Tag Archives: Les Misérables

No singing allowed

Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables might be best known for its musical adaptations, but a new small-screen adaptation produced for the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS feels more like a western, as exec producer Bethan Jones and director Tom Shankland explain.

Tom Shankland

When Victor Hugo sat down to write his epic 19th century novel Les Misérables, including in it a searing indictment of the divide between rich and poor and the travails of revolutionary political movements, he was probably considering a more distinguished legacy than an often-derided musical in London’s West End.

For when one thinks about Les Misérables, it is the bathetic tones of I Dreamed a Dream and carefully choreographed dance-acting that spring to mind. And although Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed… in the 2012 Hollywood film did give a sense of the pain and despair her character Fantine was supposed to be feeling, the fact remains that this ambitious novel is often reduced to a collection of show tunes and the diminutive appellation ‘Les Mis.’

This is one of the reasons adaptation supremo Andrew Davies (Bleak House, Pride & Prejudice, Middlemarch) has taken on the project for UK pubcaster the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS in the US, alongside producers Lookout Point and BBC Studios, which is also distributing. When discussing the adaptation a few years back at the Hay Festival, Davies called the musical a “shoddy farrago” of Hugo’s original work, adding that he hoped his take would champion the book for its depth.

“Andrew loves being contentious, that’s his thing,” says Bethan Jones, exec producer on the series for BBC Studios. “For me, you take a big book like this and you adapt it to the form you are servicing. Inevitably, the musical has to have its baddies, its goodies, its romantic interests – it has to follow that journey. It has a certain amount of hours to fill and you have to tell a musical story. A film adaptation will be a very different thing again. What we’ve got in six hours is the opportunity to dig down a little bit more into those characters than potentially shorter adaptations have time to do; to explore the relationships and themes between the characters and their particular journeys.”

David Oyelowo as Javert in Les Misérables, which will air on the BBC this Christmas

Part of this sharper focus on the source material is a strict ‘no singing’ policy, with Davies pointedly declaring at Hay that his cast would not “yell great things like they do in the musical.” Jones diplomatically says the musical and the BBC series – which lands on screens in early 2019 – are “two very different, but equally valid” ways of representing the book.

Pared down, Les Misérables tells the story of prisoner Jean Valjean and his continuous battle with police inspector Javert following his release from prison for stealing bread. After further run-ins with the law, Valjean attempts to change his ways and live life as a decent man. Interspersed with his long road to redemption are stories of family, love, rebellion and commentary on the social and political class system of post-revolutionary France. Its intricate plot has spawned – beyond the aforementioned takes – more than 60 adaptations across film and television, which raises another question about the BBC’s forthcoming production – do we need another?

Bethan Jones

Jones reiterates Davies’ desire to go back to Hugo’s original text and “draw out more of the real stories, themes and characters” and the book’s timelessness as justification. “We also felt it was timely in as much as while there is still poverty, hardship and degradation in the world, books like this will still be relevant. It feels timely to be looking at a classic text that deals with a complicated period and the division of rich and poor but through the eyes of brilliant characters.”

Director Tom Shankland (The City & The City, The Missing, Ripper Street) admits he hadn’t seen a single adaptation of the book before he took the helm, and thus hopes his is a fresh perspective. “For me, it felt like an epic western,” he says. “I’ve always loved westerns. There are all these fantastic characters – the bad sheriff, the wanted man, the hunted fugitive. It was everything I loved about that genre – the adventure and emotion of that.”
Simply being thrilled by the plot isn’t enough to hook a director completely, Shankland points out, but he was snagged “emotionally and thematically” by Valjean’s quest for redemption and a “simple desire to be good in a bad world.”

The BBC has assembled a premium cast for the series, with The Affair star Dominic West taking on Valjean, Selma’s David Oyelowo playing Javert, Lily Collins as destitute young mother Fantine and Adeel Akhtar and Olivia Colman as petty criminals the Thénardiers.
“David absolutely felt there was something around Javert’s role as a bit of a thwarted outsider with frustrations and drive to move up in the world, as well as being this person with a real ideological commitment to the belief that people are either born wicked or good,” Shankland says. “He kept on looking and finding, in extraordinary ways, the humanity – however twisted and bitter – in Javert. By the end, I’m almost in tears for him. In my wildest dreams, I wasn’t sure we’d get to that place with a character like that. David dug so deep.

Dominic West (The Affair) as Jean Valjean

“When I watch what Dominic does to take Valjean to this unbelievably brutalised place, which is almost a wordless, inhuman place, to where he ends, he makes me believe every part of that journey.”

Davies has a knack of turning a classic literary work into a TV drama that resonates cinematically and does not seem anachronistic. In 2016, he received universal acclaim for his BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic historical novel War & Peace, in which he successfully brought chaotic battle scenes, aristocratic opulence and sweeping landscapes of 19th century Russia to the small screen. Furthermore, within that epic scope, Jones says Davies has a rare ability to portray relatable characters that “speak to” a contemporary audience.

“Andrew’s scripts made these characters feel modern. That was nothing to do with having them speak in a very modern way or changing their behaviour, he just found the humanity and earthiness of it,” Shankland says, recalling a scene in which Fantine and her companions urinate in a Paris park. “I thought, ‘Oh god, they’re going to pee in Les Misérables, that’s exciting.’ It was these little things that Andrew did to make these people feel real and have an immediate presence that made me think that it wouldn’t be like doing a conventional, polite period piece. We’d be doing something that had a real connection with today.”

Broadchurch star Olivia Colman also features in the period drama

Filming has taken the production to far-flung areas of the French-speaking parts of Europe, from southern Belgium to Sedan in the Ardennes region of north-eastern France. In Sedan, Shankland says, they found back streets acutely reminiscent of the period Hugo was writing about. Jones and Shankland both note that the filming of key scenes, such as the political uprising, where students revolt and erect barricades in the narrow streets of Paris, were inspired by contemporary riots such as those that took place in London in 2011 and in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the 1960s.

“I wanted the images to resonate with the audience, so they’d be thinking, ‘Oh hang about, that doesn’t feel like [post-revolutionary France] even if they might have guns that are somewhat 19th century,’” Shankland says. “Actually, what happened in a street battle – the energy, fear and chaos of that – is very modern. I tried to let modern events into the imagery. In some ways, we never thought of it as a period piece.”

“It does speak to that modern world. It’s not the French revolution; it’s a small, failed skirmish. That’s the tragedy of it. It’s a group of people desperately trying to assert themselves in a situation where the state is so much bigger than them. That’s still very relevant,” Jones adds.

Considering Les Misérables’ hard-hitting topics, one might expect the series to comprise six hours of unremitting tension and misery. But Shankland is quick to reassure this isn’t the case. “For all that the story is full of these epic, intense themes, there’s so much humour in it, and not in a way that I felt was ever crowbarred in. However dark times are, there’s always room for lightness and romance. It’s just a beautifully textured piece.”
And all without a songbook in sight.

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Le Carré and Les Misérables in le news

John Le Carré's works have proved popular among TV producers
John Le Carré’s works have proved popular among TV producers

UK producers have carved out a strong reputation for sophisticated high-end dramas that travel well internationally – and a number of new scripted projects announced this week should further enhance the industry’s reputation.

Pick of the bunch is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a new John Le Carré adaptation from The Ink Factory, the company behind acclaimed BBC1/AMC coproduction The Night Manager – also a Le Carré adaptation.

The new production will be penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) but has yet to be placed with a broadcaster. Stephen Garrett’s new indie Character 7 will assist with financing and production, while Paramount Worldwide Television Licensing and Distribution has already been lined up to handle distribution of the series outside of the UK.

Regarded as one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold follows a British intelligence operative who seeks revenge on the East German intelligence service deputy director responsible for the death of one of his agents. It was written in 1963 and adapted into an acclaimed film in 1965.

Meanwhile, the BBC, The Weinstein Company and Lookout Point are moving forward with a new TV series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which until now has been best known to most people as a musical/musical film. Andrew Davies, who worked with the BBC, TWC and Lookout Point on an epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, will write what is expected to be a six-part miniseries.

The 2012 film version of Les Misérables
The 2012 film version of Les Misérables

Commenting on the project, he said: “Les Misérables is a huge, iconic title. Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of its story. I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo by adapting his masterpiece in a six-hour version for the BBC, with the same team who made War and Peace.”

Also coming out of the UK this week is news of a planned adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery story The Moonstone by the BBC. Described by TS Eliot as “the first and greatest of English Detective novels,” The Moonstone sees adventurer Franklin Blake attempting to solve the disappearance of the priceless Moonstone and win back Rachel Verinder, his true love.

The Moonstone will broadcast over five consecutive afternoons on BBC1, and is made in association with BBC Learning as part of the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign.

It is being adapted for the screen by Rachel Flowerday (Father Brown, EastEnders) and Sasha Hails (Versailles, Casualty) and made by King Bert Productions.

Dan McGolpin, controller of BBC daytime and early peak, said: “The Moonstone spawned a new genre: the detective novel. Its influence endures to the present day, in books and on television. With the help of BBC Learning, we are offering BBC1 viewers the chance to see this gripping story play out across five afternoons. Our viewers are in for a treat.”

The Five writer Harlan Coben is now working on The Four
The Five writer Harlan Coben is now working on The Four

Still in the UK, pay TV channel Sky1 has ordered a second crime drama from author Harlan Coben and Red Production Company.

The new show, The Four, will be an eight-part thriller that tells the story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust. It follows on from Coben’s first original story for TV, The Five, which debuted in April on Sky1. As with The Five, the idea for The Four will be provided by Coben but the script will be written by Danny Brocklehurst.

Red CEO and founder Nicola Shindler said: “When Harlan told me about the premise for his latest story, I knew it would be just as addictive viewing as The Five. As with all his work, it is utterly intriguing, totally immersive and completely character-driven.”

Coben added: “I never wanted to make a sequel to The Five – that story has now been told – but rather to start afresh and bring a whole new crime drama to the screen. Working with Nicola and Sky again was essential to ensure that, creatively, The Four is brought to life in the way that we have imagined.”

Meanwhile, in the US, NBC has commissioned a true crime scripted series that will form part of its hugely successful Law & Order franchise. Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders will follow the real-life case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of murdering their parents in 1996.

The Mendendez brothers were convicted of murdering their parents
The Mendendez brothers were convicted of murdering their parents

The show is the first in a planned anthology series that will follow real-life criminal cases in a similar style to FX’s American Crime Story. Rene Balcer, who has played a central role in the development of Law & Order, will write and show the new spin-off, which is expected to consist of eight parts.

As we noted in our last column, the entertainment industry has been busy with San Diego Comic-Con for the last few days. Increasingly the event is viewed by studios an important platform for news about the future for TV shows.

Pay TV channel Syfy, for example, announced that it is bringing back Wynonna Earp for a second season, while Netflix revealed there will be a third season of its Marvel series Daredevil. There were also reports at Comic-Con that Netflix will provide a home for a reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a 1980s/1990s comedy series that has been brought back to life thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Comic-Con also threw up rumours that Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood may return. The show’s star John Barrowman said: “I have a phone conversation on Monday to see how we can get it back on television. The fans know me well enough, I’m only going to say it if I mean it and believe it.”

John Barrowman in Torchwood, which he says could return
John Barrowman in Torchwood, which he says could return

Away from Comic-Con, USA Network is reported to be developing a drama series set centred on a bodybuilding gym with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The show, which has a working title of Muscle Beach, will be based in LA’s Venice Beach during the 1980s. CBS is also reported to be working on a Venice Beach-set bodybuilding drama called Pump with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Konyves.

Finally, in Asia, HBO has started production on a Chinese original series called The Psychic. The show, which has been developed by HBO Asia in partnership with Taiwanese broadcaster Public Television Service (PTS) and Singaporean production company InFocus Asia centres on a teenage girls who can see spirits.

Jonathan Spink, CEO of HBO Asia, said: “Asia’s rich diversity offers inspiration for countless of stories waiting to be told and local talents to be discovered. Through collaborating with PTS and remarkable talents in Taiwan to increase our production of local-language content, HBO Asia is perfectly placed to bring our creative spin to The Psychic for regional audiences.” The series will be shot in Taiwan and aired by HBO Asia in 23 territories.

Jessie Shih, director of international at PTS, added: “I am very happy to announce PTS’s first collaboration with HBO Asia on their first Chinese original series, also their first Taiwan series, working with a young and upcoming local team, bridging the gap between television and film with the talented mix of crew and actors. Cultivating local young talents and helping them to connect with the international industry is PTS’s top priority. I believe this HBO/PTS collaboration, in partnership with IFA, will lead the local Taiwanese industry to greater heights.”

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