The first time I read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, I stole it from my mom. I remember seeing it on a side table in our living room, my mom’s bookmark about 2/3 through the thickest book I had ever seen, and I saw it as a challenge. I remember the itch as I contemplated the most intimidating book I had ever attempted to read. I will admit that when I tackled it that first time, even though it was an unabridged edition, I didn’t quite read it straight through; I specifically remember skipping over some of the descriptions of the convent in the beginning, as well as the section detailing the Battle of Waterloo. When I came back to it several years later, though, as a high school sophomore, I read it as a literature assignment, and that time I did read every word – and it was even better than I remembered.
Les Mis has so much to offer, to any reader who approaches it: romance, action, mystery & intrigue, deep philosophical musings, and some of the most compelling characters in all of literature. Ultimately, of course, it is a story of redemption, of love and light triumphing over hatred and darkness, of self-sacrifice and honor, of courage, and of compassion on a level that is almost super-human. Classic literature simply does not get any better.
While I will always, always advocate reading a book over watching a movie, I do have to mention two quite marvelous film adaptations of Les Mis.
My favorite is the 1998 rendition, starring Liam Neeson in one of his finest performances ever as Jean Valjean, and Geoffrey Rush in an equally brilliant role as Javert. With a fabulous supporting cast (including Uma Thurman and Claire Danes), a moving and powerful musical score, and a subtle but compelling (if not completely perfect) screenplay, this adaptation captures the heart and soul of the story, and I never tire of watching it.
A close second, though, is the 2012 version starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe in a film adaptation of the Broadway musical. I do think this rendition took the singing a bit too much to heart – I feel it would have been more convincing with spoken dialogue between songs, rather than the constant sing-song operetta – but nevertheless, for me, this adaptation brought the story’s emotion to the forefront in an incredible way, and that makes the heart of the story even more powerful.
All that said, though, start with the book first – and preferably the unabridged edition! It is timeless, and should not be missed.