Miceli, Sergio
(ed. and transl. by Marco Alunno)


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3.0. Cinema and television. Quantity and quality (I)

After the first television versions of Les Misérables, an increasing number of abridged cinema adaptations of Hugo’s novel came out. However, the reverse happened sometimes: the materials used for the ‘original’ cinema version were post-produced and then conflated into a long television program. This is one of the reasons that pushed me to keep cinema and television versions in the same chapter.

A quick survey of silent film adaptations (about ten) will be presented and followed by a selective, often short analysis of good-quality and auteur sound cinema versions. Just as a ‘preview’ of the selected films, I mention here three editions of the 1934 adaptation by Raymond Bernard (de facto one of the most important) with music by Arthur Honegger conducted by Maurice Jaubert. USA follows in 1935 with Les Misérables (Italian title: Il sergente di ferro) directed by Richard Boleslawski (musical direction by Alfred Newman). Next comes a 1943 Mexican version directed by Fernando A. Rivero and featuring David Silva and Andrés Soler (with music by Elias Breeskin). The first interesting Italian film on the subject is a 1947 two-part film (I Miserabili – Caccia all’uomo and I Miserabili – Tempesta su Parigi) by Riccardo Freda with music by Alessandro Cicognini. There are also two different editions of one of the most important adaptations: the 1952 version by Lewis Milestone with music by Alex North. I could compare also three editions of different lengths of the tv-movie that Jean-Paul Le Chanois directed in 1958 (music by Georges Van Parys), dubbed in many languages. Eventually, in 1964 the RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) hired Sandro Bolchi to direct a television adaptation in ten parts without music. Part II of this essay ends here.

Television productions in general (fiction, tv-programs, tv-films or telenovelas, call them as you please) seem to have always been the best. Some speak about the golden age of television when the small screen, making capital of the Studios’ crisis, would hire the best actors of the time. This is reflected in the abundant and highly varied53 bibliography on television that arose in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1972, Marcel Bluwal – the author of a double issue of L’Avant-scène cinéma dedicated to Les Misérables (see the bibliography appended to Part IV) – directed a color version, presumably in four parts, featuring music by Giuseppe Verdi. A few years later, in 1978, Glenn Jordan directed two versions of an English television production with music by Allyn Ferguson, dubbed in various languages. Another television adaptation was directed in 1983 by Robert Hossein with music by Michel Magne. I could compare two versions of it: a short one for cinema and a long one for television in six episodes (but some sources state that they are four, lasting half-an-hour each). The next production, also for both cinema and television, was Les Misérables directed in 1985 by Claude Lelouche with music by Francis Lai. Some years passed by until Bill August, in 1998, directed a remarkable adaptation, in several languages with music by Basil Poledouris. Eventually, the last version examined here will be the French film directed by Josée Davan in 2000 with music by Jean-Claude Petit. Two versions were produced: one in six hours for the French television and the other in three hours for the English networks.

53 It ranges from ‘simple’ historical studies to sociological, psychological, linguistic, anthropological, etc. essays. See further on.

A large deal of these double versions (cinema and television) are dubbed and distributed worldwide, including in Far East countries. Let us move on, thus, with a list (almost certainly incomplete) of silent films realized between 1907 and 1931:54






Alice I. A. Guy Blaché

Sur la barricade (Les Misérables)

adaptation of the second to last part of the novel


J. Stuart Blackton

The Gallery-Slave (Les Misérables)



Van Dike Brooke

Les Misérables

3 short films


Albert Capellani

Les cheminaux (Les Misérables)

époque 1: Jean Valjean,
épogue 2: Fantine,
époque 3: Cosette,
époque 4: Cosette et Marius


J. Stuart Blackton

Les Misérabes

[second adaptation by the same author]


Herbert Brenon

The Bishop's Candlesticks (Les Misérables)

adaptation of Vol. I, Book II [the first sound film on the subject has the same title. See below]


Frank Lloyd

Les Misérables



Kiyohiko Ushihara and Yoshinobu Ikeda

Aa mujô re mîzerabûru daiippen (Les Misèrables)



Kyohiko Ushihara

Ah! ah! mujo!



Henri Fescourt, starring Gabriel Gabrio, and Jean Toulout

Les Misérables

32 reels, 5h59' at 22 fps., in 4 episodes. Music by Hugo Riesenfeld for the U.S. re-edited localization
*re-edited in two parts


Tomu Uchida

Jan Barujan


54 Unfortunately, this is one of the least documented parts of my research. In fact, the artistic contributions on the subject, which are luckily not of paramount importance in the present essay, are particularly diverse and, sometimes, hard to catalogue. In addition, despite years and years of research, I do not possess a copy of all the films cited here.

Before moving on, it is necessary to be clear on two important points. The first is a historical fact: sound cinema was not immediately implemented everywhere. Silent films were produced even after 1927, both because the cinema world and the audience had to get used to the great novelty and because the reformation of the projection booths and auditoria could not economically and practically occur in one day.

The second point is not so clear-cut and can be confuted by new discoveries in the next future. In fact, as far as I know, none of the films listed above was accompanied by original music. As common practice dictated, music for silent films came from anthologies of pre-existing music, the more ambitious and less frequent projects being those for which a new accompaniment was composed, as it was the case of A Birth of a Nation (dir. David W. Griffith, music Carl Breil, 1915) with a collection of new and pre-existing, classical and popular pieces.

The first historically relevant example of an original music composed for cinema dates back to 1908. The famous 20-minute-film L’assassinat du duc de Guise pursued the aesthetical principles of Film d’Art of which it was the forerunner. This implied that the most prestigious names in the arts would be hired, but without caring too much about their real interest in the new medium. After all, their presence was largely meant to be there to convince a middle-class, educated and wealthy audience that cinema was not only a simple, ordinary form of entertainment. It is explained, thus, how André Calmette, Charles Le Bargy and Camille Saint-Saëns (the last two awarded with the title of academic of France) ended up by working in L’assassinat du duc de Guise. Acting, though, was inevitably very theatrical, the shooting was mostly frontal, the camera static and the main element of cinema – montage – sill rudimental. With regard to Saint-Saëns, he composed a beautiful Neoclassical-ish suite (the op. 108) that does not seem to have suffered at all from the conditioning needs of an ‘external’ influence (i.e. cinema). Despite the analytical effort made by a North-American scholar who tried to prove the existence of a minute dramaturgical plan behind Saint-Saëns’ score, music seems to restrain itself to accompanying the film and only changes mood when it does so on the screen.55

55 I refer to Martin Miller Marks, Music and the Silent Film: Context and Case Studies, 1895-1924 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 187-89. On the other hand, Marks’ book is a very useful study and a very unusual one in the North-American editorial production. Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

It is not absolutely my intention to despise silent cinema, which is the fundament of cinema as a whole and has left memorable works, also from the film music point of view. However, while reading my audiovisual analyses, one should also remember that an orchestra accompanying a film below the screen gives the show a very poor sense of wholeness. This means that silent cinema is not a unified audiovisual object, but rather a juxtaposition of languages that must be carefully examined separately and with differentiated methodologies. Experiencing the post-synchronization of a silent film on VHS or DVD as it were a sound film is a very serious mistake that only the young generations that were born in the age of sound cinema and media can initially commit. Post-synchronization should be considered and experienced just as a useful pedagogical tool.

The first sound film on Les Misérables might be The Bishop’s Candlesticks by Norman McKinnell, a short film with Walter Huston that was produced in the US at an early age (1929)56 when other European countries were still going through the passage from silent to sound cinema. In fact, still in 1930, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Blackmail was filmed in the U.K. as a common silent film. The same thing can be said of one of the greatest German silent cinema’s successes, Der blaue Engel by Joseph von Sternberg with music by Frederick Holländer and orchestration by the very young Franz Waxman (this film also marked the first success of Marlene Dietrich who acted here next to Emil Jannings featuring professor Rath in one of his most memorable interpretations). In France, sound cinema started with René Clair’s controversial Sous le tois de Paris [Under the roof of Paris] with music by Raoul Moretti and Vincent Scotto. Clair’s film, was well received abroad (for example in Germany), but not so much in his home country. In Italy sound cinema began with Gennaro Righelli’s La canzone dell’amore [The love song], music by the Casa Bixio and Armando Fragna. Actually, the U.K. and Italy faced more troubles than other European countries. The British International Pictures demanded that silent films be quickly converted into sound films (music tracks were composed by the Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly Association, but other musicians such as Hubert Bath joined it later). Italy, instead, produced a sort of meta-film whose sentimental plot (Luigi Pirandello’s tale Il silenzio [The silence] adapted for the screen by Righelli) was set in the world of the record industry’s sound recording and reproduction techniques. Ironically, the weakest point of the film was the music by Nino Bixio, Fragna and others.57 After all, Italian cinema saw its first generation of composers entirely devoted to film music at the end of the Neorealist decade, that is, between the 1945s and 1955s. Also the Soviet Union was late in switching to sound cinema. Nevertheless, in 1929 it produced a very important silent film that, unfortunately, was not very successful at that time: Novyi Vavilon (Новый Вавилон) [The New Babylon] by Grigorij Kozincev (Григорий Козинцев) and Leonid Trauberg (Леонид Трауберг), with music by a young newcomer: Dmitrij Šostakovič (Дмитрий Шостакович). The first sound film realized in the USSR was Road to Life (Путёвка в жизнь, 1931) by Nicolai Ekk (Николай Экк), which was awarded at the 1932 Venice Film Festival with an audience prize.

56 Several sources report that a silent film by the same author or by Herbert Brenon was released in 1913. Either way, the same sources do not include McKinnel in their filmographies, but my research seem to confirm the opposite.

57 Italian cinema of the 1930’s inherited from the Film d’Arte and Fascist aesthetics a sharp separation between cultured and popular films. The former, usually produced by Lux Film, had music written by academic composers who did not know and were not eager to know anything about cinema (this generated huge misunderstandings that are not yet completely resolved). Likewise, the latter had music composed by money-grabbers and songwriters who were not interested at all in the real challenge cinema offered. Bixio, Fragna, Nello Segurini and others were directors of the EIAR (‘Ente Italiano per le Audizioni Radiofoniche,’ that is, the Italian society for radio productions) and dealt only with popular music. See Sergio Miceli, Film Music 2013, p. 219-304.

Let us go back now to the list of sound films directly derived or inspired by Hugo’s novel. My review cannot be exhaustive because of all the silent and sound films cited I can properly examine just a few; about the others, despite my research, I can only mention the title. Two Arabic curiosities are worth mentioning at this point: Les Misérables (فيلم البؤساء, 1979) and, as early as 1944, Alboassaa (or El Bouassâ, النسخة النادرة للفيلم المصري البؤساء) directed by the Egyptian Kamâl Selim and acted in Arabic by Abbas Fares and Amina Rizk58 (although it is not clear to me who composed the music, just the existence of this peculiar version of Les Misérables is a quite remarkable fact). In sixty years, from 1949 to 2009, some of the about seventy films based on Hugo’s subject are from Japan, India, Turkey, Egypt and Vietnam. It seems like Hugo’s highest hope came through: the worldwide spread of his tale that, thanks to cinema, could reach out to an incomparably larger audience than the already available translations of the novel could ever do.

58 Amina Rizk was a famous dancer and singer who acted in many Egyptian films between the 1940s and the 1960s. However, in Alboassaa (or El Bouassâ) her role counted only one dancing moment joined by the Samia Gamal Singers, during the wedding party of the characters who correspond to Marius and Cosette.

What follows below is the selection of eighteen sound films realized between 1934 and 2000 (from the 1950s on they are mostly television versions). In the appendix to Part III, the reader will find also information regarding the animated cinema. The selection’s criteria are partly due to subjective interests and partly aimed to create some links to Part IV. In any case, just to be clear, the uncontested protagonist of the next, sometime very short, analytical notes is music.

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