BBC’s Les Miserables has just come to an end, adding to a long line of adaptations of Victor Hugo’s book, from musicals to an Oscar-winning movie.
The tale comes from Hugo’s story of love and revenge, redemption and revolution in Paris, France.
While the story comes from Hugo’s long novel, people have been wondering whether it’s inspired by true events and people.
How much is a true story, and how accurate is BBC’s Les Miserables ?
The whole tale was actually based on real figures and events in France from the revolution to its depiction of poverty and Valjean’s struggle.
We take a look at what was fact and what was fiction.
Valjean and Javert – real or not?
Dominic West as Jean Valjean
(Image: BBC/Lookout Point/Robert Viglasky)
The two main characters are not real, but they were inspired by historical figures and people in Hugo’s life.
Jean Valjean is thought to have been based on Eugene Francois Vidocq, a reformed ex-convict who became the first director of French Surete Nationale crime agency.
Vidocq had a tough start in life, and during his time in Brussels supported himself by small frauds. When he was caught one day by police with no valid papers, he called himself Monsieur Rousseau. He escaped as they tried to confirm his identity.
When Vidocq finally reached Paris, he squandered money on women. One, Francine, left him for a soldier. He beat both of them and the soldier sued him – he got three years in prison.
He escaped again and again while in prison, sometimes with Francine’s help he was also caught. One time he was finally picked up by police but Francine was found with multiple stab wounds.
Vidocq was now wanted for attempted murder. Francine claimed later hat the wounds were self-inflicted and the charges were dropped. Francine was convicted for helping him in his escapes, and that was the last the pair contacted each other.
Vidocq began his trial for document forgery, but while he waited for a prison transfer he escaped again. His journey continued, he even dressed as a nun to escape the police at one point.
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Valjean, Fantine, and Javert
(Image: BBC/Lookout Point/Mitch Jenkins)
When Valjean saves a man trapped under a cart in Les Miserables, it’s a real event, Vidocq did the same thing for one of this workers – he was also a factory owner.
It was when he saw a man executed, after his life had taken a downward spiral, that Vidocq tried to change things.
He struggled to do so, just like Valjean, his past continually catching up with him.
But it turns out Vidocq’s later life was actually the inspiration for Javert – Valjean’s enemy.
In 1809 Vidocq offered his services as a spy – he was jailed, but this time he reported back what the prisoners said. His new life began.
Now Vidocq is seen as one of the fathers of modern criminiology. He was also the first private detective.
The other events in Valjean’s life are thought to have come from Hugo’s own experience – such as him seeing a policeman apprehend a man for stealing a loaf of bread, and when he saved a prostitute from arrest in 1841.
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The rebellion – fact or fiction?
The June Rebellion of 1832 is fact.
The novel goes into depth on several topics that are often left out of adaptations, such as the sewer systems and religious orders, the same goes for the rebellion.
General Lamarque, whose death kick starts the students rising up, was real.
The French commander fought in the Napoleonic Wars . He became a critic of the monarchy and showed sympathy for those in poverty.
Lamarque died on June 1, 1832 from cholera – there was an epidemic in France – and his funeral procession was overrun by students protesting.
The funeral ended in a clash between the students and the government troops.
The actual student group in Les Miserable is fictional, but their actions and what they stood for are very much aligned to the real life cause.
In real life, like in the book, the group was crushed by the troops after two days.
Hugo took to the streets himself during the revolution and saw with his own eyes the fighting, so naturally it inspired his novel.
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Fantine sells a lot for the sake of her daughter
(Image: BBC/Lookout Point/Laurence Cendrowicz)
Fantine and poverty – fact or fiction?
We see Fantine get fired and her descent into poverty and prostitution. She sells her hair, and her teeth, then her body. This would have happened at the time. Poverty and hygiene was bad at the time, and their was a lot of illness.
Fantine’s story is also thought to be based on Hugo seeing a woman being falsely accused of assault. He stepped in to save her – he describes the incident in more detail in Things Seen (1887).