The Fight of Every Soul: My Uncritical Review of Les Misérables

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Culture, General, Theology

Javert portrays the fight of every soul.

Javert portrays the fight of every soul.

I am not a fan of Broadway, a music critic, or even an avid follower of film. I rarely see a movie, mostly because I think Hollywood often cheapens and even prostitutes the drama of human existence. No drama is more intense than real life played out in the face of eternal realities.

I grew up hearing the songs from Les Misérables, but until seeing the movie, I knew only scant details of Victor Hugo’s plot. I had neither read the novel nor witnessed the musical. Yet, in the two days since I saw Les Misérables on the big screen, it hasn’t ceased to haunt me. I’m scarred with its compelling portrayal of despair, law, and grace. The message is powerful, and with it I wrestled as the film unfolded.

“This is a lot of singing.” At first, I wasn’t sure whether or not my generally rote tastes would acquiesce to a script being sung. Watching Jean Valjean sing as he struggled in a prison work camp seemed awkward initially, but soon I forgot that the characters were singing at all. Music amplifies and clarifies the message, adding emotional nuance and depth of experience.

“This is a lot of suffering.” Fantine’s sacrifice and longing for her daughter moved me, but her utter despair stunned me. The human dilemma is worse than a stroke of bad luck—it is a condition from which we cannot save ourselves. Hope broke on Fantine’s horizon only when Valjean intervened. Grace is not something that happens accidentally.

“This is a lot of redemption.” Valjean’s journey was everything I wanted it to be, and everything I want to be. Having experienced grace at the hands of Bishop Myriel, he extends his hands in grace at every opportunity. He becomes a rescuer—intervening in hopeless situations, even at great cost. The story’s very thesis, “to love another person is to see the face of God” strongly echoes an abiding, gospel truth: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

“This is the fight of my very soul.” As much as I desired to identify with Valjean, I saw too much of myself in Javert’s cold, calculating eyes. Even Bible-believing, gospel-preaching people can default to a Karma-like, works-righteous mentality that upholds justice as the central tenet of the universe. You get what you deserve. You receive what you earn. Indeed, justice is at the center of the universe, but only to be finally upended by grace. Is this not the meaning of the cross—the heart of the gospel?

Les Misérables is a film I won’t soon forget. Rarely does a story pierce the heart of what it means to be human—very human. This one does.  Real drama is real life, lived in view of the created order: love, sin, desperation, judgment, hope, and restoration. Les Misérables captures it well.