As ever, the BBC has successfully attempted to inject a bit more life into its evening dramas this year. One of its much anticipated offerings is the new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Misérables. With some all-star names including Dominic West and Olivia Coleman, the show boasts of being a much closer adaptation of the novel than the film/musical that people are most familiar with, meaning this six-part drama had a lot to live up to.
Five out of six episodes down and so far, so good. It certainly is a much closer adaptation; Éponine and Gavroche are rightfully reunited as siblings, Javert’s unhealthy obsession with arresting the well-meaning Jean Valjean is far more effectively established, and the utter depravity of Fantine’s downfall into prostitution escapes the romanticised musical rendition.
I hesitate to use the word ‘downfall’ here. There has been much discussion in recent years surrounding the empowerment of choosing to work in the sex industry. But the differing in opinions seems to hinge on that one word: choice. What are the implications for someone who is forced into sex work, whether due to financial pressures or otherwise? What can we learn here about changing power dynamics within sexual relationships? Is there a place for such discussions at nine o’clock in the evening on the BBC?
I am ashamed to say that I have never tackled reading the brick that is Les Misérables, but I reckon I could easily give a one-man performance of the entire musical, so I’ve got that going for me. The BBC has successfully introduced facets of Fantine’s character that I have previously been unfamiliar with. We see her journey from a young and naïve adolescent wishing to see the world, to desperate and destitute young adult attempting to use her sexuality as power in order to provide for her child.
It seems that power and sex go much more explicitly hand-in-hand in Les Misérables’ society than they do now – though that relationship certainly persists. In the opening episode, we are introduced to the young man who sleeps a summer by Fantine’s side. Rich, white, and male, Felix has all the characteristics of a boy playing at being a man and playing with the women he sees as existing for his own entertainment and desire. He does provide private rooms for Fantine and the baby Cosette, though along with his equally rich, white, male sidekicks, he promptly deserts Fantine and her peers at dinner with a telling note: ‘Lament us briefly and replace us rapidly.’ Sex with these young girls was an experience they knew would be fleeting, and though they are apparently giving women the choice to submit to the advances of these tortured poets, ultimately this is all an act. An act that remains a little too familiar.
Hugo (and now the BBC) seem to be interested in interrogating the extent to which these women should be protected from sexual advances. There are certainly later parallels with Marius’ attempts to woo Cossette who does escape the fate of her mother. This is a fate that seems far more tragic than the musical would have us imagine. Without a roguish father figure to keep her tightly wrapped in cotton wool, Fantine is forced to accept less than helpful advice: ‘You should have gone on the game before you sold your pretty hair and your lovely white teeth. Who’s going to take you, looking like that?’ Toxic attitudes surrounding the expression of gender and sexuality certainly were alive and well in French Revolution-era Paris.
There is much to be learned from the sexual politics embedded in Hugo’s fictional world, and much to be said for the very PG representation that the BBC opted for. Sexual relationships were fraught with power dynamics and the will to survive – Eponine introduces a whole new angle to that front. It is poignant to consider whether anything very much has changed in the underground and under-monitored sex industry of the 21st century.