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"Les Misérables" is shaping up to be one of the biggest film events in recent memory. Thanks to an amazing cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe, an Oscar-winning director in Tom Hooper and the public's abiding love for the classic Broadway musical it's based on, "Les Misérables" seems poised to be a major power at both the box office and at the Oscars.
But what if we told you that back in 1998, another acclaimed director put together an even more impressive cast for an adaptation of "Les Misérables" — one that has been almost completely forgotten?
Yes, it's true. So why don't more people know about the 1998 adaptation of "Les Misérables"? What was that film all about? And what is the new "Les Misérables" doing differently to ensure it meets more success than its unjustly overlooked predecessor? Read on, as we tell you all about The Other "Les Misérables."
Everyone knows the story of Britain's Tom Hooper and how the director of this year's "Les Misérables" is riding a wave of Oscar love thanks to his last film, 2010's "The King's Speech," taking home four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Before Hooper, though, there was another European, Oscar-winning director trying to accomplish the same thing: Denmark's Bille August, whose 1987 masterpiece "Pelle the Conqueror" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. That film, of course, was mostly in Danish, but in 1998 he lined up a top-notch English-speaking cast for what was sure to be his big Hollywood breakthrough: "Les Misérables."
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If there's anything "wrong" with the cast for 1998's "Les Misérables," it may simply be that, as famous and acclaimed as they were then, they are all even bigger stars now. Consider: Liam Neeson, who played lead character Jean Valjean, had already been nominated for an Oscar (for 1993's "Schindler's List") but he was still one year away from headlining "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" and becoming a major box office hero. Geoffrey Rush, who played Javert, was coming off his Oscar win for "Shine," but since then has had three more Oscar nominations as well as a giant blockbuster franchise of his own ("Pirates of the Caribbean"). And that's not even mentioning Uma Thurman (Fantine) and up-and-comer Claire Danes (Cosette), who today is an A-list star in her own right thanks to "Homeland."
Still, despite the fact that none of the stars were quite as big 14 years ago as they are today, that's a pretty incredible cast, right? We know what you're thinking: We must have made this film up, because there's no way an adaptation of "Les Misérables" with a cast like that would ever be almost completely forgotten. But swearsies, it's all true. In fact, here's the trailer right here to prove it:
No doubt you noticed that that trailer features surprisingly little singing. As in, none. That's because August was adapting the original 1862 Victor Hugo novel rather than the famous musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and company. That's not to say that the musical had no influence; its huge popularity is probably the reason August was able to make his version in the first place. But since they weren't bound by the musical's structure, he and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias decided to make a few not-so-subtle changes to the story — changes which may have thrown the audience more than a little bit.
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August made the understandable though questionable decision to focus on the relationship between Valjean and Javert, which led to two major changes that significantly altered the storyline. First of all, most of the other characters have reduced or even non-existent roles; even the scheming Thénardiers (played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter in the new version) have barely more than a cameo. And [SPOILER ALERT] since the conflict between Valjean and Javert is so key to this new take, the story ends when Javert dies, meaning everything after that point never takes place, including Cosette's wedding. Yeah. Other than eliminating half the characters and the entire ending, though, it's basically the same story.
So what happens when you take a beloved story (even if it's greatly altered), add in an Oscar-winning director and film it with a top notch, A-list superstar cast? Not what you might expect, actually; when "Les Misérables" hit theaters, it debuted in a distant fourth place at the box office before fading quickly and disappearing from sight. Overall, despite getting generally positive reviews, the 1998 "Les Misérables" earned only $14.1 million domestically and was completely ignored during award season.
All of which just goes to show that if you want to make "Les Misérables," there's one element that's more important than the director or the stars or even the story: the music. And that's why this time around, "Les Misérables" looks to be, finally, unforgettable.