It’s time for a new version of “Les Miserables,” the epic novel we all read in school, and …
Or wait … have we all read it? “My teachers would love to hear me say ‘yes,’” said Lily Collins, one of the stars of the sprawling, six-part PBS mini-series.
The teachers of Andrew Davies, the screenwriter, would also be disappointed. “It was one of those great classics that I neglected to read,” he said.
Those two represent a vast age range. One is 30 and can convincingly play teen-agers; the other is 82 and fits your image of a kindly old vicar,
In between them are others who also have a tenuous link to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.
“I haven’t read it,” said Dominic West, who stars as Jean Valjean. “And I still haven’t seen the musical.”
And Rebecca Eaton, PBS’ “Masterpiece” chief? “I actually was assigned to read it in French in college,” she said. She implies that she didn’t really do it, but kept the book “for a very long time.”
Not to worry. PBS’ tradition involves taking “the biggest, fattest doorstop books imaginable,” Eaton said, and molding them for modern TV audiences.
And Davies says he was delighted, once he actually read it. “I thought it was a terrific story that just resonated so much with the world we live in today.”
Besides, David Oyelowo — the one key person who had read it before the project began — is a fan.
“It was the best book I ever read,” he said. “I prefer it to Tolstoy. Hugo is such a master storyteller.”
Oyelowo calls Valjean “the best superhero of all time,” comparing him to Spider-Man and Iron Man. And he finds his own character (a relentless lawman) to be fascinating.
“Javert is judgment,” Oyelowo said. “He is the law. He is what he deems to be righteous. On the other hand, Jean Valjean is hope. He is faith. He is the pursuit of redemption.”
That casting – a black lawman, obsessed with a white ex-con – gives this a fresh feel.
“We’ve seen the reverse” often, Oyelowo said. In truth, “not every black man living in Europe in the early 1800s was some kind of slave or subservient in some ways. Napoleon had black generals.”
Filmed in Belgium and France, this non-musical mini-series has an old-world feel, even as some of its themes feel current.
“Victor Hugo said this story will have meaning so long as there is poverty,” West said. “He probably didn’t think, 150 years later, there would be so much. The gap between rich and poor (is) much bigger.”
Collins (the daughter of rock star Phil Collins) grew up on one side of that gap and now plays the other.
“There is a scene where I’m being dragged through the streets, and it was minus-13” degrees,” she said. “It was snowing. It was the dead of night. (I had) no hair, there was no warmth.”
Hey, Hugo didn’t title this “Les Cheerfuls.” It’s one of those imposing tales that we might almost read in school … then will patiently wait for PBS to turn into a massive mini-series.
— “Les Miserables,” 9 p.m. Sundays, PBS; six parts, starting April 14