I was sent a review copy of Les Misérables. I read it. I realized there was not enough blue in the TAY Review so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and here we are today. So let’s get down to it.

What I Read

Manga Classics is a series of Manga adaptations of classic literature published through Udon publishing. The book is available in Hardcover, softcover, and eBook. I read it on a tablet using the “Universal Book Reader” app.

Why?

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is tied for my favorite book of all time. Paradoxically, it shares the spot with Stephen King’s, “It”. I am always interested to see it’s many iterations whether on stage or on screen (or in the case of the latest, on stage...on screen) or a new translation. When I discovered that there was a manga adaptation I was excited to see how they would handle condensing a 1,000+ page book down to 336 pages of illustration and text.

Review

When I was in sixth grade we had a reading competition. Whoever could read the most books won. This was back before internet was a big thing, and READING was super cool kids! I decided to try to impress my teacher (I was a giant suck up) by reading, what I thought, were unabridged versions of the classics. They were not. They were called Great Illustrated Classics.

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Through these books I was able to enter the world of Dumas, I could learn about the White Whale, experience the tale of The Invisible Man. But I can’t tell you much beyond broad brushstrokes of the story. The stories lacked a lot of the context, which meant that although I’d read the books, I didn’t fully understand the tale.

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Manga Classics: Les Misérables is like that.

Overview

For those not in the know, Les Misérables is the tale of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict who finds redemption after he is pardoned by the bishop Myriel. He is constantly hounded by a police inspector, Javert, who wants Valjean arrested for a highway robbery. The story follows Valjean as he becomes mayor of a town, meets Fantine a wretch who was mistakenly fired from his factory, and agrees to raise her daughter Cosette, all while evading the ever searching eye of the police inspector. Eventually the story shifts to student, Marius Pontmercy and his friends as they search to find a way to begin a new revolution. Marius falls in love with Cosette upon first sight, and Valjean is torn between protecting himself and Cosette and allowing Cosette to be happy.

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  • The art and panels are done wonderfully. There are very few large splash pages needlessly thrown in to create action. The panels are laid out logically and each one helps to propel the story or develop characters. I was really struck by the economy of the art. With only so many pages, and only so many dialogue bubbles available, the art really had to be the second narrator, and it succeeds wonderfully. You can tell that this was a true labor of love.

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  • The adaptation, while sparse, does manage to hit almost every single story beat from the novel which is pretty incredible in and of itself.

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  • Hugo’s work is dense and some may argue overly so. There are nearly a hundred pages regarding Monsieur Bienvenu or as he’s also known Bishop Myriel. The novel describes in great detail what kind of person he was and examples of his generosity. In this way, when Valjean crosses paths with him, the outcome seems inevitable. I read Les Mis very much as a novel about fate and how social circumstances limit our freedoms. Hugo wants to say that through God, one can achieve true freedom. What you take away from Les MisĂ©rables will vary from person to person and I won’t argue interpretations - everyone is allowed to take what they will, right or wrong, from a book. I bring all this up only to say that all of this is stripped away in the Manga. Maybe you’re not interested in it and only want to catch the broad strokes. But, for example, in the finale, when Javert commits suicide, in the Manga I was not able to see the connection between what kind of a man he was, and this action. It didn’t make a lot of sense in the manga but you could draw inferences.
  • One of the characters says, “Slammer,” in regards to a jail. The anachronism was fairly jarring.
  • Thernardier’s design was a little too Snidely Whiplash for me. Yes, Thernardier is probably supposed to represent the opposite of Valjean and be the true “Villain” of the story, but yeesh. I guess it could have been worse though...

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I don’t have any major reservations about this adaptation, there was one small thing that struck me as kind of odd and made me a little Hugo Nerd Ragey.

  • Inconsistency - For some reason in the Manga they say that after the bishop gave him the candlesticks he sold them to buy a factory. I think even by the standards in those days a few silver and some candlesticks didn’t equal a factory. Also later on in the story he claims that the candlesticks are all he has left. What’s interesting is that they didn’t just put the reason given in the novel - He invents a more efficient manufacturing process to make....bracelets or something, the town’s main claim to fame. It would have made more sense and not required that much more space - maybe one additional page to show him demonstrating the process. It also would help to establish why he was elected mayor as just opening a factory in and of itself, is not necessarily a selfless act.

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I realize that it’s impossible to fully cover the entire story of Les Miserables in a 336 page Manga. However, the team behind this adaptation have done a wonderful job of remaining faithful to the story, while also providing detailed illustrations that propel the manga to something worth reading. If you’ve never read the story, I’d recommend this as a starting point to see if it’s at least something that appeals to you. Then go get the unabridged translation and read 1000 pages of French History.