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Jean Valjean in the Shadows

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Harry Baur as Jean Valjean, just released from prison, in the epic 1934 French film adaption of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables directed by Raymond Bernard.

“At times he did not rightly know himself what he felt. Jean Valjean was in the shadows; he suffered in the shadows; he hated in the shadows; one might have said that he hated in advance of himself. He dwelt habitually in this shadow, feeling his way like a blind man and a dreamer. Only, at intervals, there suddenly came to him, from without and from within, an access of wrath, a surcharge of suffering, a livid and rapid flash which illuminated his whole soul, and caused to appear abruptly all around him, in front, behind, amid the gleams of a frightful light, the hideous precipices and the sombre perspective of his destiny.

The flash passed, the night closed in again; and where was he? He no longer knew. The peculiarity of pains of this nature, in which that which is pitiless–that is to say, that which is brutalizing–predominates, is to transform a man, little by little, by a sort of stupid transfiguration, into a wild beast; sometimes into a ferocious beast.

Jean Valjean’s successive and obstinate attempts at escape would alone suffice to prove this strange working of the law upon the human soul. Jean Valjean would have renewed these attempts, utterly useless and foolish as they were, as often as the opportunity had presented itself, without reflecting for an instant on the result, nor on the experiences which he had already gone through. He escaped impetuously, like the wolf who finds his cage open. Instinct said to him, “Flee!” Reason would have said, “Remain!” But in the presence of so violent a temptation, reason vanished; nothing remained but instinct. The beast alone acted.”

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862) – Excerpt from Isabel Florence Hapgood’s 1887 translation.

Note: Read about the 1934 French film adaptation of Les Misérables in a post on film critic Leonard Maltin’s blog: Discovering Another ‘Les Misérables

2 Comments

  1. Sam Juliano

    The great French actor Harry Bauer was killed by the Nazis, ending an unforgettable career, capped by his extraordinary performance as Jean Valjean. It’s the greatest turns on record of one of literature’s most beloved characters, and the 1934 film by Raymond Bernard is hands down the best ever made from the novel that I consider my all-time favorite.

    How wonderful to include Hapgood’s succinct psychological portrait of a caged Valjean, and the noir-like undertones of his predicament that includes the hand of fate. This is the first time I have read her contribution, and was so moved I read it a second time. And I’ve seen Maltin’s fine capsule piece as well.

    Raymond’s epic and magnum opus is at nearly five hours the most comprehensive adaptation ever made of Hugo’s masterpiece, and one that is always recommended first by cineastes for it’s acting and production design, both components of which are first-rate. Bauer is the most affecting Valjean ever, and Charles Venal is an ominous force of nature as Javert. A year later Hollywood rolled out their own solid version, with Charles Laughton as an unforgettable Javert, and Frederic March as the “second-best” Valjean. The only problem with the film are the massive cuts to the text, sad to say.

    Such a timely post here with the present run of the film musical of LES MISERABLES (based on the London and Broadway smash)that has yielded yet another terrific adaptation of Hugo, albeit in another form.

  2. Sam, a signature contribution! I had you in mind when preparing the post…

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