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The modern relevance of the 'Les Miserables' hero story


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: This Sunday, PBS' masterpiece continues with a dramatic version of "Les Miserables."

Jeffrey Brown has insight on this new version of an old story, as part of Canvas, our series on arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: Most of us know with song, the recent Oscar-winning movie based on the hugely popular Broadway musical, both stemming from the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo.

Now comes a new "Les Miserables," no music, more story on PBS' "Masterpiece," told in serial form over six hours.

Dominic West plays one of literature's great heroes, Jean Valjean. West, too, wondered at first about the need for a remake.

Dominic West: I realized that, like all classics, I suppose, it bears constant reinterpretation. You can't get a 1,500-page book into a two-hour musical. And it deserves a six-hour treatment, which it hasn't had, in living memory anyway.

Jeffrey Brown: The story is set in 1815, just after France's defeat in the Battle of Waterloo. Released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean establishes a new life, crime-free.

But he is pursued by French policeman Javert, one of literature's great bad guys, played by actor David Oyelowo, who is previously best known for his role as Martin Luther King in "Selma."

David Oyelowo: With Javert, who I play, you never get into the psychology of why he is so obsessed with the pursuit of Jean Valjean.

Jeffrey Brown: In this "Les Mis," the actors say, there's room for characters to develop.

Lily Collins plays Fantine, the much-suffering working-class young woman.

Lily Collins: You have a whole episode dedicated to her being in Paris and falling in love and having a child, and it really being romance, so that when things go south for her, the audience feels more empathy and more attached to her storyline, because they rooted for her.

Jeffrey Brown: This is a co-production with the U.K.'s BBC.

Rebecca Eaton is executive producer of "Masterpiece."

Rebecca Eaton: It seemed kind of perfect timing to tackle that big canvas, at the same time to tell the story of a hero. And hero stories are important, because e we don't have enough them, in my view.

Jeffrey Brown: It's also a rescue of respite of sorts for Dominic West, who's best known for playing charming cads in shows like "The Wire" and more recently, "The Affair."

Dominic West: This offers a new challenge.

I think he's the greatest hero in literature. He's just -- he's a superhero and he climbs up the sides of houses and, you know, he's stronger than anyone else. But he's also done 20 years in hard labor in a 19th century French prison. So he's tougher than any superhero you have ever heard of.

Rebecca Eaton: He's a hero who is kind of finding his own heroism. And I think -- I think we're desperately in need of that these days. We don't know what human heroes are anymore. We know what superheroes are, you know, Transformers and things. But we don't know how a real person becomes a hero. And he's pretty real.

Jeffrey Brown: Just as some of the tensions driving this historical drama are real again today.

David Oyelowo: We live in a world now where there are more protests around the world than I think there have been since, say, the civil rights movement or the feminist movement in the '60s, gun laws, going against politicians, or the rise of terrorism.

Whatever it is that people are holding placards up about, it is indisputable. Even right now, we see the yellow vests in Paris, where our show took place 200 years ago. So that, for me, was the reason to do it.

Dominic West: The child is yours?

Lily Collins: Is that a crime?

We as a society are still dealing with a lot of issues that bleed into a lot of the topics that were discussed in the series.

Jeffrey Brown: A series that tells the stories of those at the bottom.

Dominic West: What's amazing about this show is, they look like the people who are like that, certainly in the U.K. now, but, you know, they're immigrants. They're the poorest of the poor. They're the people we pick on first, because they're the weakest. And I think it's more relevant today than ever before.

Jeffrey Brown: Relevance producers hope attracts a new audience to this oft-told tale over the coming weeks.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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