Chris Carey’s producer credits include BBC miniseries River and Apple Tree Yard, but neither compare to the scale of the challenge of bringing Victor Hugo’s 19th century masterpiece Les Misérables to the screen.
Andrew Davies’ six-part adaptation of the classic novel retold the story of the cat-and-mouse relationship between Jean Valjean (Dominic West) and Javert (David Oyelowo), set against the backdrop of France at a time of civil unrest.
In this DQTV interview, Carey discusses the challenge of turning a 1,500-page novel into a six-hour series that spans 25 years and introduces multiple characters, all while keeping an eye on historical accuracy.
He also talks about the role of the producer on a series such as Les Misérables and explains why he thinks the drama will have a lasting legacy.
Les Misérables is produced by Lookout Point for BBC1 and Masterpiece on PBS in the US, and distributed by BBC Studios.
An upcoming adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel Les Misérables will be the most satisfying version yet, says star David Oyelowo, as he explains why taking the character of Javert beyond his portrayal as a one-one-dimensional villain was his most challenging role to date.
“If there’s something I’ve learned, it is you can never predict how anything you do is going to be received, as Victor Hugo will attest to,” David Oyelowo says with a smile. “But the thing I do know we’ve achieved is filling in a lot of the blanks that inevitably exist because you are trying to boil down a huge novel.”
Oyelowo is deconstructing his latest television role, which will see him tackle Javert, the police inspector and primary antagonist in Victor Hugo’s 19th century epic novel Les Misérables, in the forthcoming adaptation for UK public broadcaster the BBC and Masterpiece on PBS in the US.
The miniseries has been authored by period adaptation maven Andrew Davies (War & Peace, Pride & Prejudice) and sees Oyelowo face off against Dominic West’s protagonist Jean Valjean (pictured top alongside Oyelowo).
The subject of numerous recreations, the novel’s most recognisable reinventions are the long-running musical, which has now been a fixture on London’s West End for 33 years, and the 2012 Hollywood film helmed by The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper.
Oyelowo points out, however, that rather than treading the same ground, Davies’ six-hour series can go deeper into the book. “If it’s a film or a musical you’re distilling it down to, it’s too thin to be as satisfying as the book allows,” he says. “Six hours of television in the hands of Andrew Davies is a far more satisfying way to explore that story and understand these characters who intersect in ways that are genuinely universal – in terms of how we exist in the world now.
“What I love about the book is that at any given time I can identify with Javert, I can identify with Jean Valjean, I can identify with Fantine; and that needs time to not reduce them to archetypes. My hope is that people who see this version are really going to have a far greater context for what this story actually is.”
This is no more relevant than to his character, Javert. Oyelowo says the inspector is often portrayed as a “one-dimensional” villain with the sole function of hunting down the misdirected but ultimately good-at-heart Valjean.
“It became clear to me that there was so much more there than people may recognise from knowing the musical. Let’s face it, not enough people have read the book. That became the challenge and it was basically to understand why he pursues him,” he adds.
“What became apparent is that, at the time in which this thing is set, there’s a lot of friction between the classes, between people on the basis of socioeconomics, politics… and so that time required – and I’m not saying he is in any way what the world needs now – someone who operated in moral absolutes in order to bring any kind of order to that chaos. He’s a by-product of the time he was in. Therefore, hopefully, you don’t necessarily condone his actions but you understand them.”
The contradictions that exist in Javert are such that Oyelowo, who has depicted Martin Luther King Jr (Selma) and former Botswanan president Sir Seretse Goitsebeng Maphiri Khama (A United Kingdom) on the big screen, feels the role has proved “one of the most challenging” in his career, due to “the perception people have going in.”
“By and large, people have an opinion [of the character] – even people who haven’t seen the musical, read the book or know much about it. They have a sense, whether it’s a portrayal they’ve seen in a trailer, or a poster they’ve seen, so it’s a little bit like the challenge you have when you’re playing a historical figure. You know that what you have to do in order to do a portrayal that’s satisfying is to bring something revelatory, something that people didn’t know. If you’re just giving them what they already knew, it’s redundant. That was the challenge.”
Oyelowo is changing perceptions, and breaking new ground, from a different standpoint too. In casting him as Javert, the BBC is thought to be the first broadcaster to have selected a non-white actor in the joint-lead role. After the backlash Jodie Whittaker received from some quarters after becoming the first female lead in Doctor Who, does Oyelowo wonder if there will be similar grumblings from people who believe Javert should only ever be a white man?
“In my opinion, we take a far greater licence by taking French history and transposing it onto British history than we do by suggesting that people of colour were integral to European life in the 19th century,” he says. “We have transposed this onto English society in order for it to be understood by a broader audience beyond French people.
“And so if we want to make something that is relevant to the world that we actually live in, we should be reflecting that in every sense, not just the actual language we’re translating the show into but the people who get to portray the characters as well.”
And in casting the actor who has played spies, corrupt detectives and a chess coach in his career so far, director Tom Shankland believes Javert has been given new depth. Speaking to DQ earlier this year, Shankland said Oyelowo had done such an effective job of layering the character and providing a perfect foil for Dominic West’s Valjean that “by the end, I’m almost in tears for Javert.”
“David kept on looking and finding, in extraordinary ways, the humanity – however twisted and bitter – in Javert,” Shankland said. “In my wildest dreams I wasn’t sure we’d get to that place with a character like that. David dug so deep, but all the time he’s scary and driven and the person we hope will never succeed.”
Oyelowo himself says he had conversations with Shankland to discuss how best to portray Javert. While the character has previously been played by esteemed actors including Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush, Oyelowo says he did not draw on past interpretations because of the very fact the character has been cast as merely the villain of the piece. Moreover, Javert has often been deemed “quite posh” compared with Valjean, something Oyelowo believes is at odds with Hugo’s work.
“This book is about the underclass, and my character was born in a prison to criminal parents. The portrayals I’ve seen thus far I don’t feel suggest that. In many ways, Jean Valjean and Javert are mirror images of each other; they’re both coming from criminality as opposed to what I’ve seen in the past, which is Javert seeming to be quite posh in relation to Valjean, who’s the criminal,” he explains.
“One of the reasons Javert has this inexorable obsession with hunting down Jean Valjean is that he represents what Javert could have been, under different circumstances, and what he hates in terms of his own upbringing, what lies in his own familial past – that his own parents were in exactly the same situation that Jean Valjean finds himself in for having stolen a loaf of bread.
“His hatred of his parents and upbringing is partly why he hates Jean Valjean. I haven’t seen that before. In talking to Tom, it was very clear we were trying to do something quite different and, hopefully without sounding conceited, something far more real in terms of the novel.”
That said, Oyelowo isn’t completely averse to past interpretations of the novel, and laughs when asked if he’s pleased there will be no singing involved in Davies’ adaptation, which comes from producer Lookout Point and BBC Studios, with the later also distributing. “I like singing; I personally enjoyed the musical film,” he concludes. “But if you’re going to tell this story, you don’t want to literally be doing a version of what we’ve seen quite recently. What we’ve set out to do is something quite different, even though it does have that iconic title.”
Though they may not be accompanied by a tune, it is likely Oyelowo will make Hugo’s words sing when Javert returns to the small screen next year.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.”
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.”