Danish director Bille August turned Victor Hugo's naturalist novel into a grand historical film, full of beautiful backdrops, settings and costumes. Welcome to the gloomy world of the revolutionary France with barricades, undergrounds, forced labour and monasteries.
Life on the turn of 18th and 19th centuries in France was definitely not all roses. The gap between the poor and the rich was immense, and the reality of the social order merciless. It only took a tiny offence and a few years of forced labour were considered as adequate punishment. The ideals of humanism were only slowly surfacing through a thick net of conservative tradition and prejudice. It isn't hard to understand why people were beginning to rise against it all, their riots resulting in the French Revolution. However, great history always leaves a permanent print on individual lives. One of the most troubled destinies impressed in our minds is the one of Jean Valjean, a literary and film hero.
Approximately 1200 pages of the novel Les Misérables puts the authors of film adaptations before a tough task - what to leave in and what to leave out. Director Bille August decided to stay true to the book, and he put special stress on the stories of convict Valjean and his nemesis, the police inspector Javert. August doesn't see them as mere opposites, as the representatives of good and evil, he sees them as two human beings. One is a thief, but capable of love and forgiveness through the sufferings he has experienced. The other is a representative of law and order, but his implicit faith in these values makes him a cruel and heartless man.
The story of human fates with several twists and turns towards theories about the character of the society, religion and politics, has repeteadly been adapted for film, theatre or musical. Bille August's version was made in 1998 and was partly filmed on Czech land. Hradčany Square in Prague represented the centre of Paris, and St. Vitus' Cathedral was later digitally swapped for Notre Dame. The Jesuit College in Kutná Hora played the role of a Paris police building. Other scenes were made in Žatec, Vrbno, in Trója in Prague or in Dobříš. Apart from the stars of the film, including Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush or Uma Thurman, Les Misérables also featured a few Czech actors.