A huge novel (1,500 pages) on some essential subjects (good vs. evil, justice vs. injustice…) called for a “startlingly big” production.
Viewers may have trouble recognizing actor Dominic West in the newest production of Les Misérables.
As Jean Valjean, who's toiled in prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, his skin looks painfully red and blistered from sledgehammering under a scorching sun. His hair is sparse and ragged. Whippings from guards have crosshatched his body with scars and lacerations. He glowers menacingly, like a tortured animal.
"Tortured animal is pretty good. That would be pretty bang-on," says West (The Wire, The Affair). "The system has turned him into an animal. So now you see how far he has to go."
Valjean is so bottomed out, in fact, that he has no place to go but up. Rather than belt out his tale of redemption Broadway-style, however, this six-episode series — adapted by Andrew Davies from Victor Hugo's 1862 novel and directed by Tom Shankland — nixes the singing and burrows deeper into one of the greatest and longest novels ever written, a staggering 365 chapters in all.
"It's such a big, elemental story, almost like a biblical story," says Davies, whose many literary TV adaptations include the BBC's recent War & Peace. "About a man who really hates his fellow man and finishes up as almost some kind of a saint."
Premiering on PBS's Masterpiece on April 14, Les Misérables is a Lookout Point and BBC Studios production for the BBC, coproduced with Masterpiece. Its impressive cast includes Lily Collins (The Last Tycoon) as Fantine, a young French working woman and mother whose promising future gets tragically cut down.
David Oyelowo (Selma) portrays Javert, a prison guard turned police inspector who obsessively pursues Valjean after his release, trying to pin all manner of crimes on him.
Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) and Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager) play the depraved Madame and Monsieur Thénardier, and Josh O'Connor (Peaky Blinders) takes the high ground as Marius, suitor to Fantine's daughter, Cosette (Ellie Bamber, Nocturnal Animals).
Davies thought the series, which is set in France during its early 19th-century period of civil unrest, should begin on that historical note.
"We really wanted to make it startlingly big," he says, referring to the first thing that viewers see: a sweeping and wretched battlefield strewn, after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, with a grotesque number of dead or dying soldiers. Opportunistic thieves rifle through the corpses' pockets, as real peasants did following this multinational effort to defeat Napoleon.
"I thought it was such a great way to start. Waterloo was world-changing, and we wanted a visual image to evoke that," Davies says. He saw in the looters a reflection of the world's many disenfranchised people and notes, "It's still burningly relevant."
Notable film adaptations of Les Misérables stretch back to 1897 and include the Oscar-winning 2012 adaptation of the stage musical. "I'm one of the few people in the world who hasn't seen the film of the musical," Shankland says. He decided not to look back and to rely instead on Davies's script and his own instincts.
He sought authentic locations that would transport the actors back in time. "So that they felt they were really there," says Shankland, who had to make the most of his budget.
He would have liked to go all out with that Waterloo scene, padding it David Lean–style with 1,000 extras. But he managed to pull it off with about 80 extras and maybe five horses. Special effects took care of the rest. After much scouting, he and his team found the ideal ditch in Belgium to stage it. But they had only one day to shoot.
"Oh my God, you do everything you can to try and make this the most organized day humanly possible," he says. They had to arrange for the field to be churned up. "Then it rained so hard for two hours, like a monsoon," he says, that the crew had to use ski equipment to avoid sliding into the muck.
I really don't think people are going to watch this and say, 'Oh this is a nice, quaint, chocolate-box period drama,'" says Oyelowo, who, along with Davies and West, served as an executive producer (also exec-producing: Faith Penhale for BBC Studios, Bethan Jones for BBC Studios, Mona Qureshi for BBC One and Rebecca Eaton for Masterpiece).
When we first encounter Oyelowo's character, Javert is guarding criminals sentenced to hard labor in a stone quarry, a massive and stunningly bleak locale in France.
The staging, Shankland says, was influenced both by the scale seen in Sebastião Salgado's photographs of Brazilian gold miners — where the workers can look like a colony of ants swarming the cliffs — and by the chain-gang misery depicted in films like Cool Hand Luke.
"That scene in the quarry," Oyelowo says, "it was as impressive as it looks in the show. It's very foreboding, very uninviting and a perfect place to punish people that society has deemed worthy of the worst kind of punishment."
West, meanwhile, holds his own against the backdrop. He doesn't just land his sledgehammer on the rocks, he smashes them like he's got a demon on his back. "I always feel that the screen is crackling with his energy and potential for violence," Shankland says.
West took boxing lessons to prime his body for the role. "You can't really do those things half-baked," he says, chuckling. "It's always a problem if you're playing a guy who's described in the book as the strongest man in the world."
After Valjean spots a guard abusing an inmate, he triggers an avalanche of boulders and scaffolding to collapse on the guard. The shot required stuntmen and careful rehearsing, and Shankland says that by the time they were finally ready, the sun was going down. "It was going to have to be a one-shot wonder," he recalls.
Oyelowo, standing sentry on top, was harnessed in. His children were also on set, observing. "They were very, very scared," he says, "and very, very shocked and thought that the guy was buried beneath the rubble. That it was some kind of accident and it hadn't gone according to plan."
The entire series was shot out of chronological order, which was perhaps most challenging for Collins.
Fantine starts out well enough, a lovely and endearing, albeit wide-eyed working girl. Tricked and abandoned by her affluent lover, she is eventually brought all the way down by the vulture-like callousness and greed of others. Only Collins had to perform her character's trajectory in reverse. "On day two I was literally on my deathbed," she says. "Then I got to get younger and prettier at the end."
Davies and Shankland recognized that for viewers to root for Fantine, she'd need a fleshed-out backstory. So the first episode shows her at picnics and dances and in blissful times, which many adaptations have rushed through. "We understand her much better," Davies says, from seeing "that she's fallen from having been the prettiest girl in town to having a life of unremitting suffering."
There's even a frolicsome pee in the woods during an outing with her girlfriends, a seemingly insignificant shot that would be unremarkable in a more contemporary film but works to surprising and good effect here. "That feels so easy to relate to," says Shankland, who, along with Davies, wanted to avoid the over-reverential feel of so many classic redos.
"There's a kind of rock and rollness to this; this is Andrew's way of trying to find the warts and all to these characters and make them not just these Les Mis icons or legends but true, believable people."
Both West and Oyelowo read the novel and referred to it for clues to their characters' motivations. "In almost any scene," West says, "Victor Hugo writes 28 pages on what Valjean is thinking at that time." But Hugo wasn't explicit when it came to explaining Javert's obsession with Valjean. West decided that his writing implied a subtle erotic charge between them. "For me it was a sexual thing," he says.
Oyelowo found a different handle on his enigmatic character. "One of my knee-jerk reactions when I was offered the role was, 'I don't just want to play the quote-unquote villain,'" says Oyelowo, who played civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma.
Understanding that Javert was born in prison to criminal parents, Oyelowo imagined him teeming with self-loathing. "I think he sees himself in Valjean. He sees what he could have become. I think his pursuit of Jean is Javert's need to push his past away," Oyelowo says.
To maintain his character's hostility toward Valjean, Oyelowo kept his distance from West during production. "It was actually quite hard," he says. "Because Dom is a very, very nice man. But the nature of the relationship we had to play out was very acrimonious. So to be joking with someone just before a take and then be mean to them when the cameras roll is not something that would have been helpful for acting."
"Oh, so that's what it was," West says, when he hears Oyelowo's reasoning. "I'm glad he did, actually. It is extraordinary how offscreen relationships do translate on the screen. If we'd had any familiarity it might have been much harder to do those scenes."
When Collins auditioned for her part, Shankland was immediately taken with her. "I thought Lily has amazing charisma onscreen." He also admired her work in Marti Noxon's 2017 film To the Bone, for which she lost considerable weight to play a young woman with anorexia. "Oh, yeah, I see Lily takes risks here," he thought.
He warned her, though: "We're really going to have to go to some dark places with your character. It's going to be cold and ugly and scary and very exposing. Are you up for that?" She was. "Lily really wanted to go to that place," he says.
Fantine, for instance, becomes so desperate to raise money for her child that she sells her front teeth to a huckster (Ron Cook), to be used for dentures for the wealthy. Collins says her skin crawled when she entered the setting for that scene.
"It was very disturbing and creepy to shoot," she says, "because the caravan in which the hair and teeth seller lives is very topsy-turvy and very uncomfortable and creepy. And all the tools are just disgusting. You can't imagine that he's touched human beings with those tools. It set the tone. Our art department and our sets and props allowed all of us to feel so in the moment and so genuine."
The same with hair and makeup. "It's insane what they were able to do," Collins says. Once Fantine hits bottom, she's minus her teeth, her mouth and nose are bloody, her hacked-off hair looks like a scarecrow's and she's pallid with sickness. "For me to look in the mirror and not recognize myself enabled me to completely disappear into Fantine in a way that I never dreamed of," she says.
Javert has it in for Fantine. In one scene, he drags her down an icy cobblestone street. "It was definitely a test for me as an actress and in life," says Collins, who is petite. "We had to figure out the appropriate level of aggression, if you will. He's pulling. I'm resisting. There was a moment when we really got into it and I ended up flying a little too far and landing a little too hard."
That take made the final cut. "So any and every pain you see flashing across her face is real," Oyelowo says. But well worth it, Collins adds, "Because for me it was the time I was the most raw and vulnerable."
When Davies was approached to write the script, he'd only read one excerpt of the book, and that was as a child. But it had always stuck with him. That scene, set in the first episode, is Valjean's first night out of prison. He is exhausted. He's traveled by foot to a village where no one will take him in.
Finally, he knocks on the door of the local bishop (Derek Jacobi), who provides him a meal and bed and words of encouragement. "The bishop was very persuasive in that he was sure that Jean Valjean, somewhere in him, wanted to be a good man," Davies explains. In response, Valjean practically chokes on his rancor. (West says he channeled his adolescent self in that moment.)
And before sunup, he robs the bishop of his fine silverware and slips out.
Later, though, he is returned to the bishop's residence by policemen who happened to search his bag. The bishop protects Valjean, telling the officers that he'd given Valjean the silverware. He then tosses a pair of silver candlesticks into the bag as well — an act of such kindness and generosity that it triggers something long dormant in Valjean.
Yet the Masterpiece series is only beginning. "He really goes through the wringer, poor old Jean Valjean," says West, who found the role exhausting yet nourishing. "And that's what's crazy about playing Valjean," he says. "Hugo makes virtue incredibly interesting."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2019