WHEN YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING: What Les Miserables (the film) teaches us about reaching an audience

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

There has always been something a little misleading about the term "mass media."  What we call mass media, like anything else, is actually consumed one person at a time.  And specific forms of media resonate more with some people than others.  Just as many drivers prefer a stick shift to automatic, some of us absorb information better with newspapers than TV.  Or with podcasts than radio. 

Or, for that matter, with movies than with plays. 

Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Les Miserables, the Victor Hugo novel that became the fourth longest running play in Broadway history, reminded me of that fact over the weekend.  There are many sad moments in Les Mis, but for me, there was one more: realizing how close I had come to missing it.  

I had walked into the theatre preparing to nap for 2 1/2 hours.  My wife and I saw Les Mis the play in its prime, and we had been both disappointed and bewildered.  Despite all the positive buzz, It struck us as a disjointed story with an overly orchestrated script and a pretentious cast.  

We resolved to bring our middle-school-student son to see the film, so he could get extra credit in French class.  But we secretly wondered why 60 million playgoers around the world were so enamored with this story.

Which is why we were so pleasantly surprised when the film rolled.  Les Mis the movie had the opposite effect.  Unlike the stage production, it not only kept us awake.  It captured us.   (Our son was bored, but hey, at least he didn't nod off.)  

 Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in the 2012 film version of  Les Miserables.   Courtesy Universal Pictures. 

Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in the 2012 film version of Les Miserables.  Courtesy Universal Pictures. 

After the long Broadway run, the core narrative is familiar to many of us.  Set in the turmoil of post-revolutionary France, Les Miserables revolves around Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a petty criminal who changes his ways following an act of kindness from a Catholic bishop.  Christians, especially, may find it refreshing that a priest is finally one of the good guys. 

Valjean is being pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), his former jailer, for breaking parole.  Both Jackman and Crowe surprised us with their command of singing.  In a gutsy production choice, the songs were done live to film, not in a tracking booth. 

Perhaps if I had read the book first - all 1500 pages of it (or 1900 in French) - I would have appreciated the stage production.  But the play's complex story line was almost completely lost on me.  Les Mis is a deeply moral tale, an allegory of the primordial struggle between good and evil, and the transformative power of forgiveness.

But this lavish film - with its computer enhanced beauty shots of 19th century Paris, close-ups at critical moments, and an audio mix where I could understand every lyric - proved a far more effective vehicle for communicating Hugo's story, at least to this member of the audience. 

Many veteran reviewers are lukewarm on Hooper's effort.  Top critics on rottentomatoes give Les Mis only a 58.  It may not have the same effect on you that it had on me.  But where one form of the narrative had failed with us, another succeeded.  At the very least, this remarkable film is powerful evidence that whatever your story, there's more than one way to reach your audience.

When it comes around again, I may even give the play another shot.