Disclaimer: I have never read the book by Victor Hugo. I write from the perspective of one who has only seen the 2012 film (though I have seen the musical). Click here to view the trailer.
How could a story called “the Miserable Ones” be so popular? Les Miserables (originally a novel by Victor Hugo written in 1862) is an epic film (Dir. Tom Hooper, 2012) that interweaves the stories of several characters who are experiencing misery and broken dreams against the backdrop of an equally miserable and broken 19th century France. Serving as the backbone of the story is Jean Valjean, a redeemed slave haunted by the law in the representative Javert. With moments of heartbreaking anguish, Les Miserables (now Les Mis) unapologetically displays the tension between law and grace in a miserable and broken world. Manifest in this instant classic is the path of death found in the unwavering pursuit of the law and the even more abiding presence of grace that leads to life. And, with a resolution that is beautiful, authentic and at the same time unsatisfying, Les Mis offers the possibility of redemption.
Law: Path of Death
The story begins with Valjean’s release from prison after 19 years of hard labor for stealing one loaf of bread to feed his family. During that time, Valjean is stripped of all humanity at the hand of the prison guard Javert most tellingly in his reference to Jean as “24601” (his government issued number) instead of his proper name. In freedom, Valjean is caged by the papers law requires him to bear branding him ‘felon’ and leaving him rejected at every turn. What becomes quite clear is that if Valjean lives according to the law, it will end in his death. So, he tears up the parole papers and begins his life as a new man.
Years later Valjean finds success as a mayor and business owner only to be recognized by the same prison guard who had dehumanized him. Inspector Javert confronts him with the reality that another man will be punished for breaking Valjean’s parole. In what becomes a bit of an identity crisis, Valjean chooses to approach the court of law admitting what he has done. Though the law seems to have forgiven him (unclear in the film), still Javert pursues “24601” in order to bring him to justice.
Javert, as representative of the law, swears by the stars (representing the order of law) that he will not rest until he puts 24601 behind bars. Though Valjean spends most of his years in hiding, when he is given the opportunity to execute Javert, Jean chooses to release him. Javert, unable to reconcile this grace in his own heart, commits suicide after demonstrating similar grace to Valjean later in the story. As the story unfolds, part of the resolution the audience feels is the death of the law in the character Javert.
It would be easy to regress to antinomianism under the rigid law represented by Javert. And, what is clearly portrayed is how the rigidity of the law does indeed lead to death. Yet total rejection of the law does not seem to be the story that is begging to be told. The law seems to be important to protagonist, Valjean. Javert confused by the grace of Valjean only receives as explanation that Jean is accountable to a higher law and therefore not subject to the law of Javert. What seems to be rejected in the story is a particular view of the law that leaves no room for grace. Javert is fully convinced of his own righteousness and it is the impossibility of grace that leads him to his own suicide. The end result of a rigid law with no grace is certain death; for no human is able to uphold the law fully. As Galatians 2:19 says, “through the law I died…” demonstrating that “righteousness is not attained through the law” which leads to death, but by grace leads to life.
Grace: Path of Life
Upon release from prison and rejection at every turn, Valjean stumbles upon a church where the priest welcomes him in and calls him brother. Unfamiliar with the love demonstrated to him by the priest, Valjean flees in the night with the very silver dishes used to serve him what seems to be his first post-prison meal. Caught by the police, he is returned to the church for official charges to be filed. In a moment of staggering grace, the priest asks the police to release Valjean and even gives him more precious silver than that which he stole. This glimpse of grace leads Valjean to seek the grace of God for his past sins.
As the story progresses, Valjean is living his new life as mayor and business owner employing a single mother, Fantine. Through spurious circumstances, Fantine is fired and finds herself on the street where she gives her hair, teeth, and eventually her sexuality to provide for her daughter, Cosette. Valjean finds Fantine in the night, begs for grace from the law so that she can seek medical attention, and makes a death-bed promise to her that he will take Cosette into his care. With no clear motivation, Valjean demonstrates grace toward Fantine by offering his life to be a father and provider to Cosette. This promise is one that he fiercely seeks to honor risking his own life for her happiness and provision.
Valjean is also gracious toward Javert by not taking the life of the man who has rigorously pursued him for years. In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the film, Valjean escorts Javert into a room where he will presumably shoot him for violating the law of the revolutionaries. Instead, Valjean releases Javert and even fires a shot to lead others to believe he had committed the act of murder. And, with a simple act of grace, Javert is handed his life back.
Life is given and affirmed in each glimpse of grace. Titus 3:7 reminds us that having been “justified by His grace we become heirs to the hope of eternal life.” It is through sacrificial love and unconditional grace that these characters enjoy any life in the midst of the misery and brokenness. As a shadow of what we have in Christ, the grace displayed in this story relieves the tension of the rigid law and promises the possibility of redemption.
Possibility of Redemption
So, how could a story called “the Miserable Ones” be so popular? While unclear, the hint of redemption from misery and broken dreams resonates with the human heart. With copious imagery of Christ we are beaconed further into the precious gospel through Les Mis. And, this gospel is one that upholds the law, yet offers grace that leads life. Les Mis, with echoes of eternity, promises a “Castle on a Cloud” where there is no crying and loneliness. With a hymn-like call to a vague “tomorrow” that leads to “light” and “life in the garden of the Lord” the reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing” promises redemption for the miserable ones. What is longed for in the heart of tearful spectators is reality in the Kingdom of the precious Lord Jesus Christ; a Kingdom characterized by the order of the law, yet unconditional grace that leads to everlasting life.