Nota bene: Many spoilers below. Consider yourselves warned.
First was Anna Karenina. Liz convinced me to read the book last winter, and while I didn't like it terribly much then, the more it's sunk into my brain, the more I've grown to like it. Brief summary: Contrasts four couples and shows the way infidelity destroys relationships from the inside out. First couple is unswervingly faithful. Husband of the second couple is a serial adulterer whose wife reluctantly forgives him the first time and turns a blind eye subsequent times. Third couple didn't marry for love (at least she didn't), and she becomes unfaithful, eventually leaving him. Fourth couple began in adultery and were never able to marry, and the fundamental insecurity this of this eats away at both of them from the inside, causing them to mistrust and hurt each other even while at the same moment they wish to be loving. All of this is most dramatically encapsulated in Anna herself, who, bearing the stresses caused by husband and lover, takes her own life, leaving each of the men who loved her alone to grieve. Anyway, excellent book. Great insights into human nature, and enjoyable to boot. (Well, except for the mini-essays on Tolstoy's political topic du livre, but that's just nineteenth-century Russian literature.)
The new film version with Kiera Knightly is almost certainly the most faithful film adaptation of a book that I have ever seen. I don't think a single line was added; certainly many things were omitted, but nothing that impacted the plot or characters in ways that the filmmakers were not able to convey visually. They did a fantastic job of portraying a whole character in a few shots of the camera (especially with Stiva!), and the stage conventions were used to great effect, I thought. I hear that it was difficult to follow if one didn't know the story coming into it, which I had suspected, but that's not necessarily a defect in the production so much as a different sort of art form, one that requires a different sort of preparation, much like Shakespeare's less obvious plays (i.e., basically everything that wasn't a comedy).
Next was The Hobbit! I didn't grow up on Tolkien like many of my friends from college and beyond, so I had a much milder review than some. Still, I read the book in high school, and reread the first third in the days before the show so as to be appropriately prepared. Since they had about as much time as the full Lord of the Rings Trilogy but only 300 pages to cover, as well as an incredibly dependable and clearly established fan base, I thought this might be an opportunity for the filmmakers to be meticulously faithful to the book. And indeed, the world of Middle Earth was fantastic as ever, and its characters wonderfully introduced.
However, important conversations were kept intact... except for an obviously missing line or two. Events were pulled out of sequence, dilemmas solved in ways that were close but markedly different (which often took no less time to tell), heroic moments created where dumb luck had originally sufficed, back story elaborated from other Tolkien source material. That last one I actually thought was a brilliant idea. Long review short: This film made me consider whether a film adaptation of a book really needed to be strictly faithful to its book.
But a conversation with a friend who grew up on Tolkien and has read The Hobbit dozens of times throughout his life reminded me: the tiny changes in the plot served to change the characters, to make them more glamorous, in a sense, more palatable to modern audiences. A treasure hunt wasn't good enough; instead an old villain was resurrected to persecute the travelers. Dumb luck wasn't sufficient to get them out of a jam; somebody needed to have the perfect solution in his pocket. I'm still feeling the tension of appealing to audiences and whatnot, but I can't help but wonder what would have happened had the filmmakers trusted the author a bit more... Still, I'll be glad to see the next two; I'll just come in with somewhat lowered expectations.
Finally, Les Misérables. Again, didn't grow up on this. Read an abridged version of the book in high school, but all I remember from that was the episode with the bishop and the candlesticks, and how impressed my classmates were by my French accent when we read aloud. And something vague about Javert chasing Valjean through Paris. Saw the musical a few years later, mere weeks before it closed on Broadway; likewise, I remember little except that the actor playing Jean Valjean has an impressively wide/high vocal range and incredible tone. I only learned this past October that a new film version was coming to theaters this month, so I bought an audiobook version from audible.com - whom I highly recommend, by the way, for their products, pricing, and customer service. Outstanding!
Am I glad I read the book! At times, the film lingered over a moment; other times, I saw chapters and chapters running through my memory during a single pan of the camera, understandably glossed over but enriching my outlook nonetheless. Some things were changed, it's true: Cosette was smarter and less oblivious; Marius was more decisive and also less oblivious; Eponine was much prettier; Javert more human; Thenardier somewhat less despicable. The ending was padded a bit, but it made for a nice closing number for the musical, and was a pleasant extension of the book's themes.
I don't know how they could have improved Gavroche; I wanted him to have more screen time, but that might just be because I enjoyed him so much. I did miss old man Gillenormand, though. He was present, but only in passing; though I knew there wouldn't be much of him, I did miss his spunk.
As I was reflecting on all this, though, I was struck by how noble every major character was (with exception of the Thenardiers), and how driven by passion of some sort or other: Marius may have rather floated along through life in some respects, but he lived driven first by reverence for his father's memory, then by his love for Cosette. Cosette was driven first by simple love for her father, then for Marius. Fantine was noble inside, despite what she had been reduced to; she did all for her little girl, she lived and died for Cosette. Jean Valjean began the story aimless, but soon lived for God, through the figure of the bishop; later, he lived for Cosette and her well-being. Javert lived for the law, and it wasn't until he saw that the law might not be the perfect arbiter of morality that he had always trusted -- until he was forced to doubt the perfection of the object of his passion -- that he wavered. Even the Thénardiers had a passion: money.
All of these reviews combined, I am left with a question: Why do I read these things, watch them? Why do I immerse myself in these stories? The point is not to judge how a movie lives up to the book that inspired it, tempting though that may at times be; the point is to lose myself for but a moment in a work of art, in a thing of beauty which reveals the transcendent, the truth of the human condition, God Himself.
Sure, there are external factors at work in every story: How might Anna and Vronsky's relationship have turned out if she could have filed for divorce without Karenin's permission? Certainly Levin and Kitty's love seemed strong, but how would it weather the years and their hardships? Perhaps Fontine could have made a wonderful little life for herself and Cosette in Montrueil sur Mer had society been set up such that having a child out of wedlock would not cost Fontine all potential friends and employers. If the government didn't imprison a man nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread, then put him on eternal parole and deny him any chance at reform -- if petty theft did not transform a man, in society's eyes, into Cain: marked indelibly for his crime and identified primarily by it forever -- then what might Jean Valjean have become, without the incredible suffering that pushed him to such greatness?
But asking these questions is like second-guessing the events of our own lives. What if I'd applied for that promotion earlier? What if I'd gone to school elsewhere? What if I'd begun to work in a different field, lived in a different city? The what if's never stop, if we indulge them; but they are at least safer to make about the lives of fictional characters than about our own lives and those of our loved ones.
In the end, why do I read? To be transported to another life, to learn from another's experiences, to be enriched by another's loves. For hope, for the reminder that adversity can be overcome, even if it leaves a mark. Because there is truth in every story, and exposure to truth -- even if the same can't always be said about facts -- is always good. And just a little bit of because I can. :)
Cor Iesu, in quo sunt omnes thesauri sapientiae et scientiae, miserere nobis.
PS - I am particularly interested in movie reviews from those of you who grew up on the musical.