In Which Victor Hugo Is Apparently Offended

January 31st, 2007 · 3 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

So, okay, your great-great-grandfather wrote this book. It’s been translated like a zillion times and made into a major musical and multiple motion pictures, some of which have more artistic merit than others. Along the lines, various and sundry liberties have been taken with your great-great-grandfather’s work. Such is the process of adaptation. You never get an exact replica.

But you don’t draw the line. Nor, you must ruefully acknowledge, did your father or his father or possibly even his father. You have your standards.

And, if you’re a descendent of Victor Hugo and the work is Les Miserables, you can take a movie starring Claire Danes before you’re willing to accept a modern author writing a sequel to your great-great-grandfather’s immortal work. That, you decide, is a violation of your moral rights. Or your great-great-grandfather’s moral rights. Somebody’s morals are offended, that’s all you know for sure.

Thus we have a battle for the ages. In a few months, Hugo’s descendents will, well, descend upon a courtroom to stop the presses and stop a book called Cosette, Or The Time of Illusions from being published. Pierre Hugo, the plaintiff, is asking for £425,000 in damages. We are not entirely sure how this sum was derived as it is not entirely clear how Mr. Hugo (the living) has been damaged. We fully accept that Mr. Hugo (the deceased) is not what he used to be.

The crime, because there must be a crime (nobody would waste the time and resources of the courts for a frivolous reason, no?) is that the the “sequel’s” author, one Francois Ceresa — receiving the type of publicity that most authors can only dream about — changes the ending of the original novel to tell his own story.

Quelle horreur! Sharp-eyed readers of the future will notice that this ending change only happens in the Ceresa version. The Hugo version will remain in its beloved glory. Should the public glom on to the sequel, well, then Ceresa should pay the Hugo family the appropriate sum for a well-done advertising campaign. After all, should Ceresa prevail in court, how can the public resist such temptation as this:

The complaint alleges that the novel “represents a pure commercial order based on the violation of the respect for Victor Hugo’s work”.

In a world where the desire to protect copyright from horrible fates is increasingly trumping the creative process, we understand why the Hugo family is running amok. But in a world where creativity builds upon the works of others — how often does a writer imagine “what if he lived?” and the proceed to tell a different story? — this case is just plain silly.

Victor Hugo’s work is in no way changed, altered, bastardized, or even cheapened. Francois Ceresa’s re-imagining of the ending of Les Miserables will either resonate with the public or not (we have our own thoughts on the matter, but, then again, we find we can rarely predict the behavior patterns of the French). This does not need to be settled in a court of law because, well, the one person who really could say whether or not he’s offended isn’t really in a position to care one way or the other.

Why, oh, why haven’t we created a category called “Stupid Lawsuits?”. The publishing industry is littered with the things.

[tags]victor hugo, les miserables, pierre hugo, moral rights, francois ceresa, writing, publishing[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

3 responses so far ↓

  • SusanGable // Feb 1, 2007 at 6:22 am

    Unfortunately, it’s not just the publishing industry that’s littered with Stupid Lawsuits. (And why not just go ahead and create that category now?)

    It’s the ka-ching of easy cash that drives it. See how quick any lawsuit would be filed without a money settlement. See if they’re willing to sue just for the right to stop this “henious crime” and keep great-great-whatever-grandpapa from rolling in his grave at the thought of one of his characters escaping the fate he’d written, and going on to something else.

  • Laura Vivanco // Feb 1, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    The latest is that the lawsuit against Ceresa has failed:

    A French court has ruled against the heirs of author Victor Hugo in their battle with the publishers of a sequel to his classic novel Les Miserables.

    The decision overturns a lower court’s 2004 ruling that the Pion publishing company had breached the Hugo family’s “moral rights” by releasing the work. (from the BBC)

  • ktwice // Feb 2, 2007 at 12:13 am

    Laura, merci! I’d hate for this type of case to actually prevail. I mean, there are serious breaches of rights, and, well, this strikes me as a breach of, hmm, I dunno. Someone’s ego isn’t tied to his self-esteem, if you know what I mean.

    Susan??? Cynical much? I am shocked, shocked!