I’d seen the stunning Broadway play three times before reading the book and watched the movie adaptation from 2012 just this past spring, unaware that I would be reading the book soon after. I do not regret experiencing either of them before the book. They helped me appreciate and admire how efficient those two mediums are in conveying characters and the plot line of the book, albeit greatly abridged. It’s a long book 1260 pages in the version I read. In that regard and others (it is written at, and of, virtually the same time period), it reminds me of War and Peace.
Since I first saw the play, as a protestant at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City in 1989, 1990, and then as a new Catholic in the Ordway in St. Paul in the mid-nineties, I thought the story was in large part about two men. I still believe that, only the two men have changed in reading the book. I thought for years that this most important relationship was between Jean Valjean and Javert. However, now I consider it in the contrast between Jean Valjean and Thénardier. It is the main theme of the book – the choice between doing what is good and suffering the consequences or doing only that which is self-serving.
Thénardier is found throughout the play and the movie, but the impact of his actions are not nearly as clear as in the book.
In the book I understood more and found myself sympathetic to Javert.
The significance of the silver, especially the candlesticks becomes clear in the book along with the goodness of the Bishop, which is only given a nod in the play and movie. The Catholic Church is beautifully portrayed.
As noted earlier, I was a protestant the first two times I saw the play and a new Catholic the last time I saw it. As a result, I found Cosset wearisome. She seemed like Thérèse of Lisieux, who until I actually investigated her, I found too good to be true. I preferred Epinine. But again, in the book, Cosset becomes real; her Catholic Convent upbringing becomes real and the goodness of it is obvious. Her rare goodness should be admired and protected. Cosset would be found boring in our culture, which finds chaste Catholic girls, as in my ignorance I once did, wearisome and irrelevant.
I still love Epinine, even better for not comparing her to Cosset. Her goodness is nearly unfathomable – where does she get it? It is clearly not from her upbringing. It is from love.