SALT LAKE CITY — PBS' "Les Misérables" miniseries, set to premiere April 14, takes a grittier look at the well-known story that, despite its many, many adaptations, proves it deserves to be told again, according to actor David Oyelowo, who plays the driven Inspector Javert.
When Oyelowo, perhaps best known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014's "Selma," was first approached with Andrew Davies' script, he was unsure of the project.
"I thought, 'We've just had a film (in 2012) that was very good come out of 'Les Misérables.' So, what's the point in doing another one?' Then I, soon after reading the script, realized that this is a far more immersive, in-depth look at what Victor Hugo had actually written in his original 1,500-page novel," Oyelowo said in an interview with the Deseret News.
For his all-star, six-part adaptation, noted TV and film writer Davies ("Pride and Prejudice") took a closer look at the motives and backstories of Hugo's characters, working to help audiences better understand characters they already know and love — characters like Jean Valjean, played by Dominic West, Fantine, played by Lily Collins and Oyelowo's Javert.
Oyelowo, too, returned to the original book. Through close readings of Hugo's French novel, Oyelowo gained helpful insight into the motives of Javert, whose determination to hunt down Jean Valjean can be difficult to relate to.
"Victor Hugo gives (readers) a lot of clues as to why he is what he is. He's a guy who was born in prison to criminal parents and really hates that side of himself and has somehow attributed that to Jean Valjean," Oyelowo said. "I always knew that Javert was never going to be a sympathetic character, necessarily, but to find a way where there was a degree of empathy the audience could have for him on the basis of seeing more of him, in a more dimensional way, was something that I was very keen to delve into."
Along with bringing Hugo's characters to life, PBS' "Les Misérables" also focused on making the setting realistic, even if the story's backdrop of poverty-ridden streets and prisons permeated with grime might be, at times, hard for audiences to watch.
"We take the approach of going the opposite direction of any kind of … sanitized or polite version you may ever have seen," Oyelowo said. "It's very dirty. It's very gritty. You can feel the smell of the place. You can feel the real dirt of the place."
This production also has a more diverse cast than past adaptations. Oyelowo said this is important because previous productions of "Les Misérables" and other period pieces set during the early 19th century have contained misrepresentations about the prevalence of people of color during that time in Europe. PBS' production tries to present a more accurate balance and diversity.
All of this has contributed to a "Les Misérables" that Oyelowo hopes audiences will find relatable. He pointed out the series' many themes that societies still face today, such as the gap between the rich and the poor and Jean Valjean's disproportionate 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Even in the story's revolutionary backdrop Oyelowo sees comparisons to contemporary protests around the world.
And apart from "Les Misérables'" relevent social issues, Hugo's characters have a vitality to them that makes them feel like real people, something this new production aims to highlight — especially with Javert, Jean Valjean and the young mother Fantine. The PBS version shows more of Fantine's backstory as a wide-eyed girl before she falls through the cracks of society.
"I think Fantine in particular — and especially as played by Lily Collins — is a character that engenders a lot of sympathy and empathy. … We all can identify with wanting to fall in love, wanting to trust," Oyelowo said. "A very dramatic and hard-to-watch scene is when Fantine is having her teeth pulled. You can't watch because of what's literally happening, but you can't look away because she's doing it for her daughter."Comment on this story
Similarly, Oyelowo said we can all relate to the hero Jean Valjean who goes from seeing himself as a sinner to embracing redemption. And on the opposite side, there's Oyelowo's character Javert, an unforgiving man who dismisses the very idea of redemption. During the course of his study and filming, Oyelowo saw in these three characters elements of each of us.
"We have these sides to all of us: the innocent, the judgmental, the sinner seeking salvation," Oyelowo said. "I think that's why this story resonates throughout the ages because it goes to the heart of who and what we are as human beings."
"Les Misérables" on Masterpiece airs on KUED on Sunday, April 14, 8 p.m. MST