What links Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson and Jean-Paul Belmondo? That's right, they've all played the lead in a big screen rendition of the beloved French Revolution-era musical.
There are already whispers that this year might see a director winning a Best Picture Oscar for consecutive films and it’s either going to be Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty or The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper for his all singing, all-dancing adaptation of Theatreland sensation Les Misérables.
Hooper’s film is being billed as the first time the musical has been transposed to the big screen, but Victor Hugo’s beloved tome has made its way to the screen no less than 13 times. LWLies takes a look at its cinema legacy through its six most eye-catching adaptations.
Back when cinema was still taking its baby steps, this four-reel silent fi lm was the very first screen version of Hugo’s literary epic. Starring as the story’s blighted ex-convict hero Jean Valjean was Maurice Costello, an Irish-American vaudeville comic and, incidentally, the great grandfather of Drew Barrymore. Historical bonus points for the fact that the film was produced by French newsreel pioneer Charles Pathé.
Despite there being numerous plush versions of this story during the '10s and '20s, it wasn’t until 1934 that the world was given its first great screen treatment of Hugo’s magnum opus. Little-known French director Raymond Bernard was given a bit of a critical reappraisal lately as this film was rescued from oblivion by the US DVD label Criterion, giving modern viewers the chance to see why this near-five-hour saga is often hailed as a breathtaking masterwork. Look out for Charles Vanel in the role of Inspector Jaubert – the actor would go on to star with Yves Montand in The Wages Of Fear and with Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.
This was the first major American take on the novel, with its two central roles given to raffish cad Fredric March and arguably the greatest British actor of all time, Charles Laughton. Though it may be seen as 1935’s equivalent of Oscar fodder (it didn’t actually win anything), it was criticised for straying way too far from the original text. It’s now mainly of interest for being photographed by the great Gregg Toland, who went on to shoot Wyler’s sublime Wuthering Heights and Orson Welles’ best-of-list-bothering Citizen Kane. An extra nugget for trivia fans? It was the final film by 20th Century Pictures before it merged with Fox.
If there was one director who knew his way around a luxuriant, guns-a-blazing genre film, it was Lewis Milestone, the man behind such Golden Age war epics as All Quiet On The Western Front and A Walk In The Sun. Starring as Valjean is Michael Rennie, who just one year previously had secured his place in the annals of cinema lore by playing Klaatu in Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still.
Taking Hugo’s source material off piste, French New Wave hanger-on Claude Lelouch wrote and directed this middling mid-'90s eff ort in which a humble French pauper played by Jean-Paul Belmondo relates the adventures of Jean Valjean to his own life. Much of the original text is channeled through the duel narratives, but it all plays a little like the cinematic equivalent of York Notes.
One of three men to have won the Palme d’Or on two separate occasions, Danish director Bille August clearly thought he'd paid his arthouse dues and so went prowling for the mainstream dollar. For a rousing Hollywood costume drama with all the bells and whistles, this isn’t bad. There’s also fun to be had seeing Liam Neeson as wrongly-imprisoned scamp-turned-avenging angel Valjean, especially in the light of the current and ever-extending Death Wish phase of his acting CV.