Reimagining Les Miserables without music

BBC has ditched the singing in its new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s famous novel. We speak to the show’s director Tom Shankland about the benefits of not having seen any previous versions, and making a Les Mis for the austerity era

Warning: This article contains spoilers

Originally published in 1862, Victor Hugo’s story of poverty and politics in 19th century France has inspired countless adaptations over the years, spanning cinema, theatre, TV and more. The most memorable take on Les Misérables in recent years is Tom Hooper’s 2012 musical film version, which featured a star-studded cast including Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe. Like the majority of musical films, it proved divisive among the public who were largely split into two camps – those who could tolerate Crowe’s singing, and those who couldn’t.

It’ll likely be a welcome relief for at least half of the viewing public that the BBC has decided to eschew singing altogether for its new adaptation of the novel. The six-part series, which is currently airing on BBC One, has been produced in collaboration with Lookout Point and adapted by Andrew Davies, the screenwriter behind a number of period drama heavy hitters including War and Peace.

Banner image: The series begins with Jean Valjean living out his days as a prisoner; Above: Valjean adopts Fantine’s daughter Cosette as his own

When the script first landed on director Tom Shankland’s lap in 2017 he was aware of the novel but had never seen Hooper’s musical rendition, or any other version for that matter. “I didn’t really have preconceptions about what the story was or what was going to unfold,” he says. “When I read the script it felt utterly fresh and immediate because of the way Andrew [Davies] had gone back to the essence of Victor Hugo’s amazing story and found these ways of making it feel like it had quite a lot of contemporary bite.”