Bright Lights Film Journal

Film: An Adaptive Species. Part 1 of 2: Between a Book and a Hard Place

Les Miserables (1933), directed by Raymond Bernard

Lincoln (2012) & Wolf Hall (2015)/Les Miserables (1933) & Great Expectations (1946/2012)

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So, notwithstanding humanist art or realistic biography, we go on hurting each other. “Everybody hurts,” as the song says, reminding us that “hurt’ is an intransitive and a transitive verb: we feel it and do it – even to our own kin. Perhaps especially to them.

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Lincoln (2012) opens with the graphic bloodletting of battle and closes with an offstage account of the president’s assassination. In between we get a mix of vox pop and professional politics. As structure, then, it’s “balanced.” But it’s also packed with atmospheric scenes, often candlelit, where new camera lenses mimic the human eye more realistically than ever. This takes us beyond structure or balance, expanding perceptions of actorly nuances and, more mysteriously, evoking some very writerly contextual shadows.

Meanwhile, technological developments continue to expose out-of-date stereotypes: film, only as big-budget populism; TV, populist but always cash-strapped. In fact, audiences have long enjoyed made-for-cinema releases which don’t cost the national budgets of twenty developing countries. At the same time, some of the highest cinematic standards are found in long-running TV drama series, with producers coming up with funds from multiple sources.

Great nineteenth-century novelists like Dumas and Dickens also exploited the serial format and, if they’re looking on, must surely be drooling over the new potential for richly expansive scenarios. (Victor Hugo, who started as a playwright and made less of a serial killing than some, will nevertheless play a big part in this essay.)

But despite contemporary gains, those of us with long memories sometimes feel we’ve lost something rather important. I’m thinking of the flood of working-class writers, actors, and directors who emerged after the war to enrich our entire arts culture. Back then, there was every reason to believe this shift in social mobility was permanent. But during the last thirty years or more, “aspiration” – interpreted simply as wealth possession – has rewound the clock to a time when only posh boys and girls came out to play.

Billie Whitelaw and Albert Finney in Charlie Bubbles

Not that there was ever a time when producers agonised over barriers to working-class talent. On the contrary, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only species endangered by cutbacks is the unloved and neglected middle class itself. I’m romancing the stones of history, perhaps, but I do miss the Potters, Pinters, Ortons, Burtons, O’Tooles, and Finneys. And, to be no more male-biased than social history permits, where are the Billie Whitelaws and Shelagh Delaneys of yesteryear? And why should Julie Walters be such an exception? Of course, that’s a narrow British focus; and since today’s world – however far back its problems might reach – is more global than ever, I’ll keep looking for the bigger picture(!).

In Lincoln, a very ill-bewigged abolitionist senator, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), climbs into bed with Lydia Smith, his black “housekeeper” (S. Epatha Merkerson). The lead-in has already shown this nineteenth-century couple to be serious rule-breakers: a man talks to a woman about the business of the House and the conversation is not about what’s for dinner.

Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Smith: Lincoln

Like many other scenes, it’s a well-photographed tableau. And though Jones is often central casting’s – and my own – idea of working-class hero, as the couple lie side by side, honi soit qui mal y pense roars wordlessly from senator and life partner.

Inevitably less dignified than the Jones/Merkerson scene, there’s also something positive about the film’s genesis: biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin and director Steven Spielberg frequently consulted over in what was, in effect, a twin project. And despite what might have become a mess in two kitchens, a Worthy Fudge has been avoided in both.

Apart from that, in the Spielberg/Kearns Goodwin account there’s no over-officious mud-raking; so the fact that the sixteenth president could be a less than wholly attentive husband, as well as a less than wholly truthful politician, is deemed humanising enough – for now.

Following Lincoln’s success – and not just in terms of candlepower – the BBC’s Wolf Hall (2015) gripped home audiences last winter with the “life” of Henry VIII’s arch-fixer, Thomas Cromwell. It seems superfluous to add that Mark Rylance brings his mesmerising sensitivity to another big role. But I remind myself that Americans – lucky them – are only now getting to know his work.

Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall

In terms of books-to-film, Hilary Mantel has adapted her own novels; and again there’s a mutually beneficial association between author and director. In this case, Peter Kosminsky – a former chemist and lighting engineer – has come up with his best work to date.

Meanwhile, despite the faint sheen of middle-class ghetto which clings to them, Lincoln and Wolf Hall succeed as entertainment and good art. The language in both is never jarringly modern (i.e., banal) or impenetrably authentic (i.e., quaint); and this gets us closer to men who, from unpromising social origins and ultimately suffering violent deaths, come to hold sway over the lives – and deaths – of others.

So, despite the usual quibbles about historical accuracy – was Cromwell, for example, really quite so sensitive? – these dramas plunge us into very believable physical and moral universes from which – ringing uncomfortably loud bells – there are no easy exits.

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The screen is filled with the grinning face of a stone gargoyle. As the camera pulls back, we see it’s resting on a column into which the head and shoulders of a more human figure has also been carved. As the camera continues to pull out, we realise that this caryatid is actually a huge, shaven-headed man whose still body and expressionless face have completely deceived us. When he shifts his weight, the camera still pulling back, we see he’s been holding up an unstable column while his workmates move a wooden prop into place.

Though we don’t yet know it, we’ve just met one of world literature’s most captivating and complex characters: unjustly pursued fugitive, socially sensitive entrepreneur, life-sparing revolutionary Jean Valjean. In fact, we’ve caught him at the point when “good behaviour” is about to earn his freedom from prison. In the rest of the story we’ll discover how meaningless “freedom” can be, especially when Justice “knows” you’ll always be a social threat, and the sooner you’re back inside, the better.

This opening to Les Miserables launches a set of three films made for Pathé in 1933/4 by Raymond Bernard. And the consensus today is that Hugo’s five-volume novel from1862 has never been better adapted, though, at the last count, there’ve been at least fifty different versions of one kind or another.

Not that all the other versions have been bad. From the same year as Lincoln, cast and crew under Tom Hooper’s direction gave millions of us a chance to enjoy great tunes and choreography but, above all, to experience for ourselves a still deeply inspiring human story. What’s more, the filmed musical has kept all the essentials of the book within a running time of two and a half hours.

This points to the chief difficulty for those seeking to promote Bernard’s little-seen masterpiece: it runs almost five hours; and, despite the miracle of DVD, most people will need three sessions to view the three parts. But – echoing the success of the nineteenth-century novel – big, extended stories are not exactly putting contemporary viewers off. So it’s not too wishful to hope this trend embraces more and more “classics” of world cinema.


Meanwhile, Bernard’s film came as a relief to Pathé, whose biggest-ever investment paid off very handsomely – in France at least. But we’re talking of a time when national politics didn’t make international sales any easier for a quintessential piece of Republican French culture.

The ironies around this swarm very thickly, especially if our secret belief is that great humanist epics can literally save us from ourselves. Les Croix de Bois (1932) is from the book by Roland Dorgelès, who also worked on the script with the director. It’s another rarely seen offering from Bernard and one of the best antiwar films ever made. The actors were all men with trench-warfare experience, speaking lines and participating in scenes horribly familiar to them.

Although the film was shot and edited as a piece of bravura expressionism, it’s also the realistic soundtrack of exploding bombs and shells that demands attention. As we learn from the DVD extras, Bernard’s work on these effects was beyond the call of duty for directors in any era; but from the early days of the technology, what we have here is, in every sense, astounding.

A list of other social conscience epics of the interwar period might include far better known films like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), in which Paul Muni’s fact-based role comes eerily close to Hugo’s fictional Valjean. Both these movies again stay close to the books on which they’re based – the latter an autobiography by Robert Elliott Burns. But if the only test of lasting merit is the prevention of further suffering inflicted by human beings on each other, neither film achieved anything. Even Chain Gang – which by 1955 had apparently helped end a brutal one-hundred-year-old system – seems ultimately to have failed, the practice being reintroduced in Alabama in the mid-1990s. (Interesting online discussions include supporters who stress that the modern chain gang is “freely chosen’ by inmates wanting to get outside for a bit.)

So, notwithstanding humanist art or realistic biography, we go on hurting each other. “Everybody hurts,” as the song says, reminding us that “hurt’ is an intransitive and a transitive verb: we feel it and do it – even to our own kin. Perhaps especially to them.

As anyone with an eye on contemporary events will notice, in Les Miserables the mass killings on the Paris barricades amount, quelle surprise, to civil war; and in one of the great set pieces of film history, Bernard replicates the huge Delacroix canvas Liberty Leading the People. But, staying close to Hugo and undermining any simplistic notions of socialist victory, he also offers a very modern-looking degree of “proceduralism,”  cutting between the passion of the barricades and the cool backroom preparations of the authorities as they plan to crush the insurgency.

In the book, this is part of Hugo’s attempt to shift literature, with its neo-Napoleonic breed of supermen, toward something less misty-eyed and more credible. He knew well that the remnants of Empire, however unrepresentative and corrupt, would not slink off at first sight of indignant anti-monarchist rebels. Instead, they would, as usual, rely on a compliant military machine to do their dirty work. Hoping to move the novel – if not history – into more positive territory, Hugo was also famously wrestling down his own inner demons, taking the long, bumpy ride with Jean Valjean from “[royalist] darkness to [republican] light.”

Though he chose not to, Bernard’s 1930s film could have played down many of these “uncinematic” nineteenth-century nuances, reducing the text to an internationalist triumph – which in this case would imply something narrowly French. It’s true, after all, that the shadows cast on modern France by nineteenth-century politics seem to pale beside those that still stalk twenty-first-century America. To its credit, Lincoln does not shy away from these painfully unresolved legacies. In a tableau of the surrender at the Appomattox Court House, we see Robert E. Lee saluting back to the Unionist generals as his horse rears up, emphasising its rider’s untameable pride. Indeed, as Spielberg frames it, the whole scene – lighting and soundtrack – is unutterably baleful: the end of this Civil War will, we know, prove anything but the end of bitter social divisions.

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When it comes to enthralling literature, Great Expectations from 1861 and Les Miserables, published the next year must have felt like manna from heaven to publishers and readers alike. Modern experts assure us that, in a 1,500-page book seventeen years in the writing, there are laughs for Hugo readers. This doesn’t alter the received view that, on the page, Hugo is more uniformly serious – certainly less jokey – than the writer who, in 1836, began the whole serialisation revolution with Pickwick Papers.

Starting with Abel Magwitch and Jean Valjean – unlike so many of their fictional predecessors – they turn out to be neither amusingly aberrant nor melodramatically villainous. On the contrary, these “new” characters not only shock us with their sullenness but eventually arouse feelings of deep awe, achieving this with displays of dignity seldom matched in any fiction, before or since.

“Eventually” is a vital, if basic, structural device for all story-tellers; and it’s even useful to critics, when trying to sort through two great novels and their best film adaptations. I’m thinking especially of how these post-romantic-era books tackle social progress without becoming so pious as to kill human interest stone dead.

Magwitch, when we first meet him, is not averse to scarring the psyche of a child if it helps his own bid for freedom; and in Lean’s film Finlay Curry’s physical bulk and flinty features get us straight into a scarily impious brand of survivalism: it’s desperate, of course, and short-sightedly self-centred. Anything less won’t do, because – without spoiling the plot for anyone today – eventually he will emerge as a man who not only remembers a favour, but whose own extraordinary metamorphosis is based on a child’s act of kindness.

Finlay Currie as Magwitch, with Anthony Wager as Young Pip in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946)

In the Mike Newell version of 2012, Ralph Fiennes, despite his comparative lack of bulk, is more than up to the role. Even so, when Magwitch re-emerges to embarrass Pip Pirrip, Fiennes, I think, is too self-knowing; and this does undermine the character’s own sense of recovered self-worth. Curry’s Magwitch is just as embarrassing to Pip, but hasn’t the faintest idea how controlling his behaviour seems. Fiennes, by comparison, is too keen to help us see the over-controlling nature of his behaviour. We – readers and audiences – should notice it, of course, but, as Dickens surely intended, only through Pip. (In this version Jeremy Irvine is perhaps a mite too young for the “older” Pip; but even in the much better 1940s film John Mills has often been seen as “too old.”)

Dickens, of course, wants Magwitch to surprise Pip – and us – with his metamorphosis into someone who’s done “wonderful well” in the New World (Australia) and who, on pain of death, has come back to see for himself what he’s “made” of his protégé.

Less ambivalently, Dickens is also exposing a justice system which works impeccably well – for those prisoners who sell out and spy for “the other side.” The Magwitch vs. Compeyson subplot brings over this point and is given full weight in Newell’s post-Credit Crunch film. By contrast, in Labour Landslide Britain, endemic lack of social justice was – in theory – being booted out; so Lean’s film doesn’t enforce the point with quite so much dark energy.

Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Toby Irvine as young Pip in Mike Newell’s Great Expectations (2012)

But it could be said that Lean is paying closer attention to the doubts and equivocations inherent in the novel. In the 1860s, neither Dickens nor Hugo is ready, for example, to go all out against wealth inequalities per se. More often, their emotional and moral engagement is with the sheer mindlessness of legal and penal institutions which, in reality, did more to block reform than encourage it.

However, to expand the social analysis beyond do-gooding liberalism, Hugo inserts an entire mid-section in his novel – preserved in Bernard’s film – where Valjean can compare himself – and be compared – with professional thieves. The implications at first seem pretty unambiguous: the Thénardiers are a family firm, a sort of ill-dressed Crime Inc. no more sympathetic than any twentieth-century mob. But – as Dickens had hinted with Fagin and Crew – they’re not exactly positioned to become any better than they are. Monsieur Thénardier, for example, suffers from a spinal deformity – no welfare benefits for him, remember – and, to emphasise the point, in Bernard’s film he’s played by an actor who suffers from just such a condition.

Charles Dullin (Thénardier) and Harry Baur (Valjean) in Les Miserables (1933)

When we come to deal with these “hardened” criminals, we can’t forget that Valjean himself first appears as a “rock, a stone, a worse than senseless thing.” The paraphrase of Shakespeare is apt, Hugo being a great admirer of the bard and often using him as a model for his own plays and novels. Though never a professional dramatist, Dickens too led the way in a mid-nineteenth-century burst of bardophilia, endorsing a view of Shakespeare as a great humanist and, more irritatingly for some, as a great egalitarian.

Though Valjean’s metamorphosis into something other than embittered ex-con occurs sooner than that of Magwitch, it’s still a very believably delayed reaction, brought over in Bernard’s film with excruciating intensity. In the English-speaking world, awareness of Harry Baur’s sublime acting powers is limited by the fact that he appeared in so many films which don’t have English subtitles – or not yet(!).

Meanwhile, in the early moments of the plot – and despite a quietly persistent display of trust by a local priest – Valjean’s sullen view of humanity has, indeed, only hardened. So he leaves still holding onto items stolen from the curatage. (No instant moral epiphanies here.)

Intending to sell his swag at the next town, he’s sitting at the roadside when a passing youth asks him to take his foot off a coin just dropped by the young lad. Valjean refuses; and as the boy becomes more insistent, Valjean becomes more threatening, eventually scaring him off completely.

By now he’s standing in a posture of such bear-like aggression not many would stay to argue. Then he looks down and there’s the disputed coin, which he picks up. After several moments of tortured realisation, he tries in vain to call back the youngster – a hand-to-mouth tinker, not a “gentleman” or tenured cleric – whose money he has effectively just stolen. But, unlike the furtive and deliberate theft of silverware from the curatage, this was a completely reflex act. Steal or be stolen from had become second nature: exactly the assumption the justice system made about him when, literally starving, he’d stolen un pain.

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Valjean’s constant would-be nemesis, the policeman Javert, doesn’t know what makes us what we are and does not enquire. But the thing to notice is that – whatever else he might be – he’s not money-driven. Nor does romance or religious motivation appear to spur him on. Instead he’s driven by what Hugo saw as “monomania.” This is another highly ambiguous point: Javert sees himself as someone driven by a rational imperative, untainted by the sort of deranged emotions that came in the wake of the Revolution. He’s morally consistent too, and should he fail to act correctly, he’s able to visit the same retributive severity on himself as on others. Hugo wants, therefore, to paint a picture of this character’s cold insanity. On top of that – as was the case with Compeyson in the Dickens novel – Javert is an indefensibly underhand police spy, another metamorphosing social species who, not far into the future, would become better known as a “detective.”

Javert (Charles Vanel)

In the Bernard film this fascinatingly complex – and very modern-looking – character is given horribly credible life by the brilliant Charles Vanel.

Hugo, then, is as worried about those who care nothing for money as about those who don’t mind how they get it. Coming at the same ambiguities but from a slightly different angle, Dickens homes in on the aspirations of “gentlefolk” who, if they’re not careful, can end up like his own hero, Pip Pirrip, in a nineteenth-century version of the Bullingdon Club.

But I forget – the Bullingdon still endorses the right not just to make money but to make it and spend it any way you darn well please. Mike Newell’s Great Expectations, again very much from the point of view of post-crash Britain, makes this plainer than Lean’s postwar film. On the other hand, Lean’s non-aspirational blacksmith, Joe Gargery, is played by a convincingly working-class actor, Bernard Miles, whereas, to some ears, Jason Flemyng sounds too posh.

These ever-more finely debatable pros and cons suggest that it’s time to draw what conclusions we can. Miss Havisham “made” Estella cold-hearted; Magwitch “made” Pip a snobbish gentleman; and the justice system “made” Magwitch and Jean Valjean not just “in gaol/out of goal” criminals but permanent fugitives.

As I’ve hinted, Dickens and Hugo are also committed to counter-arguments, where beleaguered human beings can, somehow, discover better options. In the novels and their most successful film adaptations, love – romantic and/or spiritual – is neither cynically dismissed nor unambiguously celebrated. The insertion of constant reassurances that Pip and Estella are destined to be together has not warmed audiences to Newell’s film; whereas Lean’s honest presentation of romantic difficulties is not only more faithful to Dickens but, it would seem, more acceptable to most movie fans.

The question remaining in my own mind concerns what movie fans will make of Bernard’s Les Miserables – if and when they get a chance to decide. In an era when religion isn’t getting a great press, a lot might seem to rest here on faith. For example, though it’s a believably delayed reaction, how come Valjean was so moved by a nonjudgemental cleric whose trust, less than a day before, he had blithely betrayed? From that moment he was, indeed, fundamentally altered, to the extent that, on his deathbed, after a life of dedication to others, he needs no priest because: “J’en ai un.’” “I’ve got one.”

Valjean and the cleric, Monseigneur Myriel (Henry Krauss)

In Lean’s Great Expectations, honest filmmaking about the painful uncertainties of romantic love have not deterred a very positive audience response. If this is any guide, maybe I shouldn’t worry about a film where the painful mysteries of spiritual love are treated with the same truthfulness.

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Note: All scenes from films are screenshots.