Monday, November 5, 2012

Trouble with Les Mis

I just read a lengthy article in Entertainment Weekly about the upcoming Les Miserables movie.  And I am very concerned that the film-makers are totally misunderstanding the material.

They cast the story as a class warfare narrative, on par with Occupy Wall Street, that calls for radical political change.  But that isn't what Les Mis is about.

Yes, there is a sharp distinction between the rich and poor.  "At the End of the Day" is a harrowing indictment of the wealthy's indifference.  But the musical does not idealize the student revolution.  "Empty Chairs, Empty Tables" is a lament to the futility of the uprising.

The only guaranteed justice is the one in the next life.  The only future God gives us is love.  "To love another person is to see the face of God."

Misunderstanding a character or a story will kill it.

A movie executive once told Kevin Smith that they should cast Sean Penn as Superman because "he has the look of a cold-blooded killer and that, I think, is essential to Superman."


Speaking of Superman, his last movie outing was a bomb for a number of reasons, but I think I finally figured out why.  Bryan Singer was interpreting Superman as a modern gay man.

Please don't misunderstand, Singer wasn't kicking the Man of Steel out of the closet, but the overtones are very strong:

He was in a long term relationship with a woman, until he had to leave to discover the truth about who he really is.  When he returns, he finds that he still cares for her, but he cannot go back to that romantic relationship despite their connection.  The whole movie revolves around him saying goodbye to the woman.

And while that would make a fascinating movie by itself, it is a misread of Superman.  He loves Lois Lane.  Lois loves him.  It is one of the great romances of pop culture.  To miss that is to miss the point is to miss the struggle between the "Super" and the "Man."

Michael Gambon's misread of Dumbledore is one of my big complaints about the Harry Potter series.  Though he grows into the role eventually, Gambon plays the character too on-edge.  Dumbledore is one of the most powerful wizards in the world, but he hides it, along with his pain, behind the demeanor of a silly old man.  Gambon removes that mask and plays his hand way too early.

A few years ago a playhouse near where I live put on a production of The Merchant of Venice, but cast it as a tragedy, with Shylock as the heroic victim of anti-Semitism.  While very few would argue that anti-semitism is in the play, this totally defeats the purpose of Shakespeare's play, which is to show that the true treasure is wisdom and virtue, not money.

Going back to Les Mis, I'm hoping that the narrative will speak for itself and won't be influenced by its misreading.  I want this movie not only to be good, but great.

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