Professional portfolio and blog

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why Les Miserables is too short and what's wrong with western cinema

8:02 PM By Franz ,

I recently went to see the Tom Hooper adaptation of Les Miserables and I didn't think much of it. However, in a LinkedIn group that I am a member of, a few of us had some healthy discussion about it. Seeing the disparity of opinions, I thought it might be worthwhile to share what I had with a broader audience. In the conversation, this review came up: I browsed through it and found not much value to come from it. There was also a discussion regarding the limited color palate used.

For one the writer of that review seems to believe that there are rules that should be applied to cinematography. Also, he seems to forget that everyone had to eat their rulebooks when Gordon Willis(who he calls "the greatesst cinematographer of all time") shot "The Godfather" in various shades of yellow, orange and black. How he can appreciate rulebending and be so strict about following rules is very disturbing to me. The language of a film is not something that must follow any rules. The rules are established by the creative powers of the film: Director, cinematographer and production design. They are free to apply whatever style they want, hopefully one as innovative and refreshing as the one in Les Miserables.

Anyone observing modern artistic cinema can recognize how well the film uses the concept of negative space. The cinematography also stands out in its use of the edges of the frame to create pressure within the composition, sometimes even reversing the "rule of thirds."

My only critique of the film is that it was too short. It's pretty clear that the director was trying to keep as much of the original story in the film as possible but because of this everything felt rushed. Every scene seems to be just another way to get to the next one and nothing seems important. When trying to adapt such a long story into a film you have to remember the most important thing of any artwork: the theme or message behind the story. Not the complex plot.

The theme and real story of Les Miserables is Jean Valjean's care for Cosette and the injustice/justice dilemma carried by Javert. The whole backstory of young Cosette and a good chunk of the revolution scenes could be removed to make the film better. This would help stick to the theme but more importantly, keep the audience in the same position of ignorance as Cosette. This could potentially work to make the whole story more powerful once we learn the reason why he is left as her caretaker.

Granted, the film I just described would be completely different and would probably never be greenlit out of fear of audiences saying that the film is not the same without the backstory there. But I for one feel that theme is more important than plot.

This obsession with plot oriented stories is what has been the bread and butter of Hollywood since the beginning of it. With this adaptation, this approach rushed things and left me wanting to see much more of the story. Most of the time, focusing on plot neither harms nor helps the films but this is because of the stories that they tend to tell. Focusing on plot makes for good suspense and action. Which is again, the heart of Hollywood. Most any other kind of film should not be focused on hitting plotpoints of a beatsheet, it should be about capturing the feeling or mood conveyed by the themes.