Lionsgate // 1978 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // September 28th, 2004
The classic story of one man's search for freedom and another's quest for revenge.
One of the most beloved novels in literature is Victor Hugo's classic masterpiece Les Miserables. Despite its monumental length and multilayered storytelling technique, the novel is a quick read that will always stay within the mind of the reader. Hugo's novel is also one of the most widely adapted of literary works. Twenty-three film adaptations have been made to date, with the promise of a twenty-fourth musical version having become an annual event. We turn our attention here to a 1978 adaptation made for television by ITC International, the British studio founded and funded by the late Lord Lew Grade.
The basic story, for those who are unfamiliar with Hugo's novel, revolves around down-on-his-luck Jean Valjean (Richard Jordan, Interiors). He is a poor man who has been imprisoned in Toulon for a five-year sentence. His savage crime: stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Under the thumb of cruel Inspector Javert (Anthony Perkins, Psycho), Valjean makes several escape attempts. All fail, and his sentence is lengthened each time.
After 19 years at Toulon, Valjean finally makes a successful escape. An elderly monsignor takes pity on Valjean and offers him food and shelter. When Valjean is caught with stolen silver, the monsignor tells the police he gave the silver to him. When Valjean asks why a holy man would spare a lowly thief, he simply says he bought his soul and has cast all evil thoughts from it. The response changes Valjean's life forever. Fast-forward five more years. Valjean is now mayor of a small town in France. A new police inspector arrives in town: Javert. Javert recognizes his nemesis and takes steps to bring him back to prison. Of course, complications arise when Valjean adopts the young daughter of a poor worker whom he has aided in the past. Now, he and the girl remain on the run from the determined Javert.
It is difficult for me to have an unbiased opinion of Les Miserables. The novel still remains for me one of the greatest reading experiences I have ever had. Then there is the sobering realization that no adaptation could ever live up to the sweeping epic that is the novel. As is to be expected, John Gay's screenplay drops a number of subplots and characters in order to maintain a coherent story within a reasonable playing time. That having been said, I do believe that this made-for-television adaptation is one of the better attempts. Three things in particular make this version of Les Miserables so rich and memorable.
The first is the location filming. Grade granted director Glenn Jordan permission and unlimited funds to shoot on authentic French locations for exterior shots. Interiors were shot on English soundstages. The breathtaking French locations help give legitimacy to the story and enwrap the viewer in the world of Hugo's work. Gorgeous pastel and spring hues mix with darker, autumnal tones to create the feel of time passing by. All of this is beautifully captured by cinematographer Jean Tournier (The Day of the Jackal). You cannot recreate these locations in another country or soundstage, which is what hampered previous screen versions. France is as much a character in Hugo's story as the protagonists, and this film gets it right.
The second element in this adaptation's success is the well-written screenplay. John Gay faces a daunting task: creating a coherent screenplay out of a labyrinthine, mammoth novel. His screenplay boils the story down to the bare essentials plotwise. However, he retains the deep characterizations and brusque dialogue that made the novel so memorable.
The third and most important element is the acting. The cast is composed of well-known and talented actors, among them the great John Gielgud, Ian Holm, and Cyril Cusack. The standouts are Richard Jordan, who plays Valjean, and Anthony Perkins, cast as Javert. Jordan, who passed away in 1993, was one of those actors from whom you could always expect an interesting, often brooding performance. That element is certainly present in Les Miserables. However, he also infuses his performance with sympathetic qualities that make it easy to root for him even in the face of utter doom. Perkins, who left this world the year before Jordan, spent the remainder of his career trying to step out of the long shadow created by his mesmerizing performance in Psycho. I always felt that he did manage to overcome that shadow, creating a collection of intelligent, offbeat performances in films both good and bad. His work in Les Miserables is a masterstroke. Rather than employing the trademark nervousness he exhibited in many films, here he is confident and determined. Despite seeming downright vindictive and petty, Perkins adds hints that there is something more to Javert than one would think -- perhaps sympathy toward his quarry.
Lions Gate presents Les Miserables in a full-frame transfer. Since this production was made for television, this is the appropriate presentation. The transfer itself is quite good. The print is color corrected, offering nice, vibrant color throughout the feature. The sole imperfections are a variety of white- and black-colored specks, which are seen throughout the film. Grain is kept to an astonishing low. I'm willing to bet that this 1978 TV movie hasn't looked this good since the premiere.
There is a bit of a controversy over the version of Les Miserables that appears on this Lions Gate disc. According to Leonard Maltin's Film and Video Guide, Les Miserables premiered in 1978 with a running time of 150 minutes. Some people I have talked to claim to recall a two-night, four-hour version. However, the print featured on the disc runs 123 minutes. If anyone out there can offer a definitive answer, please contact me via e-mail.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround stereo. Lions Gate has done fine work with the audio mix, creating a clean, crisp sound. Dialogue sounds clear and bold. The majestic score by Allyn Ferguson boldly bursts through the speakers. There is some hiss and light crackling during silent scenes, but that is a side effect from analog recording and will not disturb you.
Lions Gate offers no extras on this disc. Since Lions Gate was once Artisan Entertainment, I am not surprised by the lack of extras.
Les Miserables remains one of the most powerful and moving tales ever told in any form. This 1978 adaptation may not be wholly faithful to the novel, but it retains the spirit and power of Hugo's tale. Lions Gate offers the disc as part of a budget line, which makes this an attractive blind buy.
I cannot bring myself to allow Jean Valjean to be punished by this court. I proclaim him innocent of all charges. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated