Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (The Wretched) is a wonder. At over 1500 pages, it examines a time, a place and various people as well as any novel could hope.
Published in 1862 (the US Civil War was a year old), Hugo wrote the novel in exile from France. In 1848, Napoleon III (a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) was elected to a four year term as President of the France. In 1851, he declared himself Emperor of France and created a dictatorship. Hugo was a vocal critic and exiled for his views.
Hugo had established his reputation over twenty years before with the the publication of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831. Tha novel helped to revive the fortunes of Notre Dame cathedral by making it the central character in the novel (the French title of this book is Notre-Dame de Paris or Our Lady of Paris) As a result, Notre Dame underwent a significant renovation, including the refurbishment of the spire that fell in the recent fire.
All of this is to say that when Hugo published Les Miserables, he had a substantial following and the reception given to his new novel was unparalleled in the history of publishing up to that time.
The novel follows the fortunes of one man, Jean Valjean, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. There are too many characters to name, but the major ones all revolve around the story of Jean Valjean. Javert is a police inspector who vows to bring Valjean to justice when Valjean steals again after his release from prison. For over 17 years, Javert pursues Valjean who has changed his name and become a respectable citizen, a mayor of his town and owner of a prosperous business. One day, he dismisses a female employee, Fantine, for lying and her life slowly slips into poverty and degradation as she desperately tries to keep her daughter, Cosette, from suffering the same fate. Valjean regrets what he did and seeks out Fantine and, later, her daughter whom he raises as his own.
Les Miserables has been made into numerous movies and TV series, beginning with a 1909 silent version. The story has so many characters and plot twists that no movie, no TV series, can do it justice. Most follow the main branch - Javert's quest to capture Valjean and Valjean's relationship with Fantine and her daughter, Cosette.
PBS' Masterpiece Theater brings us a new version in a six-part series. What makes this version exceptional is that it is written by Andrew Davies who wrote the original BBC version of House of Cards (take a look at my review comparing the American version with Davies'). Davies knows how to tell complicated stories and, more importantly, is aware of all the previous versions of Les Miserables and knows better than to follow the usual well-worn template. As a result, we see parts of Les Miserables never before explored on film (or in that popular stage musical version).
The cast is outstanding, but then actors have been drawn to these incredible characters for over a century. Dominic West (Jean Valjean) made his mark in The Wire and more recently in The Affair. David Oyelowo (Javert) had his break-out performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. Lily Collins (Fantine) was in Love, Rosie, and The Blind Side. Olivia Colman, direct from her Oscar winning turn in The Favorite plays the mother of all wicked step-mothers, Madame Thénardier, while Adeel Akhtar slimes along as her husband.
The casting is totally blind as it should be. Davies does an interesting thing with the language - all the characters speak English with no phoney French accents but the background talk, say in a crowd, are in French as are all the written materials - like wanted posters of Valjean. In this way, we get the flavor of the original language within an English version of the novel - very clever and I am unaware of it ever having been done before.
In the end, West and Oyelowo have the laboring oars and propel this version of Les Miserables to the top among only a handful of great versions of this timeless tale - you really cannot help but use cliches in dealing with a book of this scope and depth - and humanity.