If you follow my Twitter, you’ll probably know that I just read Les Misérables (in Donougher’s nicely approachable translation). You may have also picked up that I used to hate Les Mis despite never having consumed any media relating to it. And the only reason I went from irrational hatred to picking up what cannot be described as a ‘quick read’ is the recent BBC TV adaption of the book.
Whenever there’s a new TV adaptation of a classic book, there tends to be fuss around how faithful it is, the casting, the directorial choices, and whether we really need more TV adaptations of classic books. There are plenty of other stories to be told, after all. Making more adaptations often seems to just give English teachers more options when they need to show the class a screen version of the text as a treat/bribe/[insert better reason here] (watching the 1970s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore film at A Level was more of a punishment, to be honest). Fresh adaptations of newer books give more stories a chance and possibly lessen period drama fatigue.
Regardless of this, I seem to be defending to some extent making more of these adaptations of old books. There’s plenty of good reasons to defend them—a chance to update interpretations of the text on screen, lots of old ones are quite bad, can finally make that very faithful or incredibly not faithful version that was needed—but I’m going to go with my personal one: bringing new audiences to books and ideas.
I hated Les Mis because I was on the internet around the time that the film of the musical of the book (must be said like that for full adaptation value) came out. Those who weren’t on the internet around this time may not be aware of quite how many people were obsessive about Les Mis. There was endless debate, screenshots, jokes, calling it ‘The Brick’ like everyone knew exactly what you meant, being obsessed with characters who turn up a long way in and then die not a huge number of pages later, and the songs. Oh, the songs. I hadn’t even heard the songs, but I felt like I had.
So I hated it. I don’t like musicals so that felt like justification, but really it was the fact so many people wouldn’t shut up about it. I lived my life for a number of years happy in my dislike of it. I had no interest in the news there was a TV adaptation. In fact, one of the main reasons I was willing to try watching it was because I spend a lot of time around people who study the eighteenth and early nineteenth century who were also going to give it a go, and they said the first episode was good. So I watched it. And it was.
Now, I don’t care if you think it was a good adaptation or a good piece of drama or what the hell was that font. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I enjoyed it, hooked on the story and Javert’s endless “Jean Valjean!” and the fact there was less dialogue than there was David Oyelowo and Dominic West glaring and doing a lot of silent acting at each other. And because I enjoyed it, I gave up my irrational dislike and a few months later, actually read the book.
I conclude my lukewarm defence of all these damn classic book screen adaptations by saying maybe it doesn’t matter if people read these books or get into them, but at least the adaptations are ways people can get into these stories which are often referenced in other places and are also ripe for reworking and retelling in updated and interesting ways. Though that is venturing worryingly far into saying adaptations are good for creating the kind of annoying fandom that made me hate Les Mis in the first place.