the piece so emotional. The characters get minutes of screen time to themselves to share what they are feeling. In the straight rendition, the characters get maybe a few seconds of a close-up shot, which functions as a quick window to their souls. Although, because the straight film does not linger on one scene, it has a quicker pace and covers more plot points. For instance, when Valjean discovers Fantine has been mistreated, she does not die right away. Instead, their relationship flourishes and they grow to love each other. Valjean’s and Cosette’s relationship is also more intricate, as she knows that he is not her father and the two have an open conversation about his past.
Another surprising variance is that there is not a love triangle with the Eponine character in the 1998 narrative. As a result, the feelings between Marius and Cosette are much stronger and given more time to materialize. Though Eponine in the 2012 account is an incredibly interesting character, her parts do feel a bit underdeveloped, as the creators had so much to try and cram in the film. Also, in the 1998 version, Marius is the leader of his friends and the revolution, which puts him in a much more precarious situation than that in the 2012 chronicle. In fact, the war itself is portrayed to be more elaborate in the 1998 film.
In the musical, Valjean steals bread for his starving nephew, which makes his imprisonment seem rather unjust. However, in the 1998 film, Valjean steals the bread for himself. This scenario supports the fact that Valjean would easily steal again for self preservation. Therefore, it is more likely that after generously being taken in by the old religious man and his wife, he would abuse that privilege. As a result, when the old man forgives him for stealing his belongings, the change that takes place in Valjean is much more poignant when he transforms into an upstanding citizen, who is no longer godless, uncaring, or selfish. The audience gets to see him truly become a man of charity and faith. Not only does Valjean help anyone in need, he also sets up a stand where he and Cosette hand out food to the poor. In the 2012 rendition, the change in Valjean is not as drastic since he seems virtuous from the onset for sacrificing himself for his nephew. Instead, Valjean’s transformation in the 2012 adaptation is his attempt to stop considering himself as a convict.
In the ending of the 2012 narrative, Valjean goes away from Cosette and Marius after they have been married, afraid to shame Cosette with his past. This desire on his part shows that Valjean still has not yet come to terms with having been a convict, showing that his evolution was merely outward and only minimally inward. When Cosette and Marius find him, he dies, and is finally released from his internal suffering. In the 1998 film, Valjean gives himself up to Javert so that Cosette and Marius can live a normal life. However, Javert kills himself in front of Valjean, giving Valjean freedom. The end of the 1998 film is much more hopeful, demonstrating that one does not have to be defined by the past and can be granted redemption. All in all, both 2012 and 1998 versions are both flawlessly made and offer slightly different takes on the same themes.