|Hugh Jackman as a boss|
The film was superior to the play in almost every way imaginable. The most obvious and immediate difference between the two is the film's magnificent cinematography. The opening shots of the shipyard are stunning and grand, and they convey so much more so much more quickly than watching a dozen people in rags pantomiming physical labor on a dimly lit stage. But that opening scene was just a prelude to a long series of breathtaking and sweeping images.
The biggest departure from the play that was, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest masterstrokes of the film was to have the actors sing in a much more natural, much less broadway style. Part of that is personal preference. I've always found the Broadway vocal aesthetic intolerable and over the top (and this is coming from an opera fan). I have always hated Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" because it comes off as hammy and grossly insincere, be it Lea Salonga, Ruthie Henshall, Susan Boyle…whoever. The way they would belt out "I had a dream my life would be / so different from this HELL I'M LIVING" was affected and ridiculous. But the way Anne Hathaway sang it was so direct, natural, and sincere. For one, she left behind the dreary morse-code monotony of the opening lines and actually spoke a few words. For another, she let her voice falter on some critical notes in order to give life to some otherwise unfathomably idiotic lyrics. I found that these words that I had previously mocked unsparingly were brining me to the threshold of tears. She sang the role better than it's ever been sung before.
But this was not "good singing" in a strictly music sense—it worked brilliantly within the movie, but I'd never buy this soundtrack. Almost every actor in the movie is seriously off pitch many, many times, but almost always to great emotional effect. That just kind of makes sense: if you're dying from a gunshot wound or venereal disease or old age, you're bound to let your pitch waver a bit.
The way Tom Hooper shot Fantine's solo was unflinching in a way that just can't be done on the stage. The camera hung so close to her eyes and never pulled away. The word that kept coming to my mind was visceral. Her descent into prostitution is much more graphic than the stage would permit as well, but I thought it was absolutely necessary if you're going to keep "Lovely Ladies" in the movie. I always hated that song. The jokes about penis shape and placement seriously undercut the horror of Fantine's demise. Comedy can be an effective way of commenting on subjects too delicate to tackle head-on, but it can also undermine the gravity of a serious issue. The latter is what happens in the musical, but the movie doesn't suffer from this problem at all, largely because its treatment of Fantine's story is so brutal.
But back to the music. Anne Dudley did a great job adapting the score for film. She brought out all that was best in the original music while leaving behind its weaker points (i.e., everything 80s). And the new music she wrote fit seamlessly into the original. But as I said before, the best thing about the music was the very organic way it was sung. Hugh Jackman was a champion at this. When the time came for him to belt out "I'm 24601," he did it at full blast and with an intensity that made it soar past my cynicism. But in a break from the norm, he sang "Bring Him Home" without any falsetto, which made him sound strained and weary, which was perfectly fitting for the scene.
Russell Crowe was the only one who wasn't pulling his weight, although his interpretation of Javert was much more nuanced and interesting than the antagonist ever appears on stage.
But the crowning achievement of the film adaptation was simply that it did a much better job of storytelling than the musical. In the play, the only inkling you get of Javert's backstory (his being born a bastard in a prison) comes out when he and Valjean are singing over each other. In the film, they wisely got Valjean to shut up and let us hear that crucial line from Javert.
There are countless other minor scenes and touches that the movie adds to make the story comprehensible and relevant. One vitally important scene is right at the beginning when Valjean is still in prison. Javert orders him to retrieve a flag from the shallows, and rather than just picking up the flag, Valjean singlehandedly lifts the entire mast the flag was attached to. It was an act of defiance and phenomenal strength that would have given Javert a reason to dislike and remember Valjean. It's doubly important since Javert recognizes Valjean later precisely because Javert witnesses his similar act of unbelievable strength.
Hugh Jackman, by the way, is perfect for his role. He is able to command poise, wisdom, and savagery in equal measure, and all the while making us believe that he's capable of any physical feat. It helps that he's Wolverine.
The only scene that really didn't work for me was unfortunately the last scene. Rather than embracing a full fledged apotheosis like the play does, Hooper puts the redeemed Jean Valjean and the dead revolutionaries right back into a war-torn Paris. It was cheap and didn't really make sense. The whole point of Valjean's life was that his acts of goodness and grace transcended the economic and political turmoil of his age. Having his spirit "set free" just to go back to a barricade was a miscalculation on Hooper's part.
And unfortunately, the film kept the inane "Castle on a Cloud," which makes me want to shove a broom in Cosette's face and tell her to shut it.
But really and truly I could not have been more pleased and surprised with this adaptation. I feel so lucky that two of my favorite books, Les Misérables and Life of Pi were both made into such masterful adaptations within such close proximity.