What are the differences between Les Misérables the musical and the new BBC TV series?
The BBC adaptation is based on Victor Hugo’s original novel, so there are quite a few changes from what you might have seen on the West End
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.
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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…
And now, the end is here – but as our heroes faced the final curtain, what would fans of the Les Mis musical have seen for the first time here?
A lot of the action in this final episode is shared with the stage production, with the death of Gavroche occurring in a similar fashion (shot while trying to retrieve spare ammo from dead soldiers) and the revolutionary students being overrun by soldiers after the collapse of other uprisings.
The key difference, though, is that this TV adaptation goes into a great deal more depth in the students’ realisation that their cause is hopeless. In the musical, they realise this fairly late in the game and only have a brief final defence after learning the truth. Here, they learn that the other barricades have come down near the beginning of the episode, and have the time to send home anyone who doesn’t need to be there, before defending themselves in a much more extended battle scene than the musical offers.
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Generally, there’s significantly more action and fighting here, as can be expected given the limitations of live staging.
As in the musical, Valjean joins the students at the barricade, but here he does so much later in the narrative. In the stage adaptation Valjean turns up the night before the final attack, long before it has become clear things are hopeless for the Friends of the ABC, while this BBC adaptation has him join the defence right before the students are overrun.
His motives for going to them also differ in the new TV adaptation, which makes explicitly clear that Valjean is considering murdering Marius to keep him away from Cosette. The musical Valjean has more honourable motives.
In both versions of the story, Valjean is granted leave to slay the captured Javert, though for slightly different reasons – in the musical he saves Enjolras from a sniper, here he reinforces the barricade – and at different times. In the musical, he pretends to kill him (instead releasing him) fairly soon after his arrival, and a long while before the final attack.
Here, it’s during the thick of the fighting that he sets Javert free – though in other ways the pair’s interaction is very similar to the musical. In the BBC drama, David Oyelowo’s Javert notes that “a blade would be more your style” when he believes Valjean is about to cut his throat. Similarly, in the musical one of Javert’s lyrics during this scene is “How right you should kill with a knife.”
After the attack from the soldiers, in both the musical and TV adaptation Valjean escapes with a wounded Marius through the sewers, where he encounters Thenardier (though in the BBC adaptation he helps Valjean and Marius escape, while in the musical version he just tries to rob him) before being apprehended by Javert at the exit.
Here, though, the two adaptations take their biggest divergence. In the musical, Valjean persuades Javert to let him go again, leading Javert to question his life choices and kill himself – whereas in Andrew Davies’ new adaptation, Valjean actually IS arrested once more after delivering Marius to his grandfather.
The following sequence of Valjean and Javert in the carriage, and the policeman’s decision to let his captive go free after dropping him at his house for a quick farewell to Cosette, never appear in the musical, along with subsequent scenes of Javert returning to the police station to hand in his notice before deciding to end his life.
Back at Marius’ home, we see more of his convalescence alongside his repentant grandfather (as noted multiple times below, Marius’ family life isn’t fleshed out in the musical), while the setting of one of Les Miserables’ most famous songs – Empty Chairs At Empty Tables, sung when Marius sadly looks around the old pub he and his now-dead friends used to visit – does not have a counterpart here.
The scene where Valjean reveals the truth of his criminal past is subtly different in the TV adaptation compared to the musical. On stage, he explains his run-ins with the law and Marius begs him to stay, while in the BBC version Marius also believes he has killed Javert (a falsehood Valjean does not deny) and more coldly agrees to his exile.
The discovery of the truth follows similarly in both adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel, though with a couple of significant differences. In the musical, Thenardier and his wife turn up at Marius and Cosette’s wedding, trying to charm their way into some cash by telling them they’d seen Valjean murdering a young man in the sewer – as it turns out, the unconscious Marius, alerting him that he actually owes his life to Cosette’s stepfather.
But in this episode of the TV adaptation, Thenardier delivers the same message alone (his wife remaining in prison after episode five, presumably) quite a few weeks after the wedding, when Marius and Cosette have returned from their honeymoon.
The effect – inspiring the pair to rush to Valjean’s side, just in time for his death – is the same either way, though Valjean’s death is less otherworldly here. In the musical, he’s greeted by the spectres of the deceased Fantine and Marius’ revolutionary friends, leading to a resounding chorus of Do You Hear the People Sing?
By contrast, the TV adaptation ends on a more downbeat note, focusing the camera on two young street-children we met in a previous episode, ignored by passers-by as they beg for food.
In a way, this last change is indicative of the differences that exist throughout these two adaptations, both of which focus their scale on different areas, aim for different tones (the TV version is a fair bit more downbeat) and end up with different, but fairly complementary, versions of the same basic story.
I did still miss the songs, though, right to the end.
This week’s episode revolves around a central part of the musical’s action, namely the failed attempt at a revolution by the Friends of the ABC (the historical 1832 June Rebellion) that forms the majority of the stage production’s second half.
While some of the barricade section of the story remains to be concluded in the BBC drama’s final episode, the way that it plays out here is fairly similar to the musical (particularly Javert’s arrival and discovery by Gavroche), albeit with a few exceptions.
Notably, the BBC TV version goes into a lot more detail as to the historical context for the raising of the barricades, including scenes of General LaMarque’s funeral and emphasising the students’ connections with other interested parties (sympathetic army commanders are mentioned) in rising up.
Marius’ involvement in the revolution also changes. In the musical, the news of Cosette’s departure for England does, like here, inspire him to join his fellows at the barricade – but in the stage version it’s presented as him still believing in the cause, whereas the TV version of the character openly states it’s a way for him to die and escape his misery, with little care for the politics. Marius’ threat to blow himself up to protect the barricade also feeds into this difference, and never happens in the musical.
Elsewhere, Marius’ storyline has a few other differences. As has been mentioned in previous weeks of this round-up, scenes involving Marius’ grandfather weren’t included in the musical (though he does crop up in the movie musical briefly), so the clash between Gillenormond and his grandson is a change.
Eponine and Marius’ relationship, meanwhile, progresses fairly similarly to how it does in the musical, with Thenardier’s daughter inadvertently helping her unrequited love find Cosette, protecting Valjean and Cosette by screaming outside their gates when her father tries to rob them, then taking a bullet for Marius on the barricade.
If there is a change, it’s in Eponine’s love for Marius being more explicit, and her decision to warn Valjean of the break-in seen as an attempt to keep Marius and Cosette apart.
Other differences in this episode include Eponine’s father, whose prison break storyline has no place in the musical (where he doesn’t go to prison in the first place). In both versions of the story he does, however, enlist his gang to try and rob Valjean only to be foiled by Eponine (as mentioned above).
Thenardier’s son Gavroche, meanwhile, plays an interesting role. While his involvement in the attempted revolution is consistent with how he appears in the musical (making this his first appearance in the TV series that matches the stage version) it’s worth noting that both his age and character have been slightly altered. This Gavroche is older than audiences will be used to seeing, and his attitude to death and violence is a little unsettling, marking quite a departure from his musical counterpart.
He does, however, fulfil one of the key storyline roles in both versions of the story – delivering the letter from Marius to Cosette via Valjean, which inspires the ex-convict to head down to the barricade and meet the man who’s been wooing his adopted daughter. As for how that will go down, well, there’s only one episode left to find out…
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:
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.
This article was originally published in December 2018