AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Many people were introduced to the classic "Les Miserables" through the Tony Award-winning musical version.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "LES MISERABLES")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Look down. Look down. Don't look them in the eye.
CHANG: Well, a new six-episode miniseries of "Les Mis" debuts Sunday. And there's no music. PBS's "Masterpiece" instead focuses on the story. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says he was surprised at how little he missed the music.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: This could sound like heresy to fans of the classic musical, but I love "Les Miserables" without the songs. At least, I love writer Andrew Davies and director Tom Shankland's music-less version of this story, which recreates the broad sweep of Victor Hugo's classic 1862 French novel with an epic, emotional treatment.
The show's power comes courtesy of its two leads - Dominic West, who plays convict-turned-hero Jean Valjean and David Oyelowo, who is Javert, the policeman who relentlessly hunts him down. Their first scenes together are electric, as Javert assures Valjean he's a convict because it's in his nature.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LES MISERABLES")
DAVID OYELOWO: (As Javert) I was born in prison. My parents were criminals. Men like us have only two choices - to prey on society or to guard it. You chose the former. I chose the latter.
DOMINIC WEST: (As Jean Valjean) Nineteen years for a loaf of bread.
OYELOWO: (As Javert) You've got 12 months left to serve. My guess, you'll be back in here before another year has gone by.
DEGGANS: It's interesting to see a black man play the ultimate cop given today's debates about over-policing people of color. But the central issue in "Les Miserables" centers on character. Are people inherently bad or do they simply make bad choices in desperate circumstances?
The story also suggests that love is the best response to tough times. West and the always excellent Derek Jacobi bring this point home while recreating a classic scene from the novel. A fresh out of prison Valjean is given a place to sleep by a Bishop played by Jacobi. The bishop challenges Valjean to love his fellow man despite his hard life.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")
WEST: (As Jean Valjean) How can I love my fellow man when he treats me worse than a dog? It's easy for you. You can afford to be kind and gentle.
DEREK JACOBI: (As Bishop Myriel) Absolutely right. It is easy for me. But consider this - even if the world has done you a great injustice, does it really serve you to have a heart full of bitterness and hatred?
DEGGANS: West is the lynchpin of this miniseries. As Valjean progresses from hardened ex-convict to an upstanding businessman with a fake identity, the actor remains compelling and believable. With a glance, West can reveal Valjean as a flawed man reaching towards redemption but often undone by impulsive decisions and the guilt of his past misdeeds.
Lily Collins is another delight as Fantine, a poor woman whose life is ruined by trusting the wrong people. When she falls in love with a wealthy young aristocrat who is romancing her, a friend warns her of that folly.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LES MISERABLES")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You have to remember, they're not serious, these types. They're just amusing themselves. The ground we walk on is not solid ground, Fantine. We could fall through any time. We could be down in the gutter and no one would care. Plenty more where we come from.
LILY COLLINS: (As Fantine Thibault) But why should it always be like that?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Because it is.
DEGGANS: Fantine learns the hard way how right her friend is. That she pays such a heavy price when Valjean arguably makes worse mistakes and survives feels like a nod to the persistent inequality between the sexes. A co-production with the BBC, PBS's miniseries vividly recreates the crushing poverty and immense gaps between the lives of the wealthy and the poor in post-Napoleonic France.
This is why a new version of "Les Miserables" makes sense right now, as America and the world is already wrestling with tough questions centered on poverty, policing, wealth gaps and social justice. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.