Classics comic books died and went to television. TV movie versions of literature's hoary warhorses-like "Les Miserables" on CBS tonight-reduce literature to pure plot the way the Classics Illustrated comics did, and their chief function may be to serve as crib sheets for high school students who don't want to tough out the book.
Films like "The Man in the Iron Mask" and "The Count of Monte Cristo"-both produced, like "Miserables," by Norman Rosemont-have given us a new form of bare-bones entertainment. They're the Cliffs Notes of Television-flat, dispassionate and utterly nuance-less.
No one wants to wish a slog through Victor Hugo on anyone, of course, but the CBS "Miserables" proves pretty sluggish slogging itself-all three hours of prime time, from 8 to 11 on Channel 9. At least they get the whole thing over with in one night, somewhat unusual for a venture of mummified loftiness like this. But the guy who really got off easy was John Gay, who adapted the novel. There couldn't be more than half an hour of dialogue in the whole show; in TV's view, what Hugo really wrote was an action-adventure tale.
Producer Rosemont is revered for his willingness to spend money, and "Les Miserables" certainly has more attractive trappings than the usual TV film. It was shot in France and England, which means the film represents at the very least a pleasant change of countryside from TV's usual dull L.A. landscape.
On the other hand, it's not hard to imagine Rosemont telling the director of record, Glenn Jordan-so devoted a servant of formula that there is never even the tiniest threat of creative initiative-"Look, we're paying a pretty penny to rent this chateau, so let's make sure the audience gets an eyeful." The buildings sit there, underpopulated with extras and looking as if they are waiting for the movie company to go home so the tourists can reture.
Within these hollow halls unfolds the tale of Jean Valjean, a starving woodcutter arrested for stealing bread to feed his wife and child, and sent to prison for five years under the inhumane French judicial system of the late 1,th and early 19th centureis. The first hour of the TV version crosses "Papillion" with "Midnight Express" and dwells on prison misery and Valjean's attempts to escape.
After 20 years or so, he does, and inspired by a forgiving bishop, starts a new and respectable life. But he is relentlessly hounded by the spectre of Inspector Javert, an obsessed bureaucrat whose only faith in life is in the letter of the law.
It's not a bad tale, not a bad tale at all, but it has been told at least three times in motion pictures, the most fondly regarded being a 1935 version that starred Fredric March as Valjean and, unforgettably, Charles Laughton as Javert. Laughton did more with just his lower lip than Anthony Perkins does with his entire being in the new TV version, and as Valjean, Richard Jordan looks far too 1970s and never gets the chance to develop the character into a dimensional and sympathetic being.
Javert's obsession doesn't take on any mythic aura; he behaves in this production like a peevish, scorned lover. As Valjean's adopted daughter and her boyfriend, however, Carole Langrishe and Christopher Guard do bring a pleasant whiff of ingenuousness to the show, and as the boy's snobbish grandfather, John Gielgud brings his usual bushel and a peck of effete authority.
As a plotty TV movie, enough may happen to engage some viewers for three full hours, but essentially they re being cheated again. "Les Miserables" merely imposes the outline of an old story on a pretty brochure of foreign locations. This is not television; this is stencilvision.
In the golden age of TV drama, you felt a morning-after guilt if you'd failed to tune in a "Marty" or a "Night to Remember" Nearly all such sense of event has been Sanforized out of modern television, and no one who misses "Les Miserables" need feel any regret whatsoever-unless they need it to help them cram for an exam.