Great stories demand to be told and retold, generation after generation finding fresh relevance in stories of love and redemption. And certainly Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s epic novel of love, revolution, and crushing poverty, is among them.
And though you may think you know the story of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, and the rest from the blockbuster stage musical and its film adaptation, there’s so much more to Hugo’s story. And much of it will be on display in PBS’ new six-part miniseries, premiering April 14 as part of MASTERPIECE.
Here are five reasons we can’t wait to see the sumptuous new version.
The Wire star Dominic West (who has been seen on Broadway in Design for Living and in the West End in Les Liaisons Dangereuses) serves as executive producer and stars as Jean Valjean, whom he refers to as a superhero: “He’s tougher than everybody, he’s kinder than everybody, he’s more generous than everybody and a bigger heart and a bigger hero in terms of what the personal demons he’s trying to overcome.”
Joining him is David Oyelowo, who wowed New York audiences in 2016 with his Othello, and brings a fresh perspective to Javert, who mercilessly hunts Valjean over decades. Also an executive producer on the miniseries, Oyelowo was delighted to explore more the complexities with which Hugo imbued Javert in the original novel.
And that’s not to mention a stacked supporting cast, starting with Lily Collins as Fantine, newly minted Academy Award winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite) as Madame Thénardier, Ellie Bamber as Cosette, and Josh O’Connor as Marius.
The Brand-New Adaptation
Freed from the constraints of staying within a classic two-act structure, screenwriter Andrew Davies was able to dig deeper into the characters and situations, bringing to life aspects and scenes from Hugo’s novel that even diehard fans of the musical won’t know.
As MASTERPIECE executive producer Rebecca Eaton puts it, there are moments in the miniseries that go even deeper into the characters audiences have long loved. She pointed to one specific moment, after Fantine is pregnant, where her lover and his friends take Fantine and hers out to lunch on a beautiful day. At the end of the meal, the men stand and simply abandon the women. “The contrast of a beautiful day, beautiful young women and these guys leaving them, and leaving them to a tragic fate, to me is just a brilliant use of drama and lighting and production design to highlight an emotional moment,” Eaton said.
A Fresh Look at Old Favorites
We all know and love Fantine, her daughter Cosette, and the Thénardiers—but there’s so much more to their story than those unfamiliar with the novel might know.
“What’s wonderful about the musical is the characters and the love stories that exist between the characters,” West said, “and so we go into more depth into those love stories and those relationships. And I think you get to see… where the Thénardiers are coming from. I particularly love the Thénardiers in our production.”
Plus, as many involved with the miniseries point out, Fantine’s time in other versions is often quite short. Here, the grinding down of her spirit that leads her to sell her hair and teeth is a much more gradual process, making it even more painful to experience with her.
“I'm taking a character that everyone seemingly knows and loves but at the same time showing a new side to her,” Collins said. “So that was an exciting twist on it for me.”
Collins pointed out that audiences are used to encountering Fantine after she’s taken work at the factory, and so they’re unfamiliar with the carefree girl she was.
“To take a character further into their back story and show people that, I think it creates a bigger amount of empathy for them throughout their character arcs,” she said. “So for me, specifically, you really get to see Fantine at her youngest, most vibrant, which is a perfect comparison then to when she’s dying and at her worst, because you can only have empathy for someone to a certain extent if you haven’t experienced the higher notes with them.”
Les Misérables the musical is certainly not a chamber piece, but it is fairly streamlined in terms of storytelling compared to Hugo’s novel. Davies, however, brings a whole new scope to the work with this adaptation, one that finds fresh emphasis on the lives of the poverty-stricken in the 19th century.
“I read the book [and] I just thought it would be great to put this on the screen,” Davies says. “And what I initially thought was how much it spoke to us today, with London full of homeless beggars sitting in the rain while rich people step over them on their way to the opera. I was thinking, ‘You know, Hugo’s world is very similar to ours.’ I guess the difference is we don’t seem to be about to have any kind of revolution, even an unsuccessful one.”
The Production Values
No expense was spared in recreating life in 19th-century France, and the results are stunning. Not just for the audience—the performers have spoken about how easy it was to slip into another world when they arrived on the set in full costume.
“What’s great about acting in these shows on an epic scale is you get to time travel,” West said. “I love history and I love trying to imagine the past and it’s very easy when you’ve got great artists who have created it all for you.”
Oyelowo points out how evocative the visual storytelling is. “Thomas Shankland, our director, did a brilliant job of making the show have an energy and a kinetic, visceral feel to it that it’s not your sort of chocolate box period drama,” he says. “It’s got real teeth, it’s got real dirt, it’s got real grime, an edge to it."