Over the holiday, I saw both The Hobbit and Les Miserables. I enjoyed both movies tremendously. It’s been long enough since I read either book that I didn’t feel the need to compare the two. The Hobbit was a rollicking good time, not quite as childlike and comedic as the book, but not nearly as dark and dreary as the previous Tolkien movies. Les Miserables was moving and beautiful, if a serious downer. I mean, it didn’t achieve the “Prozac Award for Movies That Require Post-Cinema Counseling” like The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it was not exactly a feel-good romantic comedy.
I still get a facial tic just thinking about the book version of Les Miserables. In high school, as an act of supreme hubris, I chose the unabridged version for my book report in English. I had a “go big or go home” attitude towards schoolwork at the time. My best friend Tina said she could always spot my projects in art class. They were consistently about 5-10 times larger than anything else in the room. Not necessarily better made. Just bigger. I figured if I couldn’t make an impression with skill, I’d do it with scale. But I digress.
Les Miserables was 1400 pages of my life I’ll never get back. While the story is truly moving, SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL did Victor Hugo need editing. Badly.
I read a review recently from another stalwart soul who managed to wade through the entire thing, and she gave a perfect description. She said it was like trying to watch a movie where every time the action would start to pick up, it would be interrupted by a documentary. For example, there’s an entire chapter on the history of the Paris sewers, including recommendations for improvement, which is only there because Jean Valjean carries another character through said sewers. After about the fifth time the “documentary” interrupted the action, I was ready to throw the book across the room. Considering its length, I probably would’ve damaged a wall or something.
But the musical was lovely. Except about halfway through, you can’t help but have the thought “Dang. That’s a lot of singing.”
I had a similar thought when watching The Hobbit earlier in the holiday. The first time the dwarves break into song in Bilbo’s house, I was surprised. The second time, I’m like “Again with the singing? Do they need to sing?” My sister, who saw it with us, pointed out that yes, in fact, the singing is in the book and actually the book had a good bit more singing in it.
Which got me thinking about the fact that people, as a general rule, don’t break into song much these days in ordinary life.
There’s an episode of Big Bang Theory where Penny and Sheldon are singing sea shanties to “improve productivity” while trying to make hair bows as a business venture. The truth is, for most of human history, singing was a regular part of everyday life. People sang at work. They sang in worship. They sang around fires. For ages, songs were how we transferred history from one generation to the next (with a few embellishments, naturally.)
Now, we’re all critics, and nobody sings.
Modern people have relegated singing to something that should be left to professionals. We mock people who sing karaoke or lack operatic range and vocal control on singing contests on TV. Singing is a strangely intimate thing, and we have no tolerance for intimacy, and precious little for anything honest, sincere or authentic. Even Christmas caroling is virtually dead.
Now I’m back at work, and the holidays are over, so I probably won’t be seeing any new movies for a while. And I’ve got two or three fiction works-in-progress to keep me busy. If you catch me humming while I work, try not to make fun.