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From Novel to Stage to Screen

The story of the musical LES MISERABLES began in 1978, when French composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg started work on a musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's opus. It was inspired during Boublil's visit to London when, while watching producer Cameron Mackintosh's revival of OLIVER! -- though Mackintosh had no idea of this at the time -- Boublil realized the character of the Artful Dodger reminded him of Gavroche, the young street urchin allied with the revolutionary students in Hugo's story. The seed of LES MISERABLES as a stage musical was sown, and Boublil and Schonberg's concept album was released in 1980 and sold 260,000 copies. In September of that year, French director Robert Hossein staged their work in a show seen by more than 500,000 people at the Palais des Sports in Paris.

It was some two years later that a Hungarian director named Peter Farago took the concept album to Mackintosh to see if he might consider staging LES MISERABLES as an English-language musical. Mackintosh at once realized this was something very special and tracked down Boublil and Schonberg. Though Mackintosh didn't speak fluent French, he was entranced. The producer explains: "The music was so phenomenal in its storytelling. I got through only four tracks on the album, and I was so excited I knew I wanted to produce the show."

Mackintosh wanted Boublil and Schonberg to remain a key part of the process, and he put together a brilliant creative team with Trevor Nunn and John Caird as directors and with James Fenton as lyricist. Fenton was later replaced by Herbert Kretzmer, but he is still credited for giving the show some of its shape and form.

The rest is theater history.

LES MISERABLES originally opened in London at the Barbican Theatre on October 8, 1985, transferred to the Palace Theatre on December 4, 1985, and after 19 years moved to its current home at the Queen's Theatre on April 3, 2004. When LES MISERABLES celebrated its 21st London birthday on October 8, 2006, it became the world's longest- running musical, surpassing the record previously held by Cats on London's West End. In January 2010, the West End production broke another record by celebrating its historic 10,000th performance. Seen by more than 60 million people worldwide in 42 countries and in 21 languages, LES MISERABLES has grown to become undisputedly one of the world's most popular musicals ever, with new productions continually opening around the globe.

Explaining the phenomenon, Mackintosh reflects: "LES MISERABLES is one of the greatest social novels ever written. Hugo created characters and wrote of situations both timeless and universal. When you add to that the power of Claude-Michel Schonberg's score, the brilliance of Alain Boublil's original French lyrics, and the fantastic, timeless style of Herbert Kretzmer's writing, the success of the show can be easily understood."

Over the years, Mackintosh had been approached by multiple filmmakers to translate the show into a film. In fact, the movie rights had once been sold 25 years ago, after the show opened to huge acclaim on Broadway, but the option lapsed and the rights reverted to Mackintosh. The producer would wait, ultimately choosing to work with the U.K.'s most prolific and esteemed production company, Working Title Films. For their part, producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner had been interested in producing a musical for some time, but it was a social encounter between Fellner and Nicholas Alcott, the managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd., that triggered their interest in LES MISERABLES. Soon after, Bevan and Fellner met with Mackintosh, and conversations about a film adaptation of LES MISERABLES began in earnest.

"It was a daunting task," provides Fellner, "to turn arguably the theater's greatest musical into a musical for the big screen. But with it came a privilege that we were inheriting greatly loved material and the opportunity to work alongside the people who had created the show."

Bevan, Fellner and Mackintosh all agreed that it was crucial to keep the core group who had achieved such success with the stage musical at the heart of the project. From the beginning, Boublil, Schonberg, Mackintosh and Kretzmer remained very much involved in the process.

Until a director was chosen, the producers didn't know how much of the original team would be part of the process. It was decided, however, that a screenwriter should be brought in to adapt their work for the screen. Soon after the filmmakers' initial meeting, William Nicholson was charged with the task of penning the screenplay. Debra Hayward, former head of film at Working Title Films, who reunited with the company to produce LES MISERABLES alongside Bevan, Fellner and Mackintosh, explains the rationale: "We instinctively knew Bill was the right person. We had worked with him a number of times, so we knew his work intimately. As well as being a great dramatist, he has a great understanding of music."

Nicholson, a two-time Academy Award nominee for his work on GLADIATOR and SHADOWLANDS, had previously partnered with Working Title Films on the epic period piece ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE. Says Nicholson: "I came along with screen expertise to take the stage musical and nudge it into a cinematic one. It's been a fascinating job because I had seen the show many times and absolutely loved it. The theater experience is so powerful and driven by the music, whereas film is more naturalistic, forcing the question of realism and credibility. It was my job to strengthen the plotlines."

Mackintosh had a clear mandate from the start: He didn't want to put the show on film; he wanted it to have a life of its own. Expounds Fellner: "Our job was to validate its existence and lead an audience to want to see it, but to retain the core of what this show is-absolutely at the heart of every single frame of the film. We hoped we could maintain what Cameron describes as the 'DNA of what the show is' and why it appeals to so many people throughout the world."

Fittingly, the stars were aligned during the search for a director. Except in this case, the director, Tom Hooper, sought out the project even before the astonishing global success of his Academy Award-winning THE KING'S SPEECH. When Hooper heard that Nicholson, with whom he was working on another project, was also crafting an adaptation of LES MISERABLES, he felt ready to tackle it. The director says: "A light bulb went off in my head. I thought it a really interesting idea." Hooper had not seen the show but knew the music well and was intrigued by the period in which it was set. He wasted no time in going to see the musical. "I saw it on a very hot day in August. There were those three or four moments where the nerves in my spine were set on fire, and it was extraordinarily emotional. I was struck by how unbelievably addictive the melodies were. Having seen it once, I could not get them out of my head. Claude-Michel had tapped into something very deep with the melodies, their patterns, the structures and the motifs."

Around that time, Hooper met with Hayward, who was still Working Title Films' head of production. "It was one of those great serendipitous moments that Tom came to see us just at the time Nicholson had delivered the script," she says. "He read it, loved it and knew he wanted to do it."

Agrees Fellner: "Tom Hooper was our first choice. He was the only director to whom we ever gave the screenplay, and from the moment he signed on, it has been a thrilling ride. He is passionate, obsessive in the detail, incredibly hard-working and deeply committed."

Hooper reflects that he was drawn to the material on many levels: "One of the things that was so exciting about doing THE KING'S SPEECH was the emotion it provoked in audiences around the world. It made me very much want to make my next film with a subject that would provoke even stronger emotions." Moved to tears while reading Nicholson's script on a flight from London to Los Angeles, Hooper knew that he had found his next film. "With the combination of how the musical made me feel and the effect the screenplay had on me, I thought there was an amazing opportunity to work in a very emotional way. I was drawn to the combination of this extraordinary story and the transcendence and pull of the music."

In spite of the powerful material they were inheriting, the filmmakers needed to go back to the story's original source to fill in some of the gaps that appear seamless on the stage but would not be invisible on the screen. Says Hayward: "The book has been a great inspiration for Tom. It was a deceptively difficult adaptation, and whenever we encountered problems, we went back to the book and the answers were there. Bringing in some of the great story elements to fill the gaps without affecting the overall architecture and integrity of the score has been one of the most enjoyable challenges as we embarked upon the adaptation."

Hooper concurs: "It's a colossal and masterful work, and it was a great joy to have an excuse to read it and go back to it in adapting the material. The musical has been interpreted in a unique way for film. It's something Cameron, Claude-Michel and Alain all empowered me to do from the beginning. They didn't just want a filmed musical; they wanted me to reinterpret it to make it work for film. That's one of the things that has been so exciting. Claude-Michel's music is so brilliant and Alain and Herbie's lyrics so strong that they have allowed for that interpretation. There is tremendous elasticity in the work, and like all great literature, the language allows you to play with the meaning and the pace."

The first draft of the screenplay that Nicholson wrote was divided into dialogue interspersed with songs. Shares Hooper: "All the new story material that Bill had come up with and the story material I wanted to add from the book, Bill wrote in the form of spoken dialogue. Yet, the musical itself is through-sung. After a great deal of thought and reflection, I decided that I wanted to honor the musical's through-sung form. I wanted to create an alternate reality on film where people communicate through song. So at that point, we welcomed the musical's original creative team -- Claude Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbie Kretzmer -- into the process of creating the screenplay as we asked them to write entirely new lyrics and create a new musical structure and a new song ["Suddenly"] inspired by the spoken dialogue Bill had written. It was a hugely exciting moment where we re-created the original conditions of the musical's creation in order to interpret it newly on film."

There was another major attraction for Hooper when he considered a filmic adaptation of a fully through-sung musical. He explains: "I wanted to take a risk and do some thing very different in a different genre. From the beginning, what excited me was the idea of doing it live. I don't think I would have done it if it turned out not to be possible to direct the film live, because no matter how good the synchronization is of actors singing to playback, an audience can tell that there's something unreal about it. It doesn't feel connected to what is occurring on the screen." With Hooper's passionate assurance that the actors would sing live, Mackintosh had no doubts that they'd discovered the right director for the job. He comments: "The only way you can make this music work is by capturing it in the moment. That was one of the first things Tom said when he gave me the reasons why he wanted to do this. Plus, he loved the LES MISERABLES of it. With most of the other directors I've talked to over the years, they'd say, 'I know how to do this song or that song; what I don't know how to do is have Les Misérables sing.' But that is what Victor Hugo's novel is about; it's about all of us, not just the story of Jean Valjean and Javert. I knew the moment Tom had grasped that, that this actually was the person who was going to find his own way of making the story and actually putting us all to work."

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