Taking 150 Years to Read 1500 Pages

It's been 150 years since Victor Hugo published his epic novel 'Les Misérables', and few texts have traveled across time and media with such enduring

The release of Tom Hooper's new film version of the beloved stage musical of Les Misérables coincided with the start of our project, just as we were preparing to use Hugo's novel as one of our test cases for the timeline prototype (and just as I was working through versions of the novel for my own research on Hugo).

In our age of 'the 99%', Les Misérables remains as relevant as ever, but answers to its moral and social dilemmas are far from easy. Equally persistent in its trickiness is the question of how to adapt a 150-year-old, 1500-page novel to different formats, especially in light of the novel's historical sweep and lengthy narrative digressions.

As the film's screenwriter William Nicholson told me just before we took part in a vibrant Q&A panel in London last weekend (above), Hugo's novel is in many ways a mess, and yet it hangs together brilliantly.

That brilliance has inspired successive generations to return to the story and, to an extent, make it their own across an ever-widening array of adaptations, from stage plays and recitals to over 60 film and television films.

The new film is itself powerful and ambitious, with visual cues to the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, along with a central focus on the human worth of society's disenfranchised. It sensibly treated the musical with reverence, but to tease out more of the central narrative, it also intelligently returned to the novel (as well as it seems to cinematic influences like Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc).

For some critics, the film's intimate camera and forthright pace has been overwhelming, even suffocating. At well over two and a half hours long, the story of redemption and sacrifice against the backdrop of revolution has been described as bloated and tedious by some due to its recitative singing and the intended gravity of its themes.

Readers of Hugo's novel were able to digest numerous volumes across several months, with the benefit of narrative digressions to ease the pace and tease subsequent episodes. In contrast, cinema-goers today are taken on something of an emotional rollercoaster which accelerates more than it relents so as to cover the story and channel the energy of the human spirit.

However, the film's mostly relentless pace heightens (even frightens) our emotions in ways that are arguably in keeping with Hugo's own belief that an encounter with a story should move us and wrench us loose from any inert thinking or feelings. Interestingly, the comparison between book and film reveals similar effects but quite different patterns of attention, something that is at the forefront of our minds as we think of the tablet user for our project, who has portable control and yet also has multiple distractions (such as surroundings or social media).

For a novel that is so often described as timeless, time and its figurations remain central to how we experience this literary landmark in its diverse guises. As our project develops yet another new form in which Les Misérables could be experienced, I suspect that I’ll be hearing the people sing for some time yet.

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