Breaking the Barriers of Diegesis in Hooper’s Les Misérables

22 December 2016

Breaking the Barriers of Diegesis in Hooper’s Les Misérables

According to Cameron Mackintosh, the leading producer of the immensely profitable and dramatic megamusical, originally “[o]pera was for the sophisticates … and musicals – with their accessible lyrics and catchy tunes – were cheap fodder for the masses.”1 This was certainly true of the early 20th century, when musicals were comparable to vaudeville and were largely unintegrated. Today, composers have gone to great lengths to break the molds of the musical and its low brow stigma. One way of doing this was the emergence of the megamusical, described as “‘through-composed popular operas’ and ‘poperas,’” which are often through-sung, creating a blend of high and low brow art.2 Because the megamusical relies greatly on its dramatic sets, costumes, props, and hyper-sentimental storylines, many have been adapted as musical films where they become even more bombastic once they are freed from the confines of a single stage and Broadway budget.

The emphasis of these musical films is most often on the extension of the drama of the original show, which is usually eased with large amounts of diegetic music. An audience can more easily get behind a character such as Christine Daae, who is a singer in the opera in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, than perhaps Jean Valjean of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables, whose role as an ex-convict may be much less convincing for some when he belts out a soliloquy. The question of how musicals become successful with little or no diegetic music has always fascinated me, and it becomes especially intriguing when considering non-diegetic singing in film, where the audience is even less apt to view whatever is sung as realistic. In Tom Hooper’s diegesis in his 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables, characters who are emotionally invested in their dramatic singing performance, which is simultaneous to their realistic acting performance, seem more real than ever, despite the non-diegetic music that is central to the show. In this paper, I will argue that Hooper’s Les Misérables defies expectations because he is able to create a realistic world that includes non-diegetic music by experimenting with the definition of diegesis itself.

In Rick Altman’s book of 1987, he explains the normal division of sound for a musical film, or any film in general, into the diegetic track and the music track“the diegetic track reflects reality (or at least supports cinema’s referential nature), while the music track lifts the image into a romantic realm far above this world of flesh and blood.”3 Altman’s description makes it seem as though the musical theatre element of the film adds a fantastic twist. If it creates a “romantic realm” not just unrelated to realism, but unrelated to humans’ “flesh and blood,” it seems that non-diegetic music is largely separated from the grounded, realistic elements of a film. Altman delves further into this analysis by describing typical techniques of postsynchronization and how it helps to keep the film musical grounded:

more than any other type of film the musical has resorted to … rerecording, postsynchronization, and other techniques which involve separate recording of the image and diegetic music. … This practice of postsynchronization has many functions within the musical’s overall strategy. Beyond its obvious function of providing a cleaner, more technically perfect recording, it disguises breathing and other signs of effort, covers up missed notes, and in general creates an eerie, far-off effect, an injection of the ideal world into the real.4

This analysis reveals several things about the film musical, at least in 1987; breathing and “other signs of effort” should be covered up as much as possible, so the goal of the performers in the film musical is to appear as if their singing and performance is effortless. The masking of missed notes goes along with this, as they reveal vulnerability and flaw, which do not coincide with the attempt to portray the ideal. Lastly, the final point Altman makes truly reveals just how far from the realistic the musical film typically goes; the effect he wishes to create is an “eerie” one, completely separated from the believable or sensible. The objective is to create an escape, a glimpse into the “ideal world” rather than the one we witness everyday, so postsynchronization makes sense. Therefore, the performers almost never sing live when they are shown singing onscreen.

Hooper’s plan for his film, however, was to instead emphasize its aversion to diegesis. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he explained: “What I was trying to protect was what makes it emotional. And … when you lip sync to playback, even if you do it brilliantly, there is a falsity, there’s is an artificiality which the audience has to re-forgive during a movie. So even in the great movie musicals you forgive it.”5 Hooper’s focus on authenticity in his film musical contrasts directly with the original perspective of the genre. His authenticity, which involves characters using their real voices in real time, imperfections and all, is very different from the authenticity of the typical musical film, which remains true to tradition and therefore enforces the ideal, rather than the real. Hooper went on to add that “… we did it live with a live piano accompaniment, so not only is the singing live, but that tempo is being decided live by the actor. You give the power back to the actors. The actors can be completely in the moment.” So Hooper’s goal for this film was for the actors to absorb themselves into the characters, to act so realistically that the audience will take the dramatic plot seriously, as opposed to putting on an entertaining show where there is a much more apparent distinction between the musical characters and real life.

Perhaps Hooper does this specifically to cope with the non-diegesis of the show’s music. Not one character is meant to be a singer in Les Misérables, (with the exception perhaps of the Bishop and others in the church, who could realistically be singing hymns), so their emotional singing presents a real challenge for a director who strives for authenticity (of the more traditional sense). Yet, according to Hooper’s new reimagined authenticity, the non-diegetic music might not present quite such a challenge. The live singing helps to solve this problem because the fact that the actors perform realistically rather than performatively makes the audience forget that everyday people do not sing about their struggles. Indeed he makes it seem so natural that after just a few minutes into the film, the fact that the characters sing is so central to their identities that the audience does not even compare them to realistic people, but instead follows along with this new realism specific to the film.

Another interesting point Hooper raises is that in films such as his, “all the actors had this huge challenge which was to take these, in some cases, globally iconic songs and create the illusion that … their characters were the authors and inventors of these songs in the moment.”6 This is an intriguing perspective on performing in general. His fresh approach and coping mechanism is live music, which changes the concept of authenticity itself. What is more believablea flashy, unintegrated yet diegetic show that consists of characters who are singersor the raw, emotional singing of characters who would never sing in the real world? Perhaps it is all relative; each individual audience member might have a different answer.

Then there is the discrepancy within the definition of diegesis itself and how it is constructed. Ben Winters questions how one can determine which music and sounds remain within the plot of the musical film, and claims that “branding music with the label ‘non-diegetic’ threatens to separate it from the space of the narrative, denying it an active role in shaping the course of onscreen events, and unduly restricting our readings of film.”7 This is compelling because non-diegetic music is usually viewed negatively in the realm of musical theatre. Ever since the days of Show Boat of 1927, when musical theatre was only just being introduced as a form of entertainment, composers were constantly attempting to insert diegetic music into their shows. The majority of the characters in Show Boat were performers, so the plot provided reasoning that made sense for them to sing, and it was much easier for the audience to swallow the performance. Ever since these very first musicals, the tradition still exists for composers to insert some rationalization as to why their characters should be singing to aid the audience in taking the show seriously. So to view non-diegetic music as an active, imperative role in creating the narrative world of a film, which is quite a positive role, is novel. This perspective on the musical film is through more of a film lens, where there is more suspension of disbelief as everything is prerecorded, and changes the way one perceives non-diegetic music.

In Hooper’s Les Misérables in particular, the singing and accompanying music seem to create the world of the film itself. In this epic, dramatic world, speech is most often expressed in song. I think this is best established in the beginning of the film with the grand overture followed immediately by the protagonist singing and continuing to do so for the entire prologue. Some might think that the characters’ continuous singing instead of switching to interspersed dialogue may detract from the attempt to ground the film in more realism. However, interspersed speech would in fact take away from the realism of that new world which is created in the first fifteen minutes with uninterrupted, passionate singing. This perspective on a new form of diegesis reaffirms Hooper’s intention to emphasize the emotional aspect rather than try to conceal it with more realistic diegesis. Winters also mentions that, “[c]rucially, as Anahid Kassabian has recognized: ‘The distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music . . . obscures music’s role in producing the diegesis itself.’”8 The diegesis Hooper creates is one that is based on blending the boundaries of diegetic and non-diegetic music, which is a fresh take on the concept itself, and reaffirms Kassabian’s claim. Myke Bartlett also touches on this notion: “The modern musical seems to be striving to renegotiate this contract, either by using pop music to highlight its own artificiality (TV series Glee) or by contriving quasi-realistic scenarios in which diegetic music might feature (Pitch Perfect, Jason Moore, 2012). Les Misérables, however, takes a different route, stripping back the ‘showiness’ of the genre to find a new balance between realism and song.”9 The 2012 film breaks ground for navigating non-diegetic music by, rather than hiding it, making it so crucial to the emotional narrative that it resembles diegetic music.

One moment in particular that demonstrates this approach is Fantine’s iconic ballad, “I Dreamed a Dream,” which appears early in the film but not long before her character’s death. Here is an example of purely raw emotion being utilized to add to this new diegesis of realism with the addition of musical performance. During Hathaway’s rendition in the film, the focus is very much on her realistic portrayal of her broken character instead of the vocal accuracy or visual presentation. The song is filmed in one shot and the camera focuses closely on just Hathaway’s face, with nothing else in view. This decision makes her emotion even more central to the scene by cutting out all other distractions whatsoever. Hathaway even falters on the pitches of several notes and allows her real sobs to affect her singing, which differs greatly from the showy performances of traditional musical films, so focused on vocal accuracy. This choice is in direct contrast to Altman’s description of the musical film, which affirms that Hooper has truly created something new. Even in the 2004 film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, a megamusical similar to Les Misérables in scope of emotional and visual grandeur, “[t]he leads in the movie-and it didn’t matter to Webber if they were unknowns-’had to be able to sing,’ observes the composer.”10 This film relies more on diegetic music with characters who are established opera singers, but it still provides an interesting contrast between the “norm” and what Hooper’s Les Misérables introduces. If the most important thing for Lloyd Webber was that the actors “had to be able to sing,” then it seems that he conforms to Altman’s mold, whereas Hooper’s focus seems to be on the acting and its integration with singing. According to Bartlett, “This struggle against the elements, these songs sung live from the heat of despair or joy or uncertainty, allows for an uncommon intimacy with the characters. Despite their habit of conversing in song, these are real people in a real world. The singing feels less like a distraction from our world than a new way of describing it – as if we are watching a film in a foreign language, rather than a musical.”11 This is just it; Hooper creates a new language with his interpretation of the film musical.

Hooper produces a musical film unlike any other by means of breaking the precedents set in the genre by composers and directors before him. By defying the rules set out according to Altman and working closely with the non-diegetic music of the show rather than against it, Hooper took a risk that could have kept his audience from taking his entire film seriously. This may indeed be the case for some spectators; every audience member interprets a film differently, so there may be many musical theatre purists who despise Hooper’s focus on realistic acting rather than the performance of the songs. I myself find Hooper’s redefinition of the diegesis of his film quite successful in convincing an audience to take the actors’ renditions seriously. The heightened drama of Les Misérables the musical is truly enhanced when portrayed in a film setting with lifelike sets and sounds, but even more so by the intense acting performances of the cast. Though their singing is superb as well, it is their acting that sets them and this film apart from all other musical films, and makes it feel more like a film than a musical. While this may not be favorable for everyone, it certainly solves the problem of the large amount of non-diegetic music that must be integrated into the performers’ authentic (as in realistic, not traditional) portrayals of the characters. It also achieves Hooper’s intention to create a musical adaptation based in realism. I look forward to new musical films, especially those with large amounts of non-diegetic singing, to see whether other directors will follow Hooper’s lead or develop other methods of legitimizing the roles of the performers.



Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Indiana University Press. (1987): 63-69.

Bartlett, Myke. “A Gleeful Art Goes Back to Black: “Les Misérables” and the Modern Musical.” Screen Education no. 69 (2013): 28-37.

Horwitz, Simi. “In Focus: ‘Phantom’ Takes Journey from Stage to Screen.” Back Stage – The Performing Arts Weekly 45.51 (2004): 6. ProQuest. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

‘Les Miserables’; ‘the Impossible’. Waltham: CQ Transcriptions, 2012.

Prece, Paul and Everett, William A.  “The megamusical: the creation, internationalisation and impact of a genre.” Cambridge University Press. (2011): 250-269.

Winters, Ben. “The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space.” Music & Letters 91, no. 2 (2010): 224-44. 224.

  1. Bartlett, Myke. “A Gleeful Art Goes Back to Black: “Les Misérables” and the Modern Musical.” Screen Education no. 69 (2013): 28-37.
  2. Prece, Paul and Everett, William A.  “The megamusical: the creation, internationalisation and impact of a genre.” Cambridge University Press. (2011): 250-269. 252
  3. Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Indiana University Press. (1987): 63-69. 63.
  4. Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. 64.
  5. ‘Les Miserables’; ‘the Impossible’. Waltham: CQ Transcriptions, 2012.
  6. ‘Les Miserables’; ‘the Impossible’.
  7. Winters, Ben. “The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space.” Music & Letters 91, no. 2 (2010): 224-44. 224.
  8. Winters, Ben. “The Non-Diegetic Fallacy: Film, Music, and Narrative Space.” 225.
  9. Bartlett, Myke. “A Gleeful Art Goes Back to Black: “Les Misérables” and the Modern Musical.” 31.
  10. Horwitz, Simi. “In Focus: ‘Phantom’ Takes Journey from Stage to Screen.” Back Stage – The Performing Arts Weekly 45.51 (2004): 6. ProQuest. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
  11. Bartlett, Myke. “A Gleeful Art Goes Back to Black: “Les Misérables” and the Modern Musical.” 32.

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