Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables has been made and remade. We have seen seven earlier movies made from it. The novel is also one of the most successful musicals of all time. As of Christmas 2012, we now have a combination of both – the musical but with movie sets rather than a filming of a stage production. The result is quite good. Hugh Jackman’s Val Jean, Ann Hathaway’s Fantine, Eddie Redmayne’s Marius, and Samantha Banks’ Eponine are all particularly well done.
But the real power lies in the source material. Hugo himself wrote that his novel was, “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.” A considerable strength of the story is not making good and evil characters outright but showing both darkness and light within humanity.
Val Jean is the major protagonist and three times in the story he faces major temptation to put himself before others (when someone else is arrested in his name, when he sees a broken Fantine about to be arrested by Javert, and when Gavroche delivers Marius’ letter for Fantine). It is easy to see him simply as the good guy but we also need to remind ourselves that he is a convict that broke parole, stole silver from the bishop who offered him hospitality, misrepresented himself in order to become a business owner and later a mayor, and finally kept his adopted daughter on the run with him most of his life. Likewise, it is too easy to write off Javert as a stock villain. Javert believes in justice, prays to God throughout the novel, offers himself up for punishment when he thinks he has falsely accused the mayor, and does allow Val Jean and Marius to pass when he could have shot him after the escaped from the sewers. Javert’s suicide is a great tragedy in the novel.
Hugo shows humanity at its best (nuns who take fugitives in, students who care about the plight of the poor (and are willing to die for it), and lovers who will sacrifice all for those they love (Fantine giving everything for Cossette, Eponine for Marius, students for one another, Gavroche for the students, and Val Jean for Cossette). He also shows humanity at its worst (Fantine’s foreman and co-workers in the factory, Val Jean too wrapped up in his own problems to help Fantine when she needs him, all the characters around the docks earlier in the story, and all the timid citizenry who turn their backs on the students fighting for them). The only characters who really are totally bad (and played for comic effect in the musical/movie) are the Thenardiers. And yet, just like Golem in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, they too have a role to play in the grand arc of the story (poor guardians or not, they did care for young Cossette and much later Marius and Cosette never would have found Val Jean or known of his role in saving Marius without them).
Hugo looks the issue of human suffering and evil square in the eye and he puts the blame where it rests – on our own collective sin.
I believe Hugo even has Jesus in the story. Where? He’s the bishop. The bishop intones, “I have bought your soul for God.” Who paid the price for any of us other than him? I think it is significant that you see Val Jean keeping the candlesticks all of his life.
The final scenes with showing what Val Jean sees after he dies is Hugo’s vision of the Kingdom of God.
The book, the movies, the musical, and now the movie/musical are all different translations of Victor’s Gospel.
I hope that from within the Kingdom, Hugo knows the impact he has had in bringing God back into the thoughts, songs, and prayers of many in our late 20th/early 21st century culture.
What do you think?
Until next time,