Is PBS’s ‘Les Misérables’ a Musical? Why The New Adaptation Is Different from the Broadway Play

Les Misérables is one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. But viewers who tune in to the new PBS adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel might be surprised when characters like Fantine, Jean Valjean, and Inspector Javert don’t break into song. That’s because this adaptation from Andrew Davies isn’t a musical.

The show’s creator isn’t a fan of the musical

Davies has brought many works of literature to life on screen, including Pride & Prejudice, War and Peace, Middlemarch, and A Room with a View. In his latest effort, he tackles one of the most celebrated works in French literature. The book weighs in at 1,400 pages, and most Americans are probably only familiar with the story of former convict Jean Valjean and his dedicated pursuer Inspector Javert through the musical version. The English-language version of the show has played continuously in London since 1985, making it the longest-running musical in history.

The Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil musical is well-loved by many, but don’t count Davies among its fans.

“I absolutely hated the musical!” Davies said at the Television Critics Association in February. “I just wanted to rescue this great book,” he added.

Back in 2016, Davies called the musical version a “shoddy farrago,” saying that he wanted to expose more people to the novel. “The book needs a bit of a champion,” he said.

While Davies slammed the musical version of Les Misérables, one of the show’s stars is a fan. “I love the musical! For the record!,” said David Oyelowo, who plays Javert, at TCA.

How does it compare to the musical?

Lily Collins as Fantine in  Les Misérables
Lily Collins as Fantine in Les Misérables |Courtesy of BBC – Photographer: Robert Viglasky

The six-part PBS adaptation of Les Misérables premiered on April 14, and so far, many critics like what they’ve seen. For one, the length means that Davies didn’t need to condense as much of the story as the theatrical version.

Les Misérables hews closely to the source material without skipping too much plot or character motivations — a sacrifice often made in condensing the story into a musical that delivers on emotion but takes shortcuts elsewhere,” Hanh Nguyen wrote in a review for IndieWire.

Viewers will learn more about characters like Fantine, whose backstory is explored in more detail.

“To take a character further into their back story and show people that, I think it creates a bigger amount of empathy for them throughout their character arcs,” Lily Collins, who plays the doomed Fantine, told Playbill. “So for me, specifically, you really get to see Fantine at her youngest, most vibrant, which is a perfect comparison then to when she’s dying and at her worst, because you can only have empathy for someone to a certain extent if you haven’t experienced the higher notes with them.”

Dominic West, who plays Jean Valjean, says fans of the musical will still enjoy the new version, despite the differences between the two. “They’ll absolutely love it, because it’s the characters and storyline that they love, and you just see it more in depth,” he told Town and Country. “I don’t think you miss the songs.”

Episode 2 of Les Misérables airs April 21 at 9/8c on PBS. Episode 1 is streaming on PBS.org.

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