"On this page, I write my last confession. Read it well, when I at last am sleeping . . . " Those words, coming late in the final act of both the 2012 film version of Les Misérables and the 1985 musical on which it is based, signal the coming death of Jean Valjean, yet they also offer a message of hope that is sadly missing from most popular entertainment today. The "confession" is not a sacramental one, though it is offered in a convent before a table adorned with two candlesticks in such a way that even the most secular of viewers must be reminded of an altar. And Valjean's coming "sleep" makes it clear that death is not our final end but our true beginning. For the Christian, there is a world yet to be born, a world that does not arise from political action, much less violence and bloodshed and barricades, but from love: "to love another person is to see the face of God . . . "
Remaking Les Misérables
The musical version of Les Misérables captured my imagination a quarter of a century ago during its first U.S. tour, which began in 1987. Alain Boublil, who wrote the original French lyrics, and Herbert Kretzmer, who provided an expanded version of the lyrics in English, had not simply captured the essence of Victor Hugo's sprawling and near-interminable 1862 novel; they had created something new. And oddly enough, given Hugo's own spiritual journey from the devout Catholicism of his youth to the bitterly anti-Catholic rationalism of his old age, and the Jewish ancestry of both Boublil and Kretzmer, what they had created was clearly Christian, and—I would argue—even Catholic.
A century ago, Hugo's novel was nearly forgotten, as was Victor Hugo himself. (Though G.K. Chesterton, far-seeing as always, predicted in a 1902 essay on the centenary of Hugo's birth that his star would one day rise again.) Today, Les Misérables is the center of one of the most successful pop-culture phenomena of recent decades—and all because the material has been reworked in ways that Hugo himself would likely reject. His story of Jean Valjean—a man who spent 19 years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread—was not meant to be a Christian spiritual odyssey, but a individualist, humanistic one. Valjean's nemesis, the singleminded Inspector Javert, is an atheist in Hugo's novel; in the stage and film production of Les Misérables, he becomes a Christian believer who, unlike Valjean, never rises above the concept of duty nor embraces the Christian teaching on mercy toward others—or even, in the end, toward himself.
Set against the backdrop of a France still reeling from the effects of the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon, Les Misérables—both Hugo's novel and the musical—is ultimately a story of how the actions of "little people" (in the words of one of the musical's most-popular songs) can change the lives of others. Yet where Hugo focuses on the actions, Boublil and Kretzmer dig deeper, to the characters' intentions. And throughout the musical, the best of intentions, when motivated by anything other than faith, hope, and love, end in death and despair. After watching his friends die on the barricades, in the vain hope that their sacrifice will cause the people of Paris to rise in revolutionary fervor, the young student Marius cries, "My friends, my friends, don't ask me / what your sacrifice was for. / Empty chairs and empty tables, / where my friends will sit no more." Marius's own life was saved by his love for Cosette, the foster daughter of Jean Valjean, and by Valjean's love for her. Far from being, as some would have it, a glorification of revolution, the musical version of Les Misérables makes it clear that the love of Marius and Cosette for each other is more important in the long run than the revolutionary actions of the students. Had those students continued to live and laugh and love rather than dying in vain, they might have changed the world.
A Christian Cultural Phenomenon
Because the musical and the film have become such a massive cultural phenomenon, it is inevitable that some who enjoy it will try to impose their own anti-Christian worldview on Les Misérables. Some reviewers dismiss the final scene of both the musical and the film as an "hallucination" of Jean Valjean as he dies, rather than what it clearly is—an affirmation of the afterlife, in which those who acted out of love, or even out of misguided idealism, are "rising to the light" of Heaven. Valjean (played brilliantly by Hugh Jackman) is guided from this life by Fantine, the woman whose daughter, Cosette, he raised as his own after her death, and presented by her to the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the original West End stage production), whose intervention "bought" (in the musical) or "saved" (in the film) Valjean's soul for God. Even the most loathsome character in the novel, the innkeeper Thénardier, inadvertently testifies to the musical's message of faith when, in the sewers after the battle of the barricades, he declares, "And God in His Heaven, He don't interfere / 'cause He's dead as the stiffs at my feet"—not realizing that the two "stiffs" at his feet are Valjean and Marius, who are very much alive.
Why, in a world where both Christian profession and practice are on the wane, has such a musical gained tremendous popularity? The answer is twofold: The musical's approach is not didactic or preachy; the primacy of love and faith emerges from the telling of the story, rather than catechetical speeches or songs. And that approach allows the truth to speak for itself, and to speak to the viewer. Whether he is Christian or not, he cannot help but recognize the underlying truth of the story, so long as his soul is not entirely closed to the reality that Christians know as natural law.
The Highs and Lows of Les Misérables
What about the film itself? How well does it hold up as a work of art? Surprisingly well, given the fact that most of those chosen to play the main characters are actors firsts, and singers second (or not at all), and almost all of the dialogue in the film is sung (in keeping with the stage production). The weakest point is Russell Crowe as Javert. It is not simply that Crowe's voice is not up to the task; except in rare moments, he fails to convey the ferocious singlemindedness of a man who has "hunted" Valjean "across the years." Crowe may have been hampered by director Tom Hooper's insistence that the actors perform each of the main songs as they were filming the scene, rather than (as is usually the case) recording the song separately and lip-syncing it during the filming of the scene.
If Hooper's technique may have been partly responsible for Crowe's subpar performance, it succeeded brilliantly in the case of Anne Hathaway, as Fantine. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream"—perhaps the best-known number from the musical, even before Susan's Boyle's performance on Britain's Got Talent made her a household name—is a masterpiece of emotion, hauntingly beautiful and heart-rending at the same time. Had Hathaway never filmed another scene in her career, her performance here would assured her place in the history of cinema. It's worth many times the price of a ticket to see this performance on the big screen.
The emotional impact of "I Dreamed a Dream" is enhanced by Hooper's cinematography, which has drawn both praise and criticism. His cameras zoom in for extreme closeups as the main characters perform their signature songs, drawing the viewer out of the elaborate sets and into an intimate encounter with Fantine or Valjean or Javert. I found the technique incredibly effective, and combined with Hooper's ability to frame a shot so that the scene looks like a perfectly composed painting, it makes Les Misérables one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.
Parental Guidance and Final Thoughts
Despite the overwhelmingly Christian sensibility of the film, parents will want to see it before deciding whether to take their children. The scenes of Fantine's descent into despair and prostitution, in order to save the life of Cosette, are harsh as well as heartrending. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as Thénardier and his wife, put in exuberantly raunchy performances that parents may consider inappropriate for preteens. And while their is no nudity, there is one gratuitous scene in which a man playing Santa Claus is dragged into the Thénardiers' inn. On the whole, however, the PG-13 rating seems correctly applied.
Having seen two separate stage productions of Les Misérables and listened to the soundtrack perhaps a hundred times over the past 25 years, I am not in a position to say whether familiarity with the musical is necessary to enjoy the film fully. The film, however, did give me added insight into the musical, as I was more aware of which character was singing which lines in certain ensemble songs. For that reason alone, the film version of Les Misérables is a must-see for fans of the musical, though certain tweaks to songs and to the storyline may initially grate, until you realize how (for the most part) they strengthen the story.
And that story is one of faith, and of hope, and of love. That Hollywood could make such a film today, in the midst of a culture of decadence that Hollywood itself has done so much to promote, is a sign of hope as well.