The Americanization of Victor Hugo
Darryl F. Zanuck’s Les Misérables (1935)
in French literature on screen
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Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables enjoys a staggering adaptation history like no other. Begun in 1845 when the author became a peer of France as a member of the French Upper House and completed in 1862 while in exile, Hugo’s sprawling, melodramatic indictment of the socio-economic system under the Bourbon restoration and the events leading up to the June insurrection in Paris in the summer of 1832 was voraciously anticipated and an instant sensation. Almost immediately after its publication in a multivolume series, the novel provided the source material that would catapult one of the lengthiest works of fiction ever written – replete with emotive digressions on the dangers of the cloistered religious, speculations on the argot, and a lengthy excursion in the Paris sewer system – from numerous nineteenth-century adaptations on stage into our own day; these would include radio, television, and film, together with international versions of the ubiquitous musical, Les Mis, that proliferate and continue to animate popular culture. As I have argued at length elsewhere, there are at least three useful coordinates when contemplating what used to be called ‘the novel into film’. The cultural politics of authorship, intertextual or collateral considerations, together with cultural value form a kind of blueprint for an investigation in adaptation. For the purposes of this essay, I propose interrogating Twentieth Century’s production of Les Misérables in 1935 with these three aspects in mind.

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