Perhaps you, too, have joined the hordes that filed into “Les Miserables” in recent weeks, watching human tragedy in a theater with stadium seats. The French street urchins are giving those hobbits a run for their box office money — no surprise, since pain has always had a lot of entertainment value. Victor Hugo published the original book in 1862: a 1,200-page epic of love, crime, and punishment, skewered by most critics but devoured by the public. The musical, long and luscious, was a staple of the ’80s.
A film version was inevitable, and it washes over you nicely; the songs, much to my children’s dismay, are impossible to get out of your head. But there’s a quality to this particular movie, this modern spin on an old wallow, that feels a little uncomfortable. At some point, it turns from suffering-as-entertainment into something more obscene: Suffering porn.
This has something to do with the medium. When “Les Miserables” made its stage debut, much of the hype was about its grandeur. The characters were little people, pawns in a big story, singing of their tiny woes in counterpoint, dwarfed by the giant set on hydraulic lifts.
Once the whole thing is transferred to a movie screen, the scale reverses: the images are grand, but the misery is individual. This film is all about the close-up, the actor’s ability to channel pain. We first see Hugh Jackman when he’s emaciated and unkempt, scars beneath patches of ill-kept hair. Once he’s cleaned up, we move on to Anne Hathaway, reduced within moments from ingenue to wretch: her hair hacked off, her teeth dirtied by the makeup crew, until at last, she delivers her solo in one long, tear-stained take.
One by one, this happens to the movie’s biggest stars: Each is given a chance to sing, cry, and smile ruefully at the same time. Roughly half of them die at the end of the song. On one level, this intimacy is one of the film’s strengths. Instead of belting out the lyrics with stage-diva grandeur, the actors sing quietly, imperfectly. Their voices are as weak, as if their tragedies were true.
It’s just another unpleasant reminder that tragedy is currency, as long as it’s properly contained. This may never have been more true than now, when we have so many platforms for sharing our personal miseries with the world. Every day, Dr. Phil offers another sob story on TV, while social media offers a parade of traumas, some grand, most closer to nit-picks. There’s a gold rush in the confessional memoir, a growing market value to miserable lives and personal humiliation.
It’s a little too easy to say that we’re all voyeurs. It’s human to seek catharsis; that’s what theater is about. And when actual disaster strikes, in Haiti or Japan or New Jersey or Newtown, Conn., we don’t just watch; we volunteer our time and send our money, in heartfelt gestures of sympathy and hope.
But Hollywood sometimes has a way of reveling in pain that makes it look like a fetish: The power to do horrible things to beautiful people. The over-the-top trauma in “Les Mis” is a paradox: The movie is so desperate to look real that it’s undeniably fake, which makes the catharsis seem ugly instead of honest. It’s too easy to watch Hathaway’s face contort, to admire the way she can drip a single tear from her eye, knowing that her mottled hair will soon morph into an adorable pixie cut that will look extra-terrific during awards season. She dreams a dream, indeed.