History on the Big Screen – Les Misérables

By Barbara Maranzani

Hollywood loves history, as the recently announced crop of nominees for the Motion Picture Academy’s highest honor proves. Nearly half of the Best Picture nominations went to films that cover historical events. We love history, and we love movies too, so we thought we’d tackle them both at the same time. Each week, we’ll take a look at the real history behind the stories on the big screen. What really happened, what did the filmmakers get right, what did they get wrong and what should you know about the people and events these movies depict. First up: Les Misérables.

Les Misérables is about the French Revolution, right?
No. But considering how many adaptations there have been of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece in the last 150 years, it would be easy to assume that the movie depicts the most important event in French history. In reality, the conflict covered on the big screen is a small, failed insurrection that was, in the grand historical scheme of things, pretty insignificant. In fact, it’s likely that without Hugo’s novel, nobody outside of a French classroom would have even heard of the 1832 June Rebellion that serves as the climax of the film. The movie technically covers more than 30 years of French history, but few events of the era are even mentioned, let alone explained in any depth—unlike Hugo’s book, which delves much deeper into France’s tumultuous past. This leaves viewers with little understanding of just why people are caught up in revolutionary fervor.

Author Victor Hugo (Getty Images)

Author Victor Hugo (Getty Images)

What history is left out of the film?
While Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert square off against each other over the course of three decades, there’s a whole lot of history that winds up on the cutting room floor. The French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror, the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the restoration of one monarchy (the Bourbons) in 1814 and the overthrow of the Bourbons for yet another monarchy—this time the Orléans—in 1830. Even in times of relative peace, there are near-constant small-scale rebellions (similar to the one shown in the film) breaking out all over the place. That’s not to say that France held a revolution every week, but it was a pretty miserable, unstable place to be most of the time. All of these things are happening in the real France, while a lot of singing and emotional hand wringing are going on in the film version. The movie finally picks up the historical narrative in 1832, just in time for the June Rebellion.

What was the June Rebellion?
Supporters of the 1830 revolution had hoped that the Orléansist regime would be more liberal than its predecessors, but were soon bitterly disappointed when the new regime proved just as hostile to the ideals of liberty as the last—there was a lot of buyer’s remorse going around. A series of strikes in 1831 crippled parts of the French economy, causing food shortages in some regions. In early 1832, a cholera epidemic swept through the country, killing more than 18,000 in Paris alone. Rumors abounded that the government, in an attempt to quell political dissent among the poor, was poisoning the wells of the slums (they weren’t). As shown in the movie, a group of rebels (mostly students, but not all) used the opportunity of the June 1832 death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque as a rallying cry and call to arms. Lamarque was a military leader who had once fought alongside Napoleon and initially supported the Orléans monarchy before turning against its reactionary leaders, which earned him the admiration of the student leaders depicted in Les Misérables.

Illustration depicting 1832 June Rebellion

Illustration depicting 1832 June Rebellion

Did the rebellion really happen that way?
The group depicted in the film is based on real opposition leaders, though the characters themselves are fiction. The film is also pretty accurate in its depiction of the rebellion itself. In reality, it was scattered and disorganized—because it had to be. French law prohibited the assembly of more than 20 people, a statute directly aimed at potential revolutionaries. The barricades really did go up that fast, some in less than 20 minutes. The support for the rebellion from their fellow French that its leaders were relying on failed to materialize. And very, very quickly all of the barricades—save one—fell to the French army or were abandoned. In less than 12 hours, just one outpost remained standing, which was soon overrun by the French army on June 6. Nearly 100 leaders of the insurrection were killed, and another 300 wounded. Many of those who survived were later tried for treason and executed. Both the book and movie end their stories there, but the 1832 rebellion was just the beginning of a much larger movement underfoot. Sixteen years after the events that cap off Les Misérables, yet another revolution swept through France, finally doing away with the Orléans regime in favor of a government led by Louis-Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Initially a popularly elected leader, he would soon lead a coup d’état that found him crowned emperor (as Napoleon III) of the newly created Second Empire. We know, it’s complicated.

Front cover of first edition of Les Misérables

Front cover of first edition of Les Misérables (Getty Images)

Why did Hugo write about such an unimportant moment in history?
Hugo had a personal connection to the events of 1832. When fighting broke out on June 5, he was writing in a nearby garden when he heard shots ring out. Rushing to the scene, he was forced to take cover in an alleyway as the two sides began trading fire. He was trapped there, in the middle of the fighting, for nearly an hour before he was able to escape unharmed. Already an ardent supporter of the republican goals, he found himself further caught up in their cause, and eventually he too would take up arms during the 1848 Revolution, finding himself positioned at the barricades just as the student leaders in the movie do. It was around this time that Hugo, already a popular poet, finally began work on Les Misérables—a process that would take more than a decade. When word got out that the author was working on a grand epic covering the last 50 years of French history, nearly everyone’s curiosity was piqued. Two years before a single word was published, newspapers around the world, including The New York Times, were discussing the book. When the first parts of it finally came out in 1862, it caused an immediate sensation. In Paris, armed guards were called in to control unruly crowds who swarmed bookstores to get their copies. The book was a worldwide smash, and despite a few negative reviews from critics and fellow authors, Hugo’s reputation as one of the 19th centuries greatest authors was solidified.

Illustration from 1862 first edition of Les Misérables

Illustration from first edition, featuring the character Cosette (Getty Images)

Can’t get enough of the story? There’s a lot more of it out there.
Les Misérables, it would seem, was destined to become a phenomena from the start. The book been fodder for popular entertainment for more than a century, and has been adapted to nearly every medium. It’s been turned into one-act plays as well as massive stage epics (both with and without singing revolutionaries). There have been radio adaptations, including a seven-part series written and produced by a 22-year-old Orson Welles. More than 60 film and television versions have been made, in a dozen languages. There have even been video games and a series of animated films produced by the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. Yep, somewhere out there is a claymation version of the story featuring Comrade Cosette.

Categories: Academy Awards, France, Movies