Victor Hugo's 19th-century tale is a retelling of the Christian story of the first century. It tells the world its true story, which is why it endures, and returns again.
In the mid-1990s, while a student at Cambridge, I made a critical mistake. Desirous of discovering the world of musical theatre, I took the train down to London and saw my first musical at the Palace Theatre, on a ₤5 student ticket that had me sitting above the lighting technicians. I was totally captivated by Les Misérables. It was a mistake to see it first — I mistook the masterpiece for the genre, and have been disappointed with musicals ever since.
Les Misérables is back in theatres, in another movie adaptation. As splendid as this one is, it is the story that sustains the musical, which is rather a reversal of form. Not all musicals are strung together like Mamma Mia, where a flimsy plot is merely the means to introducing the next 1970s pop song, but the general rule is that the story is a vehicle for the music.
Victor Hugo is not flimsy. His novels are lengthy and substantive. Les Misérables is the triumph that it is — the novel, on stage, on screen — because it tells the great story of all human drama. There is really only one great question in history. What is more real, more true, more enduring: power or mercy?
It is simply a fact that there are some who are strong and others who are weak. The question is whether the strong use their power to protect their own interests, or put it at the service of those who are weaker. The first option is the Hegelian reading of history. There are masters and slaves, and the path of liberation for the slave lies in rising up and seizing power from the master. The second option is the Christian reading of history, in which God Himself is merciful, putting His omnipotence at the service of His creation. In contrast to the multiple gods of the ancient world, God is a Father who puts His power at the service of His children.
In a world of pure power, the best that can be achieved is an observation of natural justice. Justice can temper the arbitrary use of power by the strong against the weak. The way of mercy goes beyond justice, for it is animated by love. Power and justice, or mercy and love: What is more real?
Great stories endure because they address this ultimate story. It can be done in superficial ways as, for example, in Star Wars: Is friendship stronger than hate? Can suffering convert where destructive power cannot? More nobly, it can be done in sublime ways, as in Les Misérables.
The story of Jean Valjean is that of a man embittered by an unjust penal system, where the law is at odds with justice — a phenomenon not limited to 19th-century France, as 21st-century America demonstrates. A just man turned to criminality by the criminal justice system, he experiences the mercy of a bishop. Valjean steals silver from the bishop. When caught, the bishop makes a gift of what has been stolen from him. But the silver candlesticks come at a price — the bishop has bought Valjean's soul for God.
Les Misérables is the triumph that it is — the novel, on stage, on screen — because it tells the great story of all human drama.
The film casts Colm Wilkinson, who first played Valjean on stage in London in 1985 and New York in 1987, in the role of the bishop. It is an inspired touch, as if to say that the conversion of Valjean is complete. The actor who received mercy is now the one who dispenses it. Lovely.
Juxtaposed to Valjean is the police inspector, Javert. He is a good man, an honourable man, motivated by high ideals, but tragically limited. He is a man of "the law, and the law is not mocked." He cannot see the failure of the law to achieve justice, and is blind to the need for mercy to accomplish what justice alone cannot. Javert is not a wicked man, only a man who cannot understand the good news that there is something more than justice tempering power. He is an incomplete Christian, for he does not see that mercy, the fruit of love, is the nature of God, and of the divine plan of salvation.
That love alone can give life — that love is stronger than death as the biblical phrasing has it — is masterfully demonstrated in the death of Javert. Unable to receive the gift of mercy, the love that is the creative fount of life, Javert embraces death instead.
Les Misérables opened in theatres on Christmas day. Victor Hugo's 19th-century tale is a retelling of the Christian story of the first century. It tells the world its true story, which is why it endures, and returns again.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Why Les Misérables still resonates." National Post, (Canada) December 27, 2012.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2013 National Post
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