The new stage-to-screen adaptation of Les Misérables is proof again of the enduring power of Victor Hugo’s 150-year-old masterpiece. The novel-turned-musical has been released for film and television now 67 times in the past 115 years.
And although I cannot commend that you go see the newest rendition — mostly due to two suggestive sex scenes involving prostitutes — we don’t need the new film to explore the enduring value of Les Misérables.
The classic script for the plays and for the new movie is available online. And all the musical highlights from the new film, including Anne Hathaway’s incredible rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” can be found on this new soundtrack. Best of all, the English translation of Victor Hugo’s French classic was beautifully redone by Julie Rose in 2008. This recent edition offers us a new translation of a captivating story of mercy.
Mercy, that little word, reminds us that we are self-insufficient. We need others. In the end, our salvation must come from the outside. Salvation is a gift, a gift of free mercy. I think this is one profound reason Les Misérables has endured, and why it has attracted so many adaptations and performances.
Surrounding the romance and revolution in the middle, Les Misérables is really a story of profound theological contrast, a contrast in how sinners respond to the offer of free mercy. At a profound level, this is the story of two responses to mercy: one man is broken and lives, and one man is hardened and dies.
Valjean: Captured by Mercy
Jean Valjean is a hardened prisoner with a soul full of anger when we meet him. Hugo, of course, would be more likely to pin this stone-heartedness on society and harsh prison conditions (more so than he would understand indwelling sin as the cause). Jean Valjean stole bread for his starving niece, and for it was sentenced to five years in prison. Failed escape attempts got him 19 years total before his release.
At his release from prison, Jean Valjean finds himself in a tortuous and unending darkness of unforgiveness. “At intervals there would suddenly come to him, from within or from without, a gust of rage, an added burst of suffering, a pale and rapid flash of lightening that would illuminate his entire world and would suddenly reveal all around him, before and behind, in the glare of a ghastly light, the awful sheer drops and grim overhangs of his fate.” Such was his life and future.
Jean Valjean attempts to reintegrate with society, but the ex-prisoner he finds rejection at every turn. At last he turns to the charity of a local bishop, Bishop Myriel, a kind and self-sacrificing man that takes him in for the night. That night Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver, is soon caught by local police and brought back to the church. The Bishop tells the police that the silver was his gift to Jean Valjean, thus sparing Valjean from a return to prison.
In the play the Bishop later says to Valjean, “By the passion and the blood, God has raised you out of darkness.” And such mercy spares Jean Valjean from returning to prison, but it is a mercy that forces a crisis in Valjean’s life.
[Read the rest of the article at Desiring God.]