Ever since the musical version of Victor Hugo's sprawling novel hit the boards, Éponine, the tragic waif whose love for her friend Marius goes unreciprocated, has always been a fan favorite. Her storyline in the musical is definitely the most relatable. I don't know about you, but I've never had to turn to prostitution to support my young child or served a 20 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. But being in love with someone that doesn't have the same feelings for you? Yeah, we've all been there. And this patron saint of unrequited love's anthem "On My Own" has become the rallying cry of broken-hearted teenage girls (and gay boys) for decades now.
But I feel like Samantha Barks and the Éponine in the movie never got the credit or love they deserve. (Once again, Éponine is getting brushed aside...) I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that, unlike most of the cast, she was not an established name outside of the musical theatre world. With enough big names in the cast, I'm glad they decided to go with an actress that has experience in musicals and didn't go with whom originally was rumored do have gotten the role, Taylor Swift.
The film also alters elements that appeared in the stage version, lessening her significance and impact as a character. In the stage version, it is Éponine who delivers Marius' letter that Valjean intercepts, causing him to join the students at the barricade and watch over Marius for Cosette. In the film, it is Gavroche and the change takes away some of Éponine's complexity. Having Éponine deliver it shows that despite her inner struggle, she is willing to sacrifice her own feelings for Marius' happiness. But the biggest change is that she no longer appears in the end as a spirit along with Fantine to bring Valjean to Heaven. When I saw the film with my sister, who's not familiar with the musical, and told her of the change, her reply was, "Why would she be there when she tried to steal Cosette's man?" What?!? First of all, she's an innocent that was willing to die for him and secondly, who the hell likes Cosette? She's boring and everything works out for her while she does nothing.
Barks still manages to deliver, despite the film's treatment, and her rendition of "On My Own" is one of the film's highlights. And unlike on stage where the rainstorm is imagined, she manages to sing and emote all while being pelted with actual freezing cold rain. The best ballads work as inner monologue for the character and Éponine's feelings are more than apparent in the scene.
On my own
Pretending he's beside me
I walk with him till morning
I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me
In the rain the pavement shines like silver
All the lights are misty in the river
In the darkness, the trees are full of starlight
And all I see is him and me forever and forever
The rain actually becomes a symbolic element that becomes synonymous with Éponine as both of her big numbers include it. Despite the unpleasantness of being caught in the rain, alone and drenched, she begins to romanticize it as she does her relationship with Marius. Everyday things begin to take on a magical quality in this rain. When you have nothing in the world, you have to create your own dreams.
And I know it's only in my mind
That I'm talking to myself and not to him
And although I know that he is blind
Still I say, there's a way for us
But just as you begin to feel she may be delusional, she brings it back to reality. She knows that the rain alone cannot actually bring about a change in Marius like a thunder storm rolling in, but it's this hope that gets her through the day.
I love him
But when the night is over
He is gone
The river's just a river
The world around me changes
The trees are bare and everywhere
The streets are full of strangers
Just as she began to build up the sentimental elements earlier in the song, she is now stripping them down to see them as they are. And the camera pulls away from the close-up of her face, where it has been easier to believe her visions of love, and we see the rain-soaked streets for what they really are.
I love him
But every day I'm learning
All my life
I've only been pretending
His world will go on turning
A world that's full of happiness
That I have never known
I always thought it would be more powerful if she sang 'this world will go on turning' so that not everything would be about her love for Marius. I get that right now everything in her life is about how Marius doesn't love her, but really nothing in her life is working out. I think that's why when we are younger we so identify with Éponine because when you're young if someone you have a crush on doesn't love you back, it feels like the end of the world. But as you get older you begin to see that as Fantine says, 'Now life has killed the dream I dreamed'.
I love him
I love him
I love him
But only on my own
As the camera comes close again as she hugs her knees and lets out an audible sob, the intimacy of the moment makes us feel even closer to Éponine. We recall the time in our own lives when we felt on our own and just like that, a new generation of Éponine devotees is established. Showering her with the love that Marius is so foolish in denying.