Charles Walton is Associate Professor of History at Yale University.
Before there were blockbuster films, there were blockbuster books. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, published in 1862, was one of them. Thanks to a market-savvy publisher, this monument of French romanticism, which was serialized in ten installments, became an immediate bestseller across Europe and North America. Demand was so great that other authors, notably Gustave Flaubert, postponed the publications of their own books to avoid being outshined. On days when new installments went on sale in Paris, police were called in to stop impatient crowds from storming the bookstores. Some high-minded critics, not unlike those who spurn sensational Hollywood films today, found the hype distasteful. Edwin Percy Whipple, in a review for The Atlantic, referred to “the system of puffing” surrounding the book’s release in terms worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge: it was “the grossest bookselling humbug,” a spectacle “at which Barnum himself would stare amazed.”
Despite the hoopla, the novel’s reception in France was mixed. Some declared it to be the greatest novel of all time; others found it absurd and sappy. Some even considered it dangerous. Reading it, they feared, was a political act, and Hugo’s detailed description of the barricades provided a how-to manual for insurgency. Hugo never denied his revolutionary sympathies. He was proud of a comment made by one of his readers, a former insurgent, who said, “This book will advance the Revolution by ten years.”
Victor Hugo was no Karl Marx, but he did believe in progress through revolution -- a fact that viewers of Tom Hooper’s new film, Les Misérables, would never guess. Adapted from the immensely popular musical version of Hugo’s classic (first performed in Paris in 1980), Hooper’s cinematic rendering is stunningly staged and brilliantly performed, but it cuts the author in half: it gives us the religious Hugo, not the revolutionary one. It tells the story of individual redemption through an odyssey of Catholic conscience, not of France’s collective redemption through political violence....