* Film version stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway
* Musical debuted on stage 27 years ago
* Tale of dispossessed, revolutionaries is timely, director
NEW YORK, Dec 21 (Reuters) - For British director Tom
Hooper, the key to turning "Les Miserables" from the wildly
popular stage musical to a cinematic experience both sweeping
and intimate, was all in the close-up.
The stage musical has left audiences around the world wiping
away tears with its themes of justice, redemption and romantic
and familial love. So bringing it to life on screen for fans and
filmgoers was "hugely daunting," Hooper says.
Still, the Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech,"
was ambitious, wanting to offer even more of the "intense
emotional experience" that has kept fans returning to various
stage productions since "Les Miserables" made its English
language debut 27 years ago.
"I felt very aware of the fact that so many millions of
people hold this close to their hearts and would probably sit in
the cinemas in complete fear," Hooper told reporters about his
big screen take on the tale of French revolutionaries rising up
against powerful forces.
Movie stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway
were all put through an intense audition and rehearsal process,
to make sure they could sing take after take, live, with cameras
positioned right in their face.
It also features a large ensemble including Amanda Seyfried
and Eddie Redmayne, as well as Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena
Bonham Carter who lead the comic relief song, "Master of the
"I thought the great weapon in my arsenal was the close up,
because the one thing on stage that you can't enjoy is the
detail of what is going on in people's faces as they are
singing," Hooper said. "I felt (that) having to do a meditation
on the human face was by far the best way to bring out the
emotion of the songs."
That tactic may or may not have paid off for a movie that is
seen as one of the front runners for Oscar awards in February.
Early screenings of the film that opens on Christmas Day have
moved some audiences. Critics have praised the performances, but
given the movie as a whole less than top marks.
The movie reunites the same team that worked on the original
musical, including French composer Claude-Michel Schonberg,
lyricist Alain Boublil, and English language adapter Herbert
Kretzmer. It adds one original song to the existing show, which
includes the well-known "I Dreamed a Dream".
Jackman plays petty thief Jean Valjean, the protagonist of
the story based on French writer Victor Hugo's epic 1862
historical novel "Les Miserables." Valjean transforms himself
into a respected businessman but struggles for decades to escape
the clutches of his nemesis, police inspector Javert (Russell
Crowe), and along the way encounters factory worker Fantine
Inspired by films such as 1991's "The Commitments," singing
was filmed live rather than later recorded in a studio to give
the movie a more authentic feel.
Hathaway lost 25 pounds (11.3 kg) for the role and cut her
long brown hair. She spent six months perfecting the task of
crying and singing at the same time for "I Dreamed a Dream" and
is a hot favorite for a best supporting actress Oscar.
In a twist of fate, Hooper had initially seen Hathaway
singing to Jackman a boisterous version of the "Les Miserables"
song "On My Own" at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, just when
he was trying to decide whether to direct the film and was
thinking about casting.
"I was sitting there, going: 'There is something very
strange happening'," he joked. "Whatever happened, it certainly
worked, because I ended up casting both of them."
Hooper said he took his inspiration mostly from Hugo's
novel rather than any one stage production, and thus saw Crowe's
Javert more as a "deeply honorable" character than a simplistic
"bad guy" as portrayed in some productions.
The time also felt right, he said, to bring the story to a
larger audience on the big screen.
"There are so many people hurting around the world because
of social, economic, inequality and inequity. There is such
anger against the system," he said, "whether it's the protests
on Wall Street or in London at St Paul's, or the seismic shifts
happening in the Middle East."
"'Les Miserables' is the great advocate of the
dispossessed," Hooper said. "It teaches you the way to
collective action is through passionate engagement with the
people around you. It starts with love for the person next to
(Editing by Jill Serjeant and David Storey)