Scott D. Pierce: PBS tries to reclaim ‘Les Mis’ from the ‘pathetic’ musical version

(Photo courtesy "Masterpiece") Dominic West, Lily Collins and David Oyelowo star in the six-part "Masterpiece" production of "Les Miserables."

Emmy-winning writer Andrew Davies is not a fan of the musical version of “Les Misérables.”

“I hated the musical,” he said. “I just wanted to rescue it” from that “pathetic” version. You know, the one that won the 1987 Tony as best musical and has been touring the country for decades.

Davies, who has adapted “War & Peace,” “Little Dorrit,” “Sense & Sensibility,” “Bleak House,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “Pride and Prejudice” — among others — for television went back to Victor Hugo’s enormous 1862 novel for his retelling of the story of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine and Cosette, ignoring the musical altogether.

“It wasn’t difficult for me, because I hadn’t seen the musical before I started working on this,” Davies said, “and I came fairly fresh to the book.”

He’d never read Hugo’s novel until he was pitched the idea of adapting it, and he came away impressed.

“I thought it was a terrific story that just resonated so much with the world we live in today, particularly,” Davies said. “I thought I’d just want to have a go at this.”

His enormous list of writing credits dates back half a century and includes everything from “House of Cards” (both the British original and the American remake) to “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and its sequel. And after reading Hugo’s work — translated into English from the original French — Davies enthusiastically signed on to script a six-part series, a co-production of PBS’ “Masterpiece” and the BBC. Six hours sounds like a lot, but it’s not much when you consider that an unabridged copy of the book runs as much as 1,500 pages, depending on the edition. But Davies was not intimidated.

“I’m an old man. I don’t get scared,” he said. “I’ve faced down many great books in my life. I thought, ‘This is just another great book. I’ll just do it the way I see it,’ which is the way I always do it.”

His “Les Misérables,” which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS/Ch. 7, tells the tale without the histrionics of the musical. Set in the early 19th century, it’s the story of noble reformed criminal Jean Valjean (Dominic West) and single-minded Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo), who is determined to put him back in prison. And of the ill-fated Fantine (Lily Collins) and her daughter, Cosette (Mailow Defoy, Lia Giovanelli and Ellie Bamber).

The cast also includes Adeel Akhtar and Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier; Josh O’Connor as Marius; David Bradley as Marius’ grandfather; and Derek Jacobi as the Bishop of Digne.

Eventually, Davies did see the musical, and he came away considerably less impressed.

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s their take on it,’” Davies said, suddenly sounding somewhat more diplomatic. “I thought, ‘Well, I would like to show people my take on it.’”

OPPOSING VIEWPOINT • Oyelowo, who is both one of the stars and an executive producer of this adaptation of “Les Misérables,” was aghast when Davies let slip how much he hates the musical. “Noooooo,” he said.

“Can I just say — I love the musical,” Oyelowo added later. “For the record. But that’s me.”

TV MAGIC • The “Masterpiece” production of “Les Misérables” includes, of course, Valjean escaping through the Paris sewers. The scene looks pretty miserable, but according to West, it was filmed in a rather pleasant studio.

“It was actually lovely heated water with tame rats swimming in it, and a rat wrangler in case any of the rats went astray,” he said.

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