Published on March 13th, 2015 | by Calliope Woods
Manga Classics’ Les Miserables Adaptation
When I was very young—can’t have been older than 6 or 7—I would spend hours in my parents’ attic, devouring piles of comic books that had been donated to us from my older cousin when he had gotten “too old” for them. There were only one or two issues of every story, and it would be doubtful that any were even consecutive, but I needed reading material as desperately as an addict needs another hit.
It was in this pile of comics that I found what at first seemed to be a novel, but when I opened it I found more comics. It was a graphic novel adaptation of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, years before anyone ever thought of elevating comic books to the title “graphic novel.” I devoured it as voraciously as the others, and came away craving mountains, toasted cheese, and more classics. It wouldn’t be long after that that I got my hands on a young-children’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and urged my father to rent the 1960’s movie version when I glimpsed it at the local rental store.
So it’s not that surprising that I was incredibly excited to hear of Manga Classics’ adaptations of Les Miserables and Pride and Prejudice. The first one I’ve gotten my hands on, Les Miserables, certainly does not disappoint.
I imagine most readers of this blog are familiar with the story of Les Miserables, first a novel by Victor Hugo (which this manga is an adaptation of), and then a couple movies and a hit musical. It’s not exactly a happy tale (most times I am confronted with this story I have to prepare myself for a good cry).
For those of you not familiar with the story: our protagonist Jean Valjean has been imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and then trying to escape from prison. Upon his release he finds himself unable to find lodgings or a job because everywhere he is forced to present his papers, which label him a criminal. A kind bishop takes him in for the night, and Valjean in his desperation steals from the man. The bishop surprises him by following along with his lie to the officers who catch him and by offering him more. Valjean swears to become an honest man and uses the silver he has been gifted with to purchase a factory and eventually become the mayor of a small town.
The story also follows a myriad of other characters, including an unfortunate woman, Fantine, who as a single mother is in a similar position to Valjean. She leaves her daughter, Cosette, with a couple who run an inn, the Thenardiers, in the hopes that eventually she can earn enough money to retrieve her. Soon Fantine loses her job as a factory worker when her secret is discovered and becomes desperate as the (pretty evil) Thenardiers demand more and more money to care for Cosette. She becomes a prostitute, and very ill, before her path crosses with Valjean and he promises to retrieve her daughter. Unfortunately that will prove a hard promise to keep, as Valjean’s been recognized by Javert, his old jailer, a man bent on keeping criminals (especially Valjean) in their place.
When it comes to the story, this manga doesn’t do much that is remarkable. Those familiar with only the film and musical adaptations may be surprised by a couple extras left out of previous adaptations of the book (such as Marius’ father being saved by Monsieur Thenardier in the Battle of Waterloo) but there’s nothing particularly stunning in the dialogue or plotting that makes this adaptation stand out. That’s not to say that the writing does the story a disservice, however; it hits the key parts it should, though sometimes far too briefly. It’s hard to feel the loss of Marius’ friends when we only see them for a few pages. This combined with the sometimes clunky dialogue means that it doesn’t actually bring about a strong emotional reaction in the reader.
Where this adaptation really shines is in its artwork. Early on something becomes pretty apparent: these characters are downright sexy. I have never seen a manga artist able to make a bearded man look attractive. Color me impressed.
And then there’s tragic little Cosette, with eyes as big as headlights and an extended scene of Madame Thenardier beating her with a leather strap. She’s there to tug at your heartstrings, and oh does she do it well.
Everyone is beautiful. Even Javert’s not that bad on the eyes. My vote for prettiest goes to Enjorlas, who sadly sees very little screen time. His hair is something everyone should try to emulate.
This is definitely something I would recommend for fans of Les Miserables, and a book I would put in the hands of reluctant readers. This would be an absolutely perfect way to introduce literary classics to teens that already enjoy manga but are wary of “real books.”