It probably shouldn't be a thorny question, but it is: what makes a good adaptation of a book into a movie?

Thanks to the Harry Potter film series, that question has been bobbing around quite a bit of late, although I suspect that most of the people debating it wouldn't think that they are trying to suss out a bit of overarching film theory. But the seemingly fanboyish question of whether Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is good because it is a faithful adaptation, and whether it is superior to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which ignores huge swaths of the novel and changes details both minor and major, that question is not just about the relative merits of J.K. Rowling's deathless prose. That question reveals an important distinction between a "good adaptation" and a "good film"; and what do we mean by "good" in those contexts, anyway?

I surely don't expect to finally define the rules of "good" here and now, but I'm going to suggest a couple of guiding principals: a faithful adaptation recreates as much of the surface material of the original as possible; a good adaptation captures the ethical spirit of a novel, whether or not that entails a slavish dedication to capturing every beat of the original story; and a good film adaptation is an adaptation, good or bad, that results in a film that stands as its own work, independent of the source, and feels more like a movie than a book-on-tape. These are surely not radical observations, but I had never put all that much thought into them until I saw a film that is an exemplary adaptation of one of my favorite novels ever written, and a brilliant movie irrespective of that novel: Raymond Bernard's 1934 version of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

First, let it be noted: 281 minutes (the most complete version in existence, still more than 20 minutes shorter than the original length) are not sufficient time to recreate the entire plot of the novel. The entire matter of the Petite-Picpus convent is wiped away, as well as the exploration of the beggars' society through the character of Gavroche. Some compression takes place in the run-up to the barricades, and a great deal more once the barricades fall (most notably, Thénardier does not encounter Valjean in the sewers, eliminating all that comes after). Otherwise, most of the plot is left completely intact...

I pause to wonder how much I ought to explain the narrative of Les Misérables. Hugo is not nearly so much in favor with the literati as he used to be, and one can't assume that everyone has read it. So let me just repeat the broad strokes that you know if you've seen the musical: this is about Jean Valjean (Harry Baur), an ex-con who is made into a good man by Monseigneur Myriel, Bishop of Digne (Henry Krauss); who is chased by the ruthless Inspector Javert (Charles Vanel, of Wooden Crosses); who takes pity on the poor prostitute Fantine (Florelle); who adopts that woman's child Cosette (Gaby Triquet at 8 years, Josselyne Gaël at 16); who finds himself near the center of the student revolutions in Paris in 1832. And it is a story of the miserable poor in France, and the republican ideal that lay dormant for many years after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

Novels are generally successful because they are full of great ideas, well-constructed prose, or a combination of the two. I can't speak to the quality of Hugo's prose, having only ever read Les Misérables in the generally florid Charles Wilbour translation of 1862. But ideas! Such ideas! No film could ever compress all of the musings and digressions that Hugo let fly in his book without turning into something undramatic and virtually unwatchable, but the two cores of the novel remain: Valjean's Catholic spirituality, and the students' liberal outrage at social injustice. Bernard's film focuses mostly on the latter theme (although God is hardly banished, just very quiet), opening with a portion of Hugo's famous preface to the novel that most specifically focuses on the classist issues of the book: "So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, works like this cannot be useless."

Thus does Bernard focus his energies on the squalor of the poor, often contrasted explicitly and ironically with the gaiety of the rich; at times, the film's depiction of poverty seems to frankly steal cues from the then-burgeoning horror genre. Which sets us on the path of why Les Misérables is far more than a simple adaptation of Hugo's egalitarian ideals, but is instead a brilliant movie, perhaps even a key text in the development of pre-WWII French cinema.

I mentioned in my review of Wooden Crosses that Jules Kruger, one of the two cinematographers on that film, was brought up in the German Expressionist movement, and that he brought a distinct Expressionist tang to some of the imagery. Bernard brought Kruger along with on Les Misérables, and he worked alone, and that translates into even more Expressionism in much stronger doses. This is clear in all sorts of ways, starting with the heavy proto-noir lighting that changes Javert from merely an obsessed cop to a crusading devil, that constantly surrounds Valjean with the literal shadows of his past, that bathes the poor in gloom and drenches the upper and middle classes with flat and sometimes ugly light. Then there are the canted camera angles - so many! As anybody who has seen The Third Man knows (and that damn well better be all of you: if you haven't seen it, stop reading right now, go rent it, and watch it before you do anything else, including eating or sleeping), canted angles are the easiest possible way to express: "This is an askew world. Things are not right here." Bernard had gone to that well already with Wooden Crosses, and earlier for all I know; he brings it back here, but he uses it in subtle and subversive ways. One clear example is an early scene set in a dance hall, where the yet-uncorrupted Fantine catches the eye of a pair of thoughtlessly amorous students. In the film and novel, this setting is a falsehood, all glamor and style to hide the decay underneath the middle class's pretensions to comfort, but the director gets to do something that the author could not, which is to imply that decay visually, using canted angles, so canted that you get dizzy, wondering how the dancers can stay upright on such a sharp slope. Hours later, we'll see that angle in another dance sequence, at the marriage of Cosette and Marius Pontmercy (Jean Servais), where Bernard goes to a place of quiet satire that even Hugo wouldn't explicitly contemplate: the student revolutionary has allowed himself to become the sort of comfortable man of society that he fought against, and all that has transpired changes nothing, in the end.

Then there's the matter of the production design by Jean Perrier, another Wooden Crosses alumnus, which veers from extremely faithful recreations of post-Napoleonic Paris in its grit and glitz, to the shockingly stylized Montfermeil inn where the Thénardiers hold Cosette, or the foul Parisian apartment where they hide after they're reduced to thieving and begging to survive. Most of all, I think of the scene where Cosette, still a young girl, is sent out to the woods for water. Hugo describes this as "the black enormity of nature," inviting us to compare the child's abstract fear in the dark woods with her existential fear of the Thénardiers; Bernard and Perrier and Kruger do something similar by creating woods of such pure Expressionist horror as to leave no doubt that we're watching the external depiction of internal dread (the scene is alarmingly similar to the analogous scene in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, such that one is tempted to wonder if the latter film was inspired by the former, or if as is likelier, both were inspired by the same source).

The use of Expressionist horror techniques is never far away, even in the sunniest moments (Javert's suicide, presented elliptically and implicitly, is the best example of that seeming paradox), but for the story's great centerpiece, the building and destruction of the barricade in the Rue de la Chanvrerie, Bernard returns to the chaotic hand-held documentary style that served him so well in Wooden Crosses. It is no slight against this film to admit that it was a technique that worked better in the war picture; of course, the implication is that the events of June, 1832 were themselves a sort of warfare, but the injection of such fourth-wall-breaking techniques makes more sense in a story that takes place after the invention of the movie camera. That's a small complaint, at best; the barricade scenes remain gripping and terrifying, and yes, engaging, that last due to the very same hand-held camera.

All in all, Les Misérables is a great work of cinema, which is an uncommon thing; it is moreover a great work of cinema that is also true to a great work of literature, which is more uncommon; but that it is great cinema that does honor to its source material while staking a claim for its greatness entirely outside the vast shadow of that source, that makes it as rare as anything I could name. And just like Wooden Crosses, it is legitimately one of the best motion pictures that I have ever seen. Here's to the lost genius of Raymond Bernard: may his period in exile end soon, so that we may have more chances to bask in the glory of the finest directors you nor I have ever heard of.