The 2012 movie version of Les Miserables reminds me of the reception of Mumford & Sons’ latest album. Throngs of adoring fans, having awaited the releases for some time, made both huge commercial successes, both were then widely panned by critics for being too earnest (and thus unbelievable), and both were sorta Christian. The differences are important too. Whereas Babel generated a surprisingly hostile review from a significant number of critics, Les Miserables is holding out at a respectable 70% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been nominated for 8 Academy Awards. Another key difference, from my point of view at least, is that I mostly didn’t like Mumford’s new album (really liked the first one, but am now a little worn out by the monotony), but I absolutely loved Les Miserables. I came very close to feeling those dreaded emotions after watching it, and you can ask around, that’s not a common occurrence for me.
Now, I’ve read a lot of criticisms of Les Miserables. The New Yorker, somewhat predictably, turned their collective noses up at it. Anthony Lane did his usual cynical routine, and David Denby, usually the good cop, was even worse, saying that, “It’s terrible; it’s dreadful. Overbearing, pretentious, madly repetitive.” Oh well. At least Adam Gopnik liked it. I’m not too bothered by The New Yorker. It’s a publication for people who think of themselves as intellectuals, which is a distinct group, actually, from mere intellectuals.
More relevant to my circles, and more directly challenging towards my own sentiments, are those critiques coming from Christian viewers. I’ve seen the basic concern that Victor Hugo was himself not a Christian, along with other criticisms about the too-heavy emotions of the movie, the perils of Romanticism, and the overshadowing of any true message of grace by a sort of Enlightenment humanism. Here I was thinking that I’d seen a profound presentation of the impossibility of law, but perhaps I’d been mistaken. What are we to think of these observations?
The first point that needs to be made is that Les Miserables, at least in this current manifestation, is a sort of anti-Romance. Oh sure, there is the “true love” held between Cosette and Marius, but that’s hardly the overwhelming “passion” of the movie, and even that love would never had survived if it weren’t for the familial and friendly love of other characters. We’ll say more on that in a moment. The main characteristics of Romanticism, however, are inversed. We do not get the feeling that the “common man” is basically noble. To the contrary, most of the commoners, and especially the poor and working class, are presented as dishonest, jealous, vindictive, and capable of great evil. Political revolution is also presented as a fool’s errand. The young men and students who fight are presented as desiring a good thing, but they are also hopelessly naive. The older men who have seen all this before actually come out the wiser. There is definitely a sustained critique of modernity throughout the movie (industrialism comes out looking particularly cruel), but still, we are not told that the solution lies in primitivism, utopian political dreams, nor even in “true love,” understood in the passionate sense. The only solution we are given is forgiveness and charity, and a good bit of that is only discovered through suffering. The final realization of all of the goals only comes at death.
Secondly, we can ask, Is this a Christian movie? Well, it’s certainly no Facing the Giants, if that’s what you mean. There’s no sloganeering. While itself not exactly subtle, Les Miserables is definitely complex. As already mentioned, Victor Hugo was not a Christian. But he was also, we might say, not a not-Christian. You see, Hugo was a post-Catholic Frenchman, and there’s a lot of water under that bridge. You have to factor in a long legacy of critical engagement to get the full picture. The French were never very good Catholics. There was Gallicanism, Joan of Arc, Jansenism, and the whole mess leading up to the Revolution. Hugo was living after the Revolution, and he got nothing but grief from the leadership of the Catholic church during his lifetime. Protestantism was not a viable option. Additionally, Hugo based much of his work on real characters and real events. Like real life, what you got was complicated.
But when you look at Les Miserables, you really don’t get an anti-ecclesiastical message. No, the Church plays a rather positive role. It certainly looks better than the politicians and merchants do. And while it is true that there is no explicit reference of Jesus, I don’t think this observation is all that helpful. After all, there are crosses, crucifixes, Catholic churches, and all of the other inescapable images of Christendom. Sure, if the question is whether Les Miserables should come with a Christian namebrand, the answer is no. It wasn’t written by a Christian, nor was it written for Christians per se. The message was composite, taken from a long literary history and Hugo’s own circumstances. Still, I think we can actually learn more by asking a different question, What is Les Miserables all about?
So thirdly then, the message of Les Miserable is that only forgiveness and charity can overcome suffering and the law. The problem of social justice is everywhere. The people are in need of justice, as they are being abused and oppressed in many ways. We get the sense that the legal system itself is corrupt, especially the prisons. Industrialized Capitalism is presented as a rather merciless economic system where women are commodified and forced into factories, and young mothers are in an especially impossible position. The men have by in large abandoned their roles as protectors and providers, as evidenced by the fact that Fantine’s childhood love became her ruin. Napoleon largely brought disrepute upon the French government. Even the comedic innkeeper and wife are shown to be vile and abusive, looking to cheat and steal at every chance.
But the solution to this problem of injustice cannot be found in the law. The most misunderstood character in Les Miserables is Javert. He is not purely evil, and in this sense Russell Crowe, while perhaps not the best singer, plays Javert perfectly. Javert is supremely confident in law and order. In fact, he cannot do other than the precise letter of the law. And we shouldn’t forget that Jean Valjean was actually a criminal, one who had attempted escape from prison and one who was, all throughout the story, violating the law by breaking parole. Javert’s problem is that he is the consummate legalist. He is Paul’s “slave girl” of Galatians 4. Javert is the personification of the law. He praises the stars for knowing their place and never veering. He is convinced that criminals cannot change. He even turns himself in when he thinks he has wronged “Monsiuer Madeleine.” What he cannot account for, cannot make sense of, cannot even tolerate, is grace. His suicide makes it plain that what “killed him” was Valjean’s sparing his life for wholly selfless reasons. Javert could have understood it if Valjean had been attempting leverage for a future deal. Javert even promises Valjean that this redemption will not propitiate his sense of justice and that he will continue to hunt Valjean. It is only when Javert stops to contemplate that Valjean has shown him self-sacrificial love that he cannot continue. He knows that this action has undone his entire being, and rather than change (convert?) he kills himself. Javert was no ordinary sinner. He was the accuser, and so the message of grace is death to him.
Fourthly, I have yet to see any critic mention the character of Eponine. I suppose she is a minor character. Still, what small role she plays is profound, and the movie actually makes her a virtuous and heroic character. You see, Eponine plays the support to the more important, more beautiful, more prized Cosette. While pampered by her natural parents, the vile Thenardiers, Eponine is herself neither spoiled nor vile. She is not ultimately vindictive towards Cosette, though she should have been, had she been serving her own interests. She is herself in love with Marius, but he only sees her as a friend. And yet amazingly, when she has the opportunity to prevent Marius and Cosette from uniting in their love, she decides to sacrifice her own desires. She realizes that Marius was “never hers” in the first place, and she decides to subordinate her own desires for the sake of what she perceives to be “true” love between Marius and Cosette, and she is, either fittingly or melodramatically (depending on your disposition), finally killed by a bullet intended for Marius which she flung herself in front of. Eponine is one of the most self-sacrificial characters in the entire story, and the fact that she was included in the first place is astounding. Perhaps in Hugo’s original she was tragically manipulated, but in this latest movie version she comes out looking exemplary.
And finally we have to talk about Jean Valjean. He is the main character and the coherent tie throughout all of the other episodes in the story. He feels that he was wronged by the French justice system, but we learn that Valjean is no mere innocent. No, he attempted to escape from prison, and we get the very clear message that his time in prison greatly dehumanized him. This had the effect of making him a continuing criminal upon his release, as we see when he attempts to rob the kindly Bishop Myriel.
Now, that encounter with the bishop was certainly a turning point in Valjean’s life, but it would be profoundly incorrect to assume that he experienced a punctiliar or once-for-all conversion at this time. No, Valjean spends the rest of his life, and the rest of Les Miserables, converting, as he learns more and more about his own sin and weakness. His first alias is mostly kind and giving, but “Monsieur Madeleine” is also, however unwittingly, a cause of suffering and exploitation through the conditions of his factory. Indeed, his factory has much in common with a prison, and when he discovers Fantine just prior to her death, he knows that, in a way, it is he who has killed her. Indeed, when he says of her, “I know that face,” he is exactly mirroring Javert.
Valjean is also at this time confronted with a great dilemma. Another man has been arrested for being “Jean Valjean.” If he doesn’t stop the conviction, Valjean can be free for the rest of his life. But he knows that he cannot allow this evil to happen. Still, we see him wrestling internally, making up pious-sounding excuses which are ultimately self-serving. Once he finally decides to turn himself in, he is still confronted with the dilemma of saving Cosette. What should he do? If he follows the strictest letter of the law, she will surely die. And thus Valjean feels compelled to continue evading the law, a law which actually is right to pursue him, in order to save the life of a helpless other.
Later, as Valjean has assumed the role of father to Cosette, he is confronted with another dilemma. Can he stand to give her away to a suitor? Much like Eponine, he knows that his personal desires stand in conflict with Cosette’s ultimate happiness, and so he, like Eponine, sacrifices his own desires. Now, I suppose this is one of those parts of the story that drives the cynical critics wild. Not only does Valjean agree to give Cosette away to Marius, but he even joins in Marius’s little army in order to personally protect Marius. And yes, it is kind of crazy. Here is Valjean recklessly throwing himself into harm’s way to save a man who might be considered an enemy, all at his own expense for the sake of his beloved. I mean really, who does that?
But then at the very end of the movie, Valjean’s continuing evasion and reluctance to confess his true identity, and therefore his sins, becomes less virtuous. With no more real threat to those under his care, why has he not spoken up or turned himself in? Now he is taking asylum in the church for what seem to be wrong reasons. Old and dying, it appears that he is merely trying to save his image, perhaps for Cosette’s sake, but still, it is his image that is being preserved. And so once more, Valjean has a sort of internal realization. When Cosette shows up at the church, he finally confesses all, tells her the truth about her own life and his identity, and Valjean is freed. The revolutionaries’ song is sung again, but this time with a new focus and a new satisfaction. It is sung in heaven. It is not until death that the sufferings of this world are ended, and it is only in union with God that all of our human desires can be fulfilled.
Perhaps I’ve spun the story too much in a Christian direction. Being a Christian, I have filled in the gaps with specific theological content. I don’t think this is actually that foreign to Les Miserables, though. After all, the churches are Christian churches. The bishop tells Valjean that he has bought his soul for God. The message of grace is certainly a Christian product. The sites of Valjean’s first conversion and of his final deliverance are both churches.
But there certainly are loose ends. Les Miserables is not dogmatically pristine, and I’m sure we could find all sorts of ways in which is it self-contradictory or incomplete. Still, it has a powerful effect on audiences over a vast span of time. And so the more strategic move to make, it seems to me, is not to point out all the ways in which the movie might fall flat, but rather to point out that we Christians actually have the answer to the questions it is asking. Our gospel is what Les Miserables is looking for, and our gospel is what the fans of Les Miserables are looking for. Perhaps we might say with the Apostle Paul, “the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you.”
Les Miserables might not be perfect, but it’s pretty darned good. It’s certainly better than most, and I can’t think of an “approved” Christian movie that teaches me the need for salvation from self in a more profound way. Feel free to enjoy it, and if you happen to have ears to hear, then go ahead and listen too.