I love musicals—always have, ever since my sister and I sang along to original cast recordings and movie soundtracks for Rogers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Lowe. The classic age of Broadway is considered to be roughly from Oklahoma! to Fiddler on the Roof, but the 1980s brought a cornucopia of all-out, lavishly-staged West End (London) sensations, many of them with pretensions to opera. Les Miserables was one such: a “sung-through” (little or no spoken dialogue) musical that began in French as a concert piece and then was adapted in English to the stage. The wisdom of compressing one of the world’s longest novels–about 1400 pages–into two and a half hours was questionable, and the first reviews were mixed. But audiences loved it into becoming the second-longest-running musical in history.
Les Miz, its affectionate nickname, has been slow to come to the screen, perhaps because the success of stage-to-screen transitions is far from assured. Characters bursting into song or dance (with full orchestra background) doesn’t always translate well to the apparent realism of film—but for whatever reason, the project was stuck in “development hell” for over twenty years. But the wait it over, and the big-screen version rolls out on Christmas Day.
I never read Victor Hugo’s masterwork—size alone, and the tangle of plots and subplots, intimidated me. My loss, probably; though Hugo did not have Tolstoy’s genius for characterization, he sympathized with the human condition enough to resonate with readers for 150 years. Les Miserables, which can be translated as “the Wretches,” or “The Victims”) begins in 1815 and ends just after the June Revolution of 1832, an anti-royalist uprising led by Paris university students. It’s about love, politics, poverty, injustice, youthful idealism, social unrest, the laborer’s lot, the church—and more! But the heart of the story is the conflict between grace and law, represented by the ex-convict Jean Valjean and the fanatical Inspector Javert. The musical version could have downplayed this theme, but doesn’t.
As Les Miz opens, Valjean is reaching the end of his term as “prisoner 24601” in Toulon prison. Javert, a guard, tells him his time is up, but he must carry with him at all times a yellow passport indicating his ex-con status. Bitterly, Valjean concludes he is a “slave of the law,” unconsciously echoing the Apostle Paul in Romans 7. His 19 years of brute labor have hardened him to the extent that he looks and acts like an animal—not a good prospect for employment. But something happens to change him. Taken in by Monseigneur Bienvenu, the kindly Bishop of Digne, Valjean sneaks out at night with the household silver. Apprehended soon after, he tells the police that the Bishop gave him the silver, a tale they’re disinclined to believe. Dragging him back to the house, they demand confirmation from the Bishop. Unsurprised, the man gently chides Valjean for leaving the best part of the gift behind, and offers him two silver candlesticks as well. Flummoxed, the police take their leave. Left alone with the stunned convict, the Bishop whispers, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
This incident, widely anthologized (I first encountered it in my high school world literature textbook) forms the spine of Valjean’s redemption and the lodestone for the rest of his life. More than once during the musical drama he recalls how grace was shown to him, and what his response must be:
My soul belongs to God, I know; I made that promise long ago.
He gave me hope, when hope was gone; he gave me strength to journey on . . .
God also gives him forbearance in his numerous encounters with Javert, allowing him to extend grace to the man who relentlessly pursues him. The Inspector’s zeal for the law is not just about “the law.” It’s about his craving for order and respectability, as well as compensation for a low birth and a ticket to earthly success. Certainly zeal for the law isn’t all bad, but he identifies with it to the point of being the law. In their final confrontation, when Valjean spares his life one more time, Javert would rather die than accept the gift. Literally. His suicide puzzles some readers—who would actually do that? But millions do it, every year. To reject grace is suicide, and the vast majority of humans do just that.
Les Miz is not for children: the script plays up the lurid elements of one character’s desperate turn to prostitution, and the violence of the June Revolution (when young romantics really did cry To the barricades!) is portrayed perhaps more realistically than it needs to be. And as musicals go, its appeal is more spectacle than art. The sprawl of the story is hard to compress, and genuine emotion is often pulped into sentimentality. Still, I think the grace theme comes through, as Hugo probably meant it to. Nobody has to see the movie, but it might be appropriate, sometime during this Christmas season, to read the Story that Started it All. I’ve tried to find a complete version of “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” on one convenient web page, but the best I can do is a series of chapters from Les Miserables, starting here. (Or read all of “Book II,” which isn’t as intimidating as it sounds: how Valjean came to the Bishop’s house is told in 1-5, and chapters 6-9 contain his miserable backstory. Chapters 10-12 is the main part of the story, but its aftermath, told in 13, is both moving and perceptive.)
As for the real “Story that started it all,” that’s what we’re celebrating next week. May God bless your thoughts and conversation during this bittersweet season, with confidence in grace and “strength to journey on.”