The BBC’s new adaptation of Les Misérables has finally come to TV – but anyone expecting an all-singing, all-dancing version of the hit stage musical may find themselves a little surprised by the series, which is actually a straight dramatic adaptation of the original 1862 Les Mis novel written by Victor Hugo.
In other words, there are no songs. And in telling the story over six hour-long episodes, screenwriter Andrew Davies has also chosen to include parts of the novel that are only referred to in backstory in the shorter musical, making for a slightly different viewing experience.
With that in mind, we thought it might be useful to compare this new adaptation with the musical, which is probably the most famous version of this story, rather than the comparatively less well-known novel that both works were adapted from.
First, though, a note. Obviously many of the differences between the two adaptations come from Davies drawing extra material from the original novel, so the intention here isn’t to suggest which parts are new additions invented by the BBC.
Rather, we’ll be looking at each episode to see which elements of the book the TV adaptation has chosen to include, versus the parts the musical (and by extension, the 2012 film) went for.
And the differences are rather intriguing…
After a bit of an absence, this episode sees Marius (now played by Josh O’Connor) rejoin the story, and there are quite a few differences with how he’s portrayed here versus the musical.
The continuing backstory about his father and grandfather is (as noted below) not included in the musical at all, and other scenes in this episode – including Marius’ meeting with the Friends of the ABC revolutionaries and Eponine – have already happened by the time we meet him in the stage production.
It’s also worth noting that Marius’ political views are subtly different in the TV adaptation, once again taking its lead from Victor Hugo’s novel. In the musical, Marius is a paid-up member of the Friends of the ABC, committed to their cause of revolution and democracy for the people.
Here, by contrast, he begins the episode as a royalist and ends it as a Bonapartist, both more conservative positions than the revolutionaries, of whom he is not really a member – more of a hanger-on and drinking companion, at least for now.
And then there’s Cosette (now played by Ellie Bamber). In the musical, Marius first sees Cosette while he’s handing out leaflets and she and Valjean are trying to aid the poor, and he falls instantly in love. Here, they instead encounter each other in the Luxembourg gardens in Paris, and build up a slow flirtation over a number of meetings.
The sequence where Marius finds out about the Thenardiers’ planned attack on Valjean also has no direct counterpart in the musical, and the plot detail that Marius owes a debt to Thenardier – mistakenly believing that he saved his father’s life, when he was really just robbing bodies – is left out of the theatrical adaptation.
Valjean and Cosette’s storyline, meanwhile, also fills in a few gaps left by the musical. Continuing on from last week, this episode sees the conclusion of the pair’s time living in a convent, before moving to a new house on the Rue Plumet. In the musical, we meet Valjean and Cosette again when they’re already living in this house, leaving the years after her time at the Thenardiers’ inn a mystery.
Scenes of Cosette learning her mother’s true(ish) fate, being exposed to convicts (inadvertently insulting Valjean in the process), trying on dresses and fighting with Valjean don’t appear in the musical either, which is a shame as a makeover section would really jazz up Act Five.
Meanwhile, the Thenardiers also get a bit more backstory in this episode. Their attempted blackmail of Valjean while living under a fake name (Jondrette) doesn’t appear in the musical, nor does the scene where Valjean fights off their gang Jason Statham-style.
There is a SIMILAR scene in the musical, mind you, which sees them attack Valjean the first time they see him before being stopped by Javert, but it progresses slightly differently.
More extraneous details including Eponine’s harsh life, the inclusion of her siblings Azelma and Gavroche (the BBC dramatization has the latter a Thenardier, unlike the musical) and the lonely life of David Oyelowo’s Javert also serve to add new shades to the story compared to the musical version. Now, with just two episodes left, it remains to be seen how many more differences there are for us to spot…
The third episode of the BBC adaptation may be the most action-packed yet, which means there’s quite a lot of ground for us to cover in musical/TV differences.
To begin with, let’s look at Jean Valjean. Valjean’s confession and his successful attempt to free the man falsely accused of his crimes unfolds more or less as it does onstage, though with certain extra detail (the prison snitches, how Valjean convinces the judge and more details of the man mistaken for him) that wouldn’t necessarily fit in the theatrical adaptation.
However, Valjean’s return to Montreiul-sur-Mer, already arrested by Javert, is different from the musical which sees Valjean fleeing the trial and returning home to see Fantine again before she dies. Instead, the BBC version shows Javert taking Valjean back to the town to shame him in front of the people who had once respected him as Mayor.
In the musical, Javert and Valjean subsequently confront each other at the hospital and then Valjean escapes again – but in one of the biggest differences in this episode, Dominic West’s Valjean DOES go back into custody, sent back to the prison for life (something that also happens in Victor Hugo’s original novel).
TV Valjean escapes eventually – but in the stage production he never returns to prison, instead fleeing to rescue Cosette and raise her shortly after Fantine’s death.
In the BBC adaptation, it’s two years before he finds Cosette (we actually see them meet in the woods here, while in the musical that happens offstage), though he does eventually make it to the Thénardiers’ pub, where their cruelty to Fantine’s daughter is even more pronounced than it is onstage.
Interestingly, as part of that scene, the TV adaptation includes a shot of Cosette standing with an oversized broom that may be inspired by a similar and well-known illustration from Hugo’s book, a portion of which also serves as the internationally-known logo for Les Misérables the musical – in other words, a nice connection between multiple versions of the story.
Valjean’s arrival and offer of 1,500 francs for Cosette is pretty consistent across all versions of the story, though Monsieur Thénardier’s attempt to follow Valjean and Cosette and extort more money out of them has no place in the musical.
Following on from this, the BBC adaptation sees Valjean and Cosette living together happily in France for a time, before the actions of a local busybody require them to flee again and take refuge in a convent, where Valjean is to work as a gardener.
With Javert on the pair’s tail, their actions are drastic – though unlike the book, the BBC version of the story eliminates the role of Fauchelevent, the man Valjean saved from being crushed by a cart in episode two, who in the book helps the two of them take refuge in the convent (where Fauchelevent already works).
By contrast, the musical essentially skips all this action following Valjean’s rescue of Cosette, only picking up again when she’s an adult and the pair are living in quiet prosperity in a large house.
Moving forward, it’s unclear whether TV Les Mis will now jump forward to meet older Marius and show Valjean/Cosette living that good life in Paris, or whether we’ll continue to see how they ended up in that position in the first place – but either way, we’ll be here to ring (or at least, examine) the changes.
Like the first instalment (see below), Davies’ second episode continues to add background that was only referred to in passing during the musical.
For example, we see a little more of Marius’ Napoleon loyalist father (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and his death, possibly prefiguring Marius’ own anti-establishment political views as a young man, as well as Fantine’s (Lily Collins) decision to leave her daughter in the care of the Thénardiers (their arrangement already exists by the time we meet Fantine in the musical) and Valjean’s election as Mayor.
Other parts of the story, meanwhile, continue much as we would see them onstage. As in the musical, Fantine loses her job, sells her hair and teeth and becomes a prostitute before attacking a man who is cruel to her, causing her near-arrest by Javert (David Oyelowo) and her rescue by Jean Valjean (Dominic West).
However, how Fantine loses her job is portrayed as more directly Valjean’s fault. In the musical, it is in his absence that she is dismissed by a cruel foreman (whose advances she refused), and Valjean is only really guilty of passivity and self-involvement. Here, he directly fires Fantine when his forewoman accuses her of lying to them about her child, a conclusion reached after some investigation that we don’t see in the musical. In the BBC’s adaptation, it’s also suggested she can’t read, with a letter writer mediating her communications with the Thénardiers.
Valjean and Javert’s interaction also plays out slightly differently. In the musical, Javert initially does not suspect Valjean’s true identity when he meets him as “Mayor Madeleine,” only beginning to question it when he sees him rescue someone being crushed by a cart (showing off the distinctive strength he displayed while imprisoned).
However, in the BBC adaptation Javert almost immediately recognises Valjean and subtly taunts him with this fact, hoping to eventually bring him to justice once he finds more evidence. The cart incident, while still taking place, now forms a piece of this evidence instead of igniting Javert’s suspicions.
The BBC adaptation (and Javert)’s focus on Petit-Gervais – the little boy Valjean stole a coin from, who also appears in the book – also differs from the musical, which mainly sees Javert keen to bring Valjean to justice for breaking his parole. Here, it seems the theft of the coin from Petit-Gervais is a large part of what Valjean would be arrested for.
Subsequently, Javert’s discovery that another man is to be prosecuted for Valjean’s crimes and Valjean’s anguish over this fact proceeds similarly to the musical storyline – though sadly, there’s no big introspective monologue from West to match the “Who Am I” song from the stage production.
The other main prong of the episode – the proper introduction of the Thénardiers – will be fairly familiar to fans of the musical also, though there are some subtle details here not in the stage adaptation.
For example, most of the Thénardiers’ children don’t appear in the musical – Gavroche, their son, does, but is not suggested to be related to them – with the BBC adaptation taking its lead from the book to include other siblings alongside Eponine (their only child seen in the stage production).
Monsieur Thénardier’s “heroism” at Waterloo is similarly not seen in the musical, alongside the more dysfunctional, abusive side to the Thénardiers’ marriage that the BBC version showcases.
And no, there are still no songs. On to episode three!
The first episode of this new adaptation is almost entirely separate from the action of the musical, often choosing (perhaps consciously) to cover ground only referred to retrospectively in the stage version.
For example, the opening scene of the Battle of Waterloo’s aftermath featuring Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar) has no place in the musical, which traditionally opens with Jean Valjean’s time in a penal colony. In the musical, Thénardier turns up much later, and according to Davies himself (writing in the Christmas issue of the Radio Times) the character will be woven throughout this adaptation, as he is in the novel.
In the same scene we also meet Colonel Baron Pontmercy (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, pictured), the Napoleon-allied father of lead character Marius. Pontmercy Snr is not a character in the musical, and we never meet Marius as a child as we do here – instead, in the stage production he’s introduced as an adult when the action jumps to 1832.
As in this new adaptation, Marius is raised by his wealthy grandfather in the musical (the character makes a short appearance in the 2012 film), but the tension between his father and grandfather is not a major story point.
And the differences don’t stop with the Pontmercy family. Fantine (Lily Collins), arguably one of the most iconic characters in the musical, is introduced in that production as already a mother, having given birth to her daughter Cosette some time before she first appears in the section of the story set in 1823.
The story we see in this episode – where she’s seduced and then abandoned by a well-off young man (Johnny Flynn) – is only referred to in retrospect in the musical, most notably in Les Mis’s best-known song I Dreamed a Dream. She sings:
He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came
This roughly correlates to what we see in episode one, where we witness Fantine’s relationship with Felix from beginning to end. Presumably, future episodes will pick up her storyline where the musical does, when Cosette is living with the Thénardiers.
So yes, quite a lot is changed – but these differences aren’t to say that fans of the musical will have nothing to recognise in this new version of the story. Jean Valjean’s (Dominic West’s) storyline is more or less the same as it appears in the musical, with both stories following him from imprisonment under the eye of Javert to a difficult parole, to the house of the Bishop (Derek Jacobi) whose kindness (and gift of silverware) eventually changes his life.
Even a couple of lines are shared in the musical and the TV drama. There’s Javert’s (David Oyelowo’s) habit of referring to Valjean by his prisoner number 24601, a regular feature of the musical, while the Bishop’s assertion that he has “bought” Valjean’s soul for God is one of that character’s sung lines in the stage production as well.
Still, even this storyline has some differences, showing us a longer period of Valjean’s imprisonment – in the musical, he’s released at the start – and a slower redemption for the character, who takes a little longer to take the Bishop’s advice.
Overall, then, it’s a good mix of the familiar and the less-familiar in the series’ first episode, with one notable quirk – the opening caption explaining the year and historical context of Davies’s piece has a similar thrust to the caption that also opens the 2012 movie adaptation of the musical, in what’s probably a complete coincidence.
Exhibit A, from the movie musical:
1815. Twenty six years after the start of the French Revolution a King is once again on the throne of France.
Exhibit B, from the new BBC drama:
June 1815. After twenty years of war France is defeated. Napoleon is exiled. A new King is waiting to be crowned. The old order will be restored. The revolution forgotten.
Going forward, it may be that the two versions of the story dovetail much more, or it could be that the greater sprawl of the novel influenced Davies to create something almost unrecognisable to fans of the Les Mis musical.
Either way, we can’t wait to see what happens next.
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