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The taming of the true.

Showing a cultured regard for great literary works, Hollywood studios like to undertake a classic now and then. But as directors struggle to make these films seem anything like a lit assignment, culture columnist Patrick McCormick says that trimming original material for short attention spans may cut the heart out of the story.

Mark Twain notes in The Disappearance of Literature that a classic is something everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. It's a comment that strikes me as particularly ironic after having seen the most recent film version of Victor Hugo's masterpiece, Les Miserables. Ironic because while Twain was probably dead right in thinking that most of us would just as soon spend an evening in a dentist's chair as pass it reading something by Herman Melville, Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, we seem to have no trouble flocking to the local octiplex every time one of their works appears on screen. But it's also ironic because I spent the last 40 minutes of this calm, overly quaint version of one of literature's greatest stories checking my watch. I'd rather have read the book.

It's easy to see why literary classics have often fared so well at the box office. As the theologian William Spohn noted, a classic is a work of such depth and resonance that it can say something important to generations and cultures far beyond its original audience. And over the past century Hollywood has found it eminently profitable to tell and retell countless versions of these stories.

Indeed, not only have we seen a recent glut of films and miniseries based on the works of Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), Alexandre Dumas (The Man in the Iron Mask), Dickens (Great Expectations), Melville (Moby Dick), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), and, of course, the ubiquitous Austen (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility), but in most cases these were the third, fourth, or ninth movies made of these tales. Counting Bille August's most recent production of Les Miserables, Hugo's classic story has been brought to the screen nearly 20 times over the past nine decades (a French miniseries version with Gerard Depardieu is scheduled to begin production this fall).

The cost of accessibility

Great works of literature are wildly successful in drawing huge audiences because they--like The Junior Illustrated Classics comics of the '50s--make the classics so much more accessible. Even the longest of films don't demand the sort of time it would take to read a modestly sized novella, much less the commitment required to work through imposing tomes like War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, or Hugo's 1,200-page Les Miserables. Nor do movies ask us to do the hard work of constructing or keeping track of the imaginary world of the story. Instead, we are encouraged to sit back passively in our seats and let the movie producers and directors bring the predigested, user-friendly story to us.

Modern Hollywood makes this process even easier with so-called high-concept films in which the story line has been reduced to a single idea capable of being communicated to audiences in a 15-second promo. This explains the common sensation at the end of a preview that we've already seen the whole film.

Unfortunately, all this accessibility often comes at a price. Even with filmmakers increasingly obsessed with creating the sort of Titanic blockbusters guaranteed to overflow theater seats, video racks, and corporate coffers, there is over-whelming pressure to retool classic stories in order to improve their marketability, making them more and more palatable to an ever broader demographic. Sometimes the rewrite calls for a little more sex and violence to spice up the plot. Often it calls for some blurring or softening of any possible rough edges, for the elimination of any controversial or political content, and almost always for some significant sweetening of the ending--just enough to make things come out a bit more upbeat. As a result we get a sort of Disneyfication of the classics--snappier, sappier, happier versions of what are in the end no longer the same old stories. Classic tales that raise our consciousness and probe the unsettling mysteries of the human heart are replaced by cotton-candy versions.

Pilgrims' progress

If theologian Spohn is right that a classic is a tale capturing something fundamental about the human experience, a story capable of speaking a timeless and universal word to the human heart, then Hugo's Les Miserables is such a work. The tale of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert's mortal conflict is much more than a well-crafted cat-and-mouse chase. Its essence is the drama of our struggle with the problem of forgiveness, with the mercy--even the nature--of God.

Is it really possible, this tale asks, to accept, trust in, or offer to others the divine forgiveness that the Bishop of Digne (whom Valjean previously beat and robbed) extended so freely to the embittered ex-convict? What is this mercy, what are the demands it makes upon us, and what sort of God offers such compassion to felons?

Along with the ex-convict and his relentless pursuer, Javert, we are confronted in this story with the question about whether any of us are really capable of growing beyond our worst moments, of repenting of our past mistakes, and converting to new paths. Is it possible that a man who has fallen as low as this hardened prisoner could actually let go of past devastating hurts and crimes in a way that liberates and perhaps even reconciles him with others? Isn't Javert, though excessive in his prosecution of the law, right in his assertion that such persons don't really change, that mercy is an unsteady guide that would let loose anarchy in society? Doesn't it make more sense to seek punishment and restitution for all past offenses, to draw sharp unbending lines between the good and the bad?

These are ancient, universal human questions. They are the sort of questions Jesus raises so poignantly in the parables of the prodigal son and the righteous older brother, the Pharisee and publican at prayer, and the unrepentant thief. Questions that confront us again in the Passion accounts of a repentant Saint Peter--who needed and accepted God's forgiveness--and a despairing Judas--who could not believe in such a God.

In the story of Valjean's unexpected pardon at the hands of the bishop and his rescue of a dying prostitute named Fantine and later her daughter, Cosette, we see the unfolding and graceful path of forgiveness, repentance, and conversion. Hugo argues in this tale of a bitter ex-con whose soul is touched and ransomed by an act of unexpected compassion that it is possible--with the grace of God--to make our way home from sin and despair.

And in the travels of this sinner becoming saint we find ourselves watching Hugo's version of a pilgrim's progress, marked by a series of stations in which Valjean comes to recognize the face of God in a prostitute, an orphan, a series of strangers, and ultimately in the countenance of his deadliest foe. It is a long and tortuous path, demanding ever more compassion and self-sacrifice, but it is also a gloriously hopeful journey. Valjean is Hugo's testimony that we can, and must, bear the lightness of God's grace.

Matters of depth

The problem, however, at least in this most recent version of Les Miserables, is that we have not been told Javert's story (he's determined to cleanse himself of his lineage; his father was a thief and his mother was a prostitute) or felt his struggle. His character lacks any real depth, having been left on the drawing board as an unsympathetic and nearly unfathomable martinet who serves only as a foil to Valjean's budding goodness. He has been reduced to a cartoon, a menacing Darth Vader or Cruella DeVil.

And that, for a number of reasons, is a crippling error. To start with, real (as opposed to reel, or Disneyfied) classics don't just flatter their readers or audiences with stories of the Valjean within each of us. They also point to the complexity, brokenness, and darkness of the human heart. They stretch our sympathetic imagination and strip us of our self-deceptions. As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues, the best of our stories uncover the highs and the lows of our humanity. They point out the lies and propaganda we whisper to ourselves, and remind us that we are not necessarily the loveliest, kindest, or noblest folks in the kingdom. Classics tell us unsettling, uncomfortable, dangerous truths about ourselves, and if we trim out that sting to make our stories more palatable, we end up not with a classic but with a taming of the true, a quaint little curiosity that tells us nothing really important.

Even worse, if we tell stories that fail to take Javert seriously, we end up repeating his mistake, and reading or watching Les Miserables doesn't make us more like Valjean, but like his implacable pursuer. If we aren't encouraged to walk around in the inspector's shoes or to 'understand his rage for order, his adoration of the law, or his limitless appetite for punishment, then we end up seeing him through the same sort of colorless microscope that he uses to view the rabble beneath him. And if we can't recognize the Javert within us we will judge and condemn him with the same merciless aloofness that he judges and condemns Valjean, Fantine, and all the others he encounters.

And that would be ironic, because it's hard to imagine a society that has more in common with this obsessed policeman or more to learn from his tragic tale. After all, if Javert were alive today, he would certainly be at home in our age and culture, recognizing more than a few parts of himself in our laws, politicians, and pundits.

This character, who only saw Fantine as a street prostitute guilty of assault and who was unmoved by Valjean's pleas regarding the orphaned Cosette, might feel very much at home in a culture increasingly obsessed with holding single mothers and unwed teens responsible for all the social and economic ills of our age. Javert is a man who would be comfortable with the Personal Responsibility Act restricting welfare, who would see no crime in our retreat from the social ties or obligations that hold us to the poor, the mushrooming growth of private police forces, or the scaremonger marketing of all sorts of security systems aimed at transforming our homes and public spaces into impregnable fortresses. It would certainly never occur to Javert to ask if preventive measures might reduce crime or if addressing poverty, low wages, poor educational programs, or racism might not be a better path to take.

Classics are not hard to read just because they are long or complex. Our resistance to the best classics also comes from the fact that they--like the parables of Jesus--tell us things we might rather not know.

Hugo's Les Miserables shows us the person we might become in Valjean. But for that to happen we have to recognize and repent the parts of us that are Javert. It is only by understanding and forgiving the Javert within us that we can, as a society, take steps to becoming the pilgrim convert Valjean.

By Patrick McCormick, an assistant professor of ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:disappointing film adaptations of literary classics
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Words:1893
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