It is rare to see a major Hollywood movie send a strong Christian message advocating moral virtue; yet “Les Miserables” is exactly that. While the credit for this amazing story goes to 19th Century French author Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Miserable and more) Americans are fortunate that the Broadway musical version was adapted for the big screen by Hollywood producers. Nearly each performance is breathtaking as is the music, the costumes and the depiction of life in early 1800’s France. But what is most stunning is that a story with such a strong moral message and example of love has been produced and marketed at all in a world that extols moral relativism, the culture of death, hate and evil as a means to justify an end. Les Miserables delivers with powerful and emotional vocal performances and acting. The performances connect on a human level that should make people think deeply about their lives, their role in the world and whether they are living the life that God expects them to lead: one where we love one another and are willing to endure some suffering to achieve good.
The story takes place in early 19th century France immediatley following King Louis the XVIII’s restoration to the throne after Napoleon Bonaparte has been defeated and exiled from his seat as “Emperor of the French”. We follow the life of Jean Valjean and the redemption his life gains through God’s love and by leading a life of virtue to serve God’s will. While many view the film and the Broadway musical merely as a convenient vehicle to deliver memorable musical numbers set in post-revolutionary France, the movie and story are far more. This reviewer saw a live production on stage in London in 2001 and recalls it as a highly enjoyable experience centered mainly on the revolutionaries guarding the barricades. Yet, it was the passionate individual performances with the big screen closes ups that reveal the true message of Les Miserables. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Hugh Jackman (Valjean) deliver the depths of their character’s despair like a slap across the face that challenges the viewer to explore the source of that misery. (Spoiler alert!) Valjean begins the story as a prisoner ending his 19 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving nephew. He is cast into society as a labeled parolee, constantly rejected by uncaring people who want nothing to do with such a man. He reaches the nadir of his life when stealing the silver from a loving Catholic Bishop who refuses to turn the man back over to prison after he is captured by the authorities in his crime. Valjean is transformed by this act of love after the Bishop tells him that “he has claimed his soul for God”. He turns his life around and rejects the claim that hate had on his life, the hatred of those who rejected him as a parolee. Upon rejecting the hate he embraces the love that he recognized God has granted him by grace. He goes on to use the silver to build a factory, employ dozens in meaningful work to support themselves and becomes the Mayor of his town. He ultimately uses this love to rescue Fantine’s daughter from poverty and misery. Fantine has fallen far from grace and into despair after Valjean’s inadvertent neglect leads to her unjust dismissal from work she needs to sustain her daughter. Fantine falls hard – landing in the street, selling her hair, teeth and ultimately herself into wretched prostitution. Valjean rescues her and swears to save her daughter, Cozette, and keeps his word for another decade till the triumphant end of the story.
The story also includes the ever present backdrop of the oppressed poor and the paleo-marxist revolutionaries of the 1832 Paris uprising going to the barricade to return justice. Many American progressives will be tempted to see this superficial story as the main message of the story – as I did when I first saw the production in London. But the message people should take away from the story is not the purported socialist solutions of the oppressed, but the story of individual salvation, love and moral virtue that is a more powerful method of rescuing society from the brink. The source of poverty in any society is almost always the absence of freedom, property rights, love and a morally virtuous people. Socialism has never produced and always denied these key ingredients to prosperity. Les Miserables reveals the moral virtue that the hate-laced society needed most: Love of one’s fellow man through God’s grace.
The story’s tension between Valjean and his nemesis, Inspector Javert who is hot on the trail of his escaped parolee, provides another source of redemption and opportunities to receive more of God’s grace and mercy. Javert, a loyal agent of the law, refuses to give up his quarry. Valjean seems not to begrudge him of merely doing his duty but refuses to submit to the man too early if it means giving up on his promise to protect Cozette. At one point Valjean is faced with the moral quandary of allowing an innocent man to mistakenly serve his own sentence. He has to choose between being “condemned” by man’s law or “damned” by God’s law of not bearing false witness and allowing such an immoral act to harm his fellow man who he has now pledged to love. The decision Valjean makes is not one typically seen in modern movie heroes. He refuses to take the easy road of rationalizing the imprisonment of one man to justify his own freedom so he may continue to do other acts of good as a mayor, employer and protector of Cozette. Such moral virtue is what is sorely missing from today’s heroes and today’s society. The producers of Les Miserable should be congratulated for offering up a story of strong moral virtue based on God’s grace and Love – they should bring us many, many more. The music, heart wrenching performances, romance, production values and the nostalgia of the broadway experience are enough reason to see Les Miserables. But it is the naked call for individual men and women to turn back to a morally correct life and to follow God’s law that should make you send your friends and loved ones to see Les Miserables and then you and them to church to embrace God’s grace and mercy.