Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Can Les Misérables work on screen?

After his success with the worthy The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper could, one assumes, take his pick of attractive properties. Come hither, Tom. Make your long-cherished version of Crime and Punishment. Embark on a biopic of Winston Churchill. Adapt Strictly …

Tue, Jan 31, 2012, 17:34


After his success with the worthy The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper could, one assumes, take his pick of attractive properties. Come hither, Tom. Make your long-cherished version of Crime and Punishment. Embark on a biopic of Winston Churchill. Adapt Strictly Come Dancing into a “major motion picture”.

Lordy, Hugh Jackman has let himself go.

Instead he looks to have fallen on a grenade that, after 25 long years, has finally had its pin removed. Yes, Hooper is set to direct a film version of Les Misérables (the musical that is). Good luck with that, mate. The post-Lloyd Webber, grandstanding West End musical has, to date,  stubbornly refused to yield to the best efforts of the hardest-working film professionals. Alan Parker’s Evita was a confused mess. Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera competes with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for my pick as the most boring mainstream release of the past 10 years. Jesus Christ Superstar is poor. Nobody bothered with Aspects of Love .

Let me here declare a slight interest. For several years, I was the box-office manager of the West End production of Les Misérables. Each day I would fight past a huge returns queue, ignore the braying touts, install myself behind a computer and stare at a green screen that clarified that no ordinary person would secure a top-price seat for another six months. Ah, late Thatcherism. It really brought a reassuring chill to the heart.

For all that, I don’t much care for the show. It was, at that point, probably the best musical running in the West End. But was that really saying all that much? Featuring two tunes played over and over again, Phantom was a riot of New Romantic vulgarity and empty spectacle. Cats seems aimed at children. The less said about Starlight Express the sooner it will be confined to the locomotive scrapyard in the sky. At least in The Glums (as we didn’t really call it), you got “On My Own” and “Master of the House”. There were melodies worth whistling there.

Hooper has already attracted publicity with his high-profile casting. Song-and-dance specialist Hugh Jackman is to play the forlorn, wrongly accused Jean Valjean. Wan stick insect Anne Hathaway will essay tragic Fantine. Shouty Russell Crowe sounds about right for Inspector Javert. Rumours that Taylor Swift was to play cap-wearing rebel Eponine chilled the blood somewhat, but it later turned out they had plumped for Samantha Barks, a competitor on I’d Do Anything. Our own Colm Wilkinson, who originated the part of Valjean, will return in a smaller role. Hooper is certainly doing a good job of stirring early interest.

So, can he break the curse? I’m not sure. The failure of the films made from West End super musicals is, you might argue, a backhanded tribute to the creators of those weird beasts. The shows were, perhaps, too well suited to their theatrical environments. Lavish set pieces kept the tourists awake. The repetitious nature of the music allowed those punters to accommodate themselves to unfamiliar tunes (or keep hold of the rare hit singles such as Memory from Cats or Music of the Night from Phantom).

The set pieces are of no use on screen. It was astonishing when they landed a helicopter on stage in Miss Saigon. You’ll have to try a bit harder than that if you’re making a movie. “Oo, look,” nobody said while watching Schumacher’s Phantom. “They’ve actually caused a chandelier to fall towards the camera”. By the time the shows come to cinemas, the key melody has been everywhere and punters crave a bit more harmonic variation.

The roaring success of Mamma Mia! seemed to suggest that the successor to the hyper-musical — the juke-box extravaganza — might be a lasting money-spinner. I’m not so sure. Though We Will Rock You has played on Tottenham Court Road since 1779, Queen do not have quite the singalong appeal of Abba and the story is absurd beyond belief. We will aproach Rock of Ages – a poodle-rock extravaganza starring Tom Cruise — with an open mind, but we will not forget that kitsch metal is a specialist market. Chicago proved that an old-school American musical could do reasonably well. The unbelievably appalling Rent confirmed that you can only fool all the people some of the time.

All of which is to suggest that Tom Hooper has his work cut out for him. Oh well. He does, at least, have the Susan Boyle lobby on his side. Or does he? Might they demand that Subo be cast as Madame Thenardier? Shudder.

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