Top 10 Les Mizzes Better Than the New Les Miz

The movie musical is already a worldwide hit, but lovers of the Victor Hugo novel can find many more satisfying versions: on film, TV, the radio and YouTube

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The new movie Les Misérables — the one with all the singing and dying — is already a palpable hit, having earned about $60 million in North America and more than $100 million worldwide in its first six days. The grumpiness of a few critics, including this one, won’t stop Tom Hooper’s screen version of the 1985 West End musical from cleaning up at the box office and earning Oscar nominations galore. But love it or hate it, the current film is just one of about 30 screen adaptations of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel describing the travels and travails of the saintly ex-convict Jean Valjean, his decades-long pursuer Inspector Javert, the waif Fantine, her daughter Cosette, the nasty, innkeeping Thénardiers and their daughter Éponine. For Les Mizophiles and Les Mizanthropes alike, here’s one man’s countdown of some of the worthiest versions — movies, stage shows, concerts, TV and radio adaptations and a few YouTube parodies.

10. Les Misérables, 1952 Hollywood film

Four years after its 1923 founding, TIME first reviewed a Les Miz film: Henri Fescourt’s French silent version, starring Gabriel Gabrio as Jean Valjean and Jean Toulot as Inspector Javert. That the Hugo novel was already a popular template for filmmakers was noted by TIME’s reviewer: “Cinemaddicts recalled another Les Misérables, in which William Farnum appeared almost a decade ago [Frank Lloyd's 1917 version]. Less faithful in transcription, it had, at least, dramatic structure.”

(READ: a 1927 review of the French silent film Les Misêrables by subscribing to TIME)

The novel’s dramatic structure had become a familiar domicile by 1952, as proved by 20th Century-Fox’s adaptation from screenwriter Richard Murphy (who scripted Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! and Panic in the Streets) and director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front). A fairly close remake of the much superior 1935 Fox version, which we’ll get to shortly, this one stars Michael Rennie as Jean Valjean and Robert Newton as Javert. Rennie, who the previous year had played the extraterrestrial emissary Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, is called on here to display a similar brand of otherworldliness: a sanctified masochism that makes Valjean an explicitly Messianic figure. Newton, known to kiddies as Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island, could project a manly rascality, but the demonic obsessiveness of Javert is outside his skill set.

(READ: TIME’s review of Robert Newton in the 1950 Treasure Island)

Newton takes third billing behind the lissome Debra Paget, who lends Cosette a sex appeal this demure daughter often lacks. Joseph Wiseman, the elegantly saturnine actor who was the first Bond villain in Dr. No, lends his powers of seductive rhetoric to the role of Javert’s galley-mate Genflou. Rennie also plays Champmathieu, the addled idler who is tried as Jean Valjean until the real Valjean publicly declares his convict past. Most of the lead actors in Les Misérables movies have taken both roles; one who didn’t was Jean Gabin in the 1958 French film.

9. YouTube and Simpsons parodies of Les Misérables

Given the ubiquitous impact of the Les Miz musical on popular culture, we are almost surprised by the paucity of parodies. In its early seasons, The Simpsons made frequent and cunning references to Jean Valjean’s prison number — 24601 — as worn variously by Marge Simpson, Principal Skinner and Sideshow Bob. But if you search YouTube for, say, a singing-kitten spoof of Les Miz, you’re likely to get a splicing of this musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. The mini-opera “Les Miseranimals,” a musical burlesque featuring the critters from Steven Spileberg’s Animaniacs, has polish but is vitiated by changing the music just enough to keep original composer Claude-Michel Schônberg from suing for copyright infringement. The Australian cast of Les Miz gets a good score for expertly recapping the narrative to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” even as it loses points for having no particular reason to exist.

In this limited company, we give a runner-up award for Most Pointed Satire to a College Parody that compares Hugo’s student uprising to the current depression market for recent graduates. And pride of place goes to “The Les Miserables Song (Spoof),” in which nine young USC grad students with excellent singing voices play all the major roles and perform the first-act finale, “One Day More.” Fantine sings, “I sing one song and then I die/But I come back for the finale.” This is satire with affection: As the cast sings, “We are all Les Miserables,/Or in English we’re just sad./We are all Les Miserables,/But the music’s not half bad.” And this video, from abbegirl, is half-great.

8. Les Misérables, 1978 TV movie

Richard Jordan, the Harvard-educated scion of a distinguished Manhattan family and the possessor of a keen screen intelligence, had starred in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and the TV miniseries Captain and the Kings before headlining this Lew Grade production. Never was a Jean Valjean so lusciously hunky. And never was Javert such a stuffed bird — naturally, since he was played by Anthony Perkins in full taxidermized Mother Bates dudgeon. Directed by TV-movie specialist Glenn Jordan (The Picture of Dorian Gray), and adapted by indefatigable screenwriter John Gay (who also scripted a TV version of Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the film is notable for the strongest supporting cast of any Mis movie: John Gielgud as Gillenormand; Ian Holm as the nasty innkeeper Thénardier; Calude Dauphin as the kindly Bishop of Digne; Cyril Cusack as the gardener Fauchelevent; Celia Johnson as Sister Simplice; and Flora Robson as the Prioress. The guest spots offer regular respite from the so-so plot précis of this middling epic.

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9 comments
sw
sw

Richard Corliss obviously had no experience of "Les Misérables" beyond these film or possibly the cliff notes. If he is willing to rate YouTube parodies above it you know you're not reading the reaction of an informed person.

Case in point: He includes the horribly offensive 1998 film version. The 1998 film turns Jean Valjean's and Fantine's into a completely improbably and ridiculous romance. The bishop is an old sarcastic geezer. Cosette packs heat (I knew they'd have to give Clare Danes a gun at some point in that thing). And Valjean hits everyone Javert, the bishop and even Cosette. Javert is turned into a super villain and the ending … Valjean watches Javert's "end" and runs off happy about it. If Valjean had actually seen it, he would have tried to save Javert. He saved him once he'd save him again. But either way he'd never smile about it.

And the 1952 U.S. version with Michael Rennie rightfully deserves a place in Mystery Science Theater mockery. It's that bad.

Now, I love the French 1958 film, but Corliss should really go watch it again and when he talks about how great it is. There's no way you can artistically excuse that film's use of voiceover narration. That narrator talks almost constantly in that film and most of what he says is redundant: "Jean Valjean found himself in the sewers" -- well, duh!

The so-so 1935 U.S. version may have great performances from the two leads. But the script is terrible. The confrontational themes are watered down into milquetoast "do good .. love." Wouldn't want anyone to really talk about God now would we?

LJDH
LJDH

The writer has an admirably obscure knowledge of 1930s radio production, which I respect (kind of), but I can't help but think this list is a little over the top. The new film version is as much of a "thrilling emotional experience" as any of the others. Stop being such a grouch!

RonnieSimmons
RonnieSimmons

I wholeheartedly agree with the choice of 1934 - 1935 film as the best adaptation. None of the others comes close, especially the new one, which is far inferior to all ten on the list. V. Hugo would be insulted to know that his epic was made into a musical.

mlktrout
mlktrout

My response seems to have been deleted. Hmmm. I will say it again, more carefully this time: you lost all credibility with this list. In particular the Liam Neeson version, which resembles Hugo's book in plot and in spirit about as much as a Basset Hound resembles an Irish wolfhound. I get it--you don't like the new musical of the movie, but you're being ridiculous in pulling out deservedly mothballed adaptations like the Neeson version and proclaim them better. I've seen about seven of the movies in your list and I have the feeling that you never saw any of them yourself.

SeattleBill
SeattleBill

you're going a bit overboard in your hatred of this film. it's a bit weird. you're being not only annoying but trying desperately to justify your nasty, mean-spirited review. maybe TIME for a new film critic? less cranky and old?

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

Corliss, stop being such a snob.  They're all fabulous, including the current movie.

sayari10
sayari10

1998's  version isn't any good because it left out Eponine!

rksteg
rksteg

Number 6, the 1998 movie directed by Bille August. He is NOT a Swedish director, but Danish, which any quick search would've told you.

mlktrout
mlktrout

@sw THANK YOU! I said some similar things about the atrocious Liam Neeson version in my original reply and someone deleted it. Glad to know the truth cannot be suppressed for long. That movie was revisionism at its worst. 

By the way, for anyone who wants to see what Valjean would really have done if he'd seen Javert about to kill himself, find a copy of Arlene Harris's wonderful book, "Pont-au-Change: Resurrections" at Amazon (hardcopy) or Smashwords.com (ebook). I first read it ten years ago; recently reread it for the first time in a long time and was blown away all over again.