Have you ever not wanted to see a musical? After first hearing about Les Misérables about years ago, it didn’t attract me. A friend told me that it was about a fugitive who turned over a new leaf, met a dying prostitute, brought up her child, and evaded a law enforcement officer who hounded him throughout his life – all set in France after the French revolution, almost 200 years ago. Not exactly an inspiring storyline, I thought, from what she understood of the stage show. But a few years later, I saw it with my fiancé. It turned out to be the best musical I have ever seen, and very different from the portrayal I had been given. I went again (twice), and bought the album.
While several films have been made of Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic novel (over 1,000 pages), in the 1998 version directed by Bille August, some critics said that Liam Neeson should have received an Oscar, as Valjean.
Until now, all the film versions were portrayals of the book. Yet, this recent film version of Les Misérables is not a screen play of the book, but is instead of the musical. With outstanding performances, recorded live, by such as Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, the film is remarkably well done (although maybe too graphic and in-your-face at times, compared to the stage version).
The unforgettable music touches many emotions, from the tear-jerking “I Dreamed a Dream”, the haunting “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, of unreturned love “On My Own” to the final rousing anthem, “Do You Hear The People Sing?”
While the story centres around the fugitive, Jean Valjean, various themes are developed through different characters. These range from romance to armed rebellion, set in France at the time of the French revolution. Skip to the next heading if you don’t want to know how the story pans out.
Valjean is jailed for stealing a loaf of bread. After many years in prison, he is let out on parole. But almost the first thing he does is steal from the Bishop of Digne. When caught by the police, the Bishop shows him mercy, saying that the goods belong to Valjean, even giving him more as well. This triggers a turning point where Valjean commits his life to God. Valjean is a renewed man who is kind, gracious and heroic.
Yet, the legalistic chief of police, (Javert) a man in whom there is not an ounce of compassion or grace, continues to hound him. Valjean adopts and brings up the daughter (Cossette) of a former employee (Fantine) as his own. Ultimately, the legalistic Javert cannot cope with Valjean’s forgiveness and change of character, his gracious and merciful approach to life. Throughout, there is also the unscrupulous couple (the Thernadiers), milking whatever system they can, even masquerading as Christians when it suits them.
It is not only the themes that we can connect with that make this story populer: such as of Valjean making a better life after prison, the love that Maius finds with Cosette, the cause of justice for the poor of this world (les misérables), life’s dreams unfulfilled and the spiteful wrong that people do to others, as Fantine experienced. There are themes such as poverty, hurt, injustice.
The film can be viewed in two ways. At face value, one is the dilemma that the poor and oppressed of France (or Les Misérables) face as they suffer while the heartless rich are not merciful to them in their poverty. Should they follow the path of rebellion, unmercifully turning the tables on the aristocracy and becoming rich themselves in a new republic? Or should they follow Valjean’s example in seeking love, grace, and mercy
One response is to try to resolve problems through revolution and force, giving the hope of victory through insurrection. Another is to seek love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness from God, which transcends our natural responses, which gives us a different hope for an eternal future.
Also, there are the themes of how on the one hand justice, and on the other hand grace, mercy and forgiveness, relate to each other. Javert relentlessly pursues Valjean, even after he is a reformed character, but Valjean eventually shows grace and mercy to Javert. For some, mercy triumphs over justice, with love and hope triumphing over rebellion.
There are two salvations in view
The script weaves together two overlapping threads. Based on the common search for justice and a better life, one thread focuses on how to achieve it in this world: for example, the rebels who take up arms on behalf of themselves and their community; the Thénardier couple who are looking out only for themselves; or Javert who cold-heartedly wants to punish lawbreakers and is blind to mercy and forgiveness.
The other thread seeks a higher cause, where justice is met with forgiveness, grace and mercy, with hope for a better future than a revolution can provide: for example, Valjean prays to God on high for Marius’ life, and he shows mercy to Javert the rebels wanted him to die.
The first rousing crusade anthem is sung by the rebels as they anticipate a better life for the poor immediately after their barricade and rebellion. But in the ‘Finale’, the anthem is sung with a better life in view, beyond that barricade – they have in view the blessing of being with God for eternity, which although it is more distant, is far better. Both groups have hope for the future, but they are very different.
There are two solutions for Les Misérables, the poor of this world. One is to struggle for a better life before we die, using rebellion and force to overturn the status quo and become better off here and now, in the short term, after the barricade on the streets. While it is right to try to overturn temporary injustices and unfairness, the second solution is to seek eternal salvation, in the long term, not through revolution and its barricade. Those who pursue this seek peace with God; they seek to show love, mercy and justice in a world that suffers such pain. And they seek a better future after death. Both solutions have a common problem, but different means to address it, with different futures in view.
Will you join in our Crusade?
As these two threads in the story weave their way to a final conclusion, they are both presented together as a call to respond in the finale; “will you join in our crusade?” Unlike the initial call to arms with the same anthem after which so many were killed at the barricade earlier in the film, the lyrics of the finale seem to reflect less of a recruitment call to rebellion than an offer of hope for eternity, and a call to join the march towards eternal salvation.
Following immediately after Valjeans’ prayer to God for the salvation of Marius, the finale resonates with the hope of a better life, hope beyond the here and now, for the blessing of salvation with God. The last lines in particular focus our minds on eternity, beyond the barricade of revolution, to:
… They will live again in freedom in the Garden of the Lord,
They will walk behind the bloodshed, they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.
Will you join in our crusade? who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes… Tomorrow comes!*
How can we join in this crusade?
Some people will disagree that the themes listed above are present in the story. Yet, the lyrics themselves describe these issues in plain speech. So, the issues described above are not so much reading something into the story, as reading the story itself.
Nevertheless, while the musical and film magnificently describe the situation of Les Misérables, and the two ways to improve their lot, and while we are asked in the finale “Will you join in our crusade?”, we are not told explicitly how join in this crusade. If it is a call to rebellion, that is easy for many people. But if it is the call to trust in God for a better, eternal future, how do we do that? The Christian answer is that we should trust in the Lord Jesus alone. He has died in our place to save us and secure for us a better future beyond the final barricade.
Just as Valjean prayed a simple prayer before the finale, we too can pray a simple prayer to receive a better future for eternity, with peace and hope for the present, by praying this prayer.
*From the musical, ‘Les Misérables’ by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’ (used with permission.)
This article was adapted from one published in ‘Crosstalk‘ in 2002.