CANNES, France, April 9, (Agencies): He is a human rights hero for his campaigning against the death penalty.
Now the great French novelist Victor Hugo is about to become a television icon with a big-budget BBC adaptation of his masterpiece “Les Miserables” and an equally lavish series retelling his hugely eventful private and political life.
A literary sensation by the time he was 30 with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, Hugo quickly became the conscience of his generation.
Appalled by the misery he saw on the streets, the young royalist became a republican hero and was forced into exile for two decades after he declared Napoleon III a dictator and a “traitor to France”.
This Damascene conversion is at the centre of “Victor Hugo — Enemy of the State”, a four-hour portrait of the writer now being shot in France by the maker of the hit spy series “The Bureau”.
Director Jean-Marc Moutout said Hugo’s remarkable political journey and his equally energetic love life are at the centre of the story, which was unveiled at MipTV, the world’s biggest entertainment market in Cannes, France, on Saturday.
“When the series begins in 1848, Victor Hugo is already well-acquainted with fame and fortune. He has risen to the ranks of nobility. When the series ends, three years later, he is a fugitive with a price on his head and republican,” Moutout said.
“I want to show the gradual change in Hugo’s awareness and commitment, plunging into the heart of the era and the life of this great man. Both are intimately linked, since Hugo abandons literature for the political fight.”
The series also features his lover of 50 years Juliette Drouet, played by Isabelle Carre, who followed him into exile in Guernsey, a Channel island between France and Britain.
Drouet became his official mistress, but conjugal loyalty was not one of Hugo’s strong points.
Despite being revered as a saint by the Vietnamese Cao Dai religion, and the scores of affairs and flings Hugo conducted, documenting each tryst in code right up to within weeks of his death aged 83, two million people — then more than the official population of Paris — lined the streets for his funeral.
Master adapter Andrew Davies has also vowed to get plenty of Hugo’s earthiness into his take on “Les Miserables” which is now being shot by the BBC.
The veteran screenwriter, now 81, was the brains behind a string of costume drama hits for the British public broadcaster including “Pride and Prejudice”, “Middlemarch” and “War & Peace”.
Davies described “Les Miserables”, the sprawling story of Jean Valjean, who spent years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister, as “huge, intense and gut-wrenching”.
“Most of us are familiar with the musical version, which only offers a fragmentary outline of the story,” which reaches its climax during the 1848 Revolution in Paris.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity of doing real justice to Victor Hugo at last,” he added.
“The Wire” star Dominic West is playing the convict hero Valjean in the six-hour costume drama, which was previously backed by disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
“Jean Valjean is one of the great characters in world literature,” West said of the 1862 novel, which also inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster musical.
“His epic journey of redemption is one of the extraordinary roles an actor can take on,” he added.
Hugo, whose work has been turned into 35 films and numerous TV series, is also the subject of an epic new biography in English by Graham Robb as well as “The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables” by David Bellos.
Both point out that although Hugo the public man became a larger-than-life character in his own lifetime, it was for his poetry rather than his novels that he was best known and loved.
Elephant, a Paris-based collective of creative professionals working in film, TV and digital, will pitch an updated re-telling of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” at this year’s In Development section for Canneseries and MipTV. It will be the first French adaptation of the story in more than two decades.
Hugo’s novel was a revelation when first published in 1862, and has been adapted for stage and screen countless times since. But, executive producer Renouil sees a TV series as a way to expand on many of Hugo’s philosophies beyond what can be done in a two-hour film or play.
“All the previous adaptations have concentrated on the story of Valjean’s destiny and redemption,” he explained to Variety, “but ‘Les Miserables’ is a lot more than that.
A series format will allow us to go deeper in others characters’ storylines: Fantine, Cosette, the Thenardier’s, Javert, Marius, Gavroche, etc. All these characters will be developed over the 20 years of the story.”
Created and written by Marc Herpoux, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Sheila O’Connor, this version of the story will take place at the end of the 20th and first two decades of the 21st century.
Clearly much has changed since then, but Renouil argues that much has stayed the same as well: “People are still suffering, the position of women and children is as difficult as ever, and poverty and exclusion are everywhere.”
But, while many of the book’s themes are universal and timeless, others may no longer be relevant. In this version, Fantine is not a factory girl but moves between small jobs as waitress, call-operator, or maid; Valjean finds his success in the service industry, operating a chain of high-end hotels.
Perhaps the most obvious difference in eras, however, is that the Paris June Rebellion of 1832, which dominates the later part of the book, has long since ended. Renouil addressed this problem as well.
“France is not in open revolution at the moment,” he admitted, “but in the past few years, we have had riots, and there has been violence here. For example in spring 2016, the Nuit Debout movement brought together thousands of people in the streets. It was mostly peaceful, but some very violent situations occurred.”
The bible for season one was recently finished, and contains an episode-by-episode story arc. The timing is ideal, as Elephant heads to Cannes looking to secure co-producers and potential broadcasters for the project.
“We are open to a wide range of partners, as we are just starting the discussions,” explained Sandra Ouaiss, head of international drama for Elephant. “We are looking for broadcasters and platforms, French and/or International, but also co-producers, distributors etc.”