Many critics are slamming the new movie production of Les Miserables, based on the Broadway musical taken from Victor Hugo’s classic novel. Having read some of these negative reviews, I can only be saddened. These people simply don’t understand. They go on and on about the movie’s imperfections, some legitimate, some, in my opinion, totally untrue. In focusing on the flaws in the film itself, they totally miss the point. Or maybe they do get the point, and it makes them angry because they want to deny its truth: there are such things as forgiveness, redemption, and self-sacrifice. Victor Hugo knew this, and wrote about it, as my husband puts it, “with a sledgehammer.” He tackled the notion of man’s inhumanity to man with a grim and gritty sense of realism, unmatched by few save perhaps Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Harper Lee.
The story of Jean Valjean, sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, is, at its core, a very simple one. The novel itself is nearly 1500 pages long, but about a third of it is exposition, attempting to help the reader understand the context and setting and focusing on the political aspects of the story as well as the history of France. It is the story, however, that matters. It is a love story. The love of parents for their children, the love of friends for one another, the love between husbands and wives, the love of God for humanity-it is all there, presented with heart-rending beauty and complete honesty. Jean Valjean’s redemption following a simple act of human kindness gives us pause. If mankind and mercy are truly our business, then why aren’t we doing more?
These thoughts make people uncomfortable, and that may be why the critics are not getting it. They don’t want to. It is impossible to truly do good without God, no matter how hard we strive, on our own, to “be good”. Javert, the antagonist of the story, is a pathetic figure despite his self-righteousness and relentless pursuit of Valjean. In bondage to law and order, Javert has convinced himself that because he is “good” and Valjean is “bad”, his cause must be just and that the only “right” thing to do is capture Valjean. This inner conflict eventually drives Javert to suicide. It is easy for us to simply dismiss Javert as evil-but is he? Or is he merely a picture of the way we ourselves tend to live?
Yes, it causes great discomfort indeed to examine ourselves and consider how many we may have turned away because they were labeled as worthless, hopeless, beyond redemption. For all the time we spend mocking a Britney Spears or a Charlie Sheen-would that time not be better spent in actually praying for them? Their falls from grace-which are not truly falls from Grace, after all, because God still loves them-make us feel so much better about ourselves, don’t they? We can say, “Well, at least I’ve never done THAT.” Is that so much to brag about? Maybe we haven’t done “that”, but we’ve certainly done plenty-and, even worse, failed to do what we really ought to do. But we forget about that, and watch a film like Les Miserables and try to figure out who the good guys and bad guys are. We tell ourselves that the priest would never really protect a Jean Valjean, would never give him the stolen silverware and hand him the candlesticks as well. That’s just a fantasy. But wait-isn’t there something in the Bible about if a man takes your shirt, you are to give him your cloak as well? And if that was an impossibility, would Jesus have told us to do it?
I noticed that a lot of people were crying at the end of Les Miserables. I myself started weeping when Jean Valjean was given the candlesticks, and never really stopped until I was almost home from the theatre. It wasn’t just sniffles, either-by the end of the movie, tears were rolling down my face at a ridiculous rate. But for whom, or what, was I crying? Why did my chest hurt, why did I feel as if I couldn’t breathe, why could I not even speak for a full fifteen minutes after the movie ended? Yes, it was horribly sad, possibly even leaning toward melodrama. It was beautiful and poetic . The characters were wonderfully realized. Fantine’s awful situation, the rescue of Cosette by Valjean, the suicide of Javert, the death of Valjean, the love that existed among the characters-all of this, and more, stirred emotion and opened the floodgates. But there was Something Else. Something bigger.
The story of Les Miserables , the title of which can be translated as The Wretched, The Victims, The Poor Ones, or The Miserable, is the story of all of us. It is a story of loss and pain and longing for “a castle on a cloud”- a better place, a true home, somewhere to belong. It is a story of dreams destroyed, of bitterness and emptiness, of the utter despair people sometimes feel. But it is also a story of hope. It is a story that helps us understand the truth that to love someone is to see the face of God. Fantine, depite her outcast and miserable state, had Something-because she loved Cosette. When we reach out our hand to help a person in need, when we call someone “brother” and show them the respect and dignity to which every God-breathed soul is entitled, we see His face-and, hopefully, we acknowledge our own brokenness and wretchedness and very great need for the Love that transcends our humanity.
Let us be good to each other-and see the face of God.
“Ecclesiastes names thee Almighty, the Maccabees name thee Creator, the Epistle to the Ephesians names thee Liberty, Baruch names thee Immensity, the Psalms name thee Wisdom and Truth, John names thee Light, the Book of Kings names thee Lord, Exodus names thee Providence, Leviticus Sanctity, Esdras Justice, creation names thee God, man names thee Father; but Solomon names thee Compassion, which is the most beautiful of all thy names.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables