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Shoplifting your characters

January 17, 2013

As I write this, my daughter and wife are discussing the latest theatrical edition of Les Miserables. Specifically, my wife is saying that she read reviews panning Russell Crowe, who plays Javert. Apparently, his beautiful mind has a horrible voice, so he spoke a lot of his part, rather than singing it.

As soon as my wife said the word Javert, I thought for some reason of the cop who chased Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. I thought his name was Javert, too. In reality, it was Gerard, played by Barry Morse. The reason I thought of Lt. Gerard is because the character is based on Javert in Les Mis. In Les Mis, Javert is dedicated to the law. Whether he is evil or simply blind depends on your viewpoint.

In The Fugitive, the writer of the pilot episode went so far as to say he purposely gave Gerard a name similar to Javert to see if anyone would notice. In fact, Quinn Martin, the show’s producer, called The Fugitive a modern version of Les Mis. A single line Tommy Lee Jones spoke in the the movie version summed up Javert’s approach. When Richard Kimble says he didn’t kill his wife, Jones’ Marshal Gerard says, “I don’t care.”

Javert could also be traced to the character of Patrick Kenzie in the Dennis Lehane novel Gone Baby Gone. When Amanda McCready disappears, Kenzie and his partner and soulmate Angie Gennaro take the case. As it turns out, Amanda’s mother, Helene is a horrible mom, and Amanda’s future with her is bleak at best.

After a couple speed bumps, Patrick finds out that Amanda was actually taken by cops and given to Captain Jack Doyle. When he finds her, she’s well-adjusted and her future looks bright. (In the movie version, Morgan Freeman plays Doyle. With God as your dad, how can you go wrong?)

In spite of the appearance that everything turns out the best it could, Kenzie turns in Doyle, who is arrested for his crime. Amanda goes back to her horrible mother, and Angie breaks up with Patrick, ending their personal and professional relationships. His experience is more similar to Javert’s, minus the suicide. Patrick’s entire life structure is sacrificed as the result of his devotion to the law.

In essence, the three men are derivatives of the same character. When preparing to play the role of Lt. Gerard in the television series, Barry Morse said that “[W]e…are all shoplifters. Everyone from Shakespeare onwards…[W]hen you set out on a shoplifting expedition, you go always to Cartier’s, and never to Woolworth’s!”

Are any of your characters derivative of other characters you’ve known? If so, how are they different? And if you’re shoplifting, what class of store did you shoplift from?

  1. January 17, 2013 8:45 am

    I agree with Morse. We do borrow character archetypes from literature we like. And the villain isn’t always the criminal, but the supposed supporter of the law. Hmmm!

    As to “Les Mis”, although I’ve not seen the movie yet, the strongest voices in the stage musical were Javert and Jean Valjean and th should have been as both are strong characters – one moral to a fault and the other human to the nth degree. So I will miss that part of the whole. However, isn’t it interesting that Rex Harrison (no singer, bt a great “sing-speaker”) won Tony and Oscar for his “Henry Higgins”, and when I saw that part played by a real singer like Richard Chamberlain (yes!) in the revival, I longed to hear Harrison’s voice!

  2. January 17, 2013 9:09 am

    I think it can be argued that Shakespeare shoplifted, too.

    As for me, one early scene in my first novel is modeled on one from Antigone, but the rest of the story bears no resemblance.

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