“Les Misérables” has finally been adapted to the big-screen, and, to put it simply, it is stunning. The impression that it leaves will be lasting. Yet what issues does it explore? What is the impression that it gives? What is the worldview in “Les Miserables”? There are SPOILERS below.
Natural Law and Human Dignity
One of the most clear themes throughout the movie is the challenge raised in balancing natural rights, natural law, and human dignity. Jean Valjean starts off the movie as a prisoner. He has been imprisoned for 19 years–5 for stealing a loaf of bread, and 14 for trying to escape. These prisoners are essentially slaves. Their personhood is denigrated, and Javert, the Inspector, insists on calling them merely by their numbers. During this scene, the prisoners sing of calling for Jesus to save them, but complain that Jesus has not heard them. Yet God is not dead in this story, as we shall see below.
Several questions are raised here. It seems clear that the human dignity and therefore the natural rights of these people is being violated by the way they are treated, as well as the cruelty of the punishment for petty crimes. Not only that, but it seems that natural law is being violated in that the poor continue to cry out for help to no avail. They need food, shelter, and the like. They are willing to work but can’t find any. The movie provides a poignant commentary on the violations of natural law, rights, and human dignity that continue to be found in our own society.
Javert is the story’s foil for natural law. He brings in a kind of Kantian certainty about moral questions. For him, the law is morally right, and one cannot violate the law. Yet it becomes clear through the film that Javert’s view is actually that which is mistaken. He is operating under a skewed vision of natural law which cannot stand up to scrutiny. His view equates natural law with the law of the land. Valjean grants Javert mercy and Javert later does the same for Valjean, but unlike Valjean, Javert cannot understand mercy. For him, the law of the land is always absolute. Finally, he cannot reconcile his view of the law with the realities of the world which include not just natural law but also the redemptive mercy that God has embedded in it and he kills himself.
Jean Valjean is not the only person whose very worth is questioned. Fantine suffers immensely in the story. She is reduced to selling her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body when she loses her job. Again, her very humanity is threatened by her treatment. She is dehumanized and forced to give up hope. However, Jean Valjean, as she is dying, comes to her aid and promises to take care of Cosette, her daughter. This gives her hope, and restores some of her human dignity.
Despite the apparent hopelessness in many scenes, it becomes clear that evil has not won the day. Indeed, Jean Valjean is given another lease on life by Bishop Myriel, who is an extremely positive example of Christian concern for other persons. The Bishop saves Valjean from imprisonment and torture and tells him that he has saved him. He tells Valjean God has a plan for him and in an extremely poignant scene, Valjean struggles with his feelings of hatred and anger in a church. He cannot seem to reconcile the mercy shown to him by the Bishop with his view of the world. It is Valjean’s initial view which loses out. His anger and hatred are given over to providing hope and taking care of the needy. He becomes a moral hero, despite the necessity of his continuing to flee from the authorities.
Ultimately, the grounding for human dignity and rights is found not in the tribulations of the world but in God’s justice in the hereafter. The epic closing scene depicts all the dead lined up in heaven praising God and glorying in redemption. Without this, the movie would be nearly hopeless. Instead, Jean Valjean is guided into the afterlife by Fantine and Bishop Myriel. The explicit Christian elements in this final redemption are clearly portrayed, crucifixes are prominent and it is the Bishop into whose hands Valjean is accepted.
It seems clear from the story of “Les Miserables” that God is operating even in the darkness and bitterness of the poor, the downtrodden, and the weary. Jean Valjean comes to realize that God’s plan can be carried out even by him in the mercies that he is able to show by taking care of Cosette and giving to the poor. His struggle over the fact that Bishop Myriel did not condemn him leads him to a view of reality that is a stark contrast with that of Javert’s view, noted above.
Jean Valjean sees the world through the eyes of one to whom mercy has been shown. He realizes that he did not deserve the mercy he was given, but he instead lets it change him forever. He fights against the evils of the world and ultimately, at the end of his life, he realizes that is what he was called to do.
One cannot help but see how stories of all the characters interweave in such a way as to show foreknowledge and planning. Valjean is shown mercy, but to what end? Ultimately, the end is to provide hope into a world with little hope (Fantine) and to save the life of a girl (Cosette). The way these people are brought together provides an abundance of grace and mercy, but not without suffering.
The characters cry out to God throughout the film, asking where He is or why He has allowed some evil. But it becomes clear that their eyes have been focused upon the suffering here-and-now instead of God’s plan for salvation. Without the foreknowledge of God, it is easy to see the ills of this world as reason to hate God. Indeed, that is exactly what some people do. But in “Les Miserables,” God’s plan wins in the end: he brings his people to salvation and they sing in heaven at the end of the film.
Water is a recurring theme in “Les Miserables.” As a Christian I could not help but think of baptism. Valjean is baptized in the rain, but Javert uses water to bring about his own destruction.
There are crosses featured prominently throughout the movie. The barricade behind which the revolutionaries fight has coffins on the front during the battle. However, at the end of the movie, when all the dead are lined up and singing in the glory of heaven and God’s presence, there is a cross prominently featured. When Jean Valjean struggles with the mercy Bishop Myriel showed to him, crosses are featured all over the screen. All of this seems to tie into the themes of redemption, God’s will, and salvation noted above.
Christians, or people who claim to be Christians, are not always good people. Javert’s skewed view of justice prevented him from taking into account God’s mercy. The innkeeper and his wife claim to be Christians but spend their lives trying to swindle and steal from others. This is a reflection of the truth. Jesus himself noted that there will be weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). That is, there will be those who claim to be among the saved who are not and may even seek to destroy the saved.
Victor Hugo was not necessarily a friend of organized religion. His religious beliefs changed throughout his life. It seems he became frustrated with the suffering of the people and the inactivity of organized churches in response to this suffering. Some have pegged him as a deist, though a bit of exploration turns up hints that he may have maintained theism through his life. Regardless of Hugo’s own spiritual state, it is clear from the film “Les Miserables” that Christianity is largely beneficial. Not only that, but the story is such an epic tale of redemption with Christian themes interwoven throughout that I can’t help but think (having, admittedly, not read the book) of the extremely positive overall impression I had of the power of Christianity to change people.
“Les Misérables” is a stunning film. Its impact will last for years. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the movie, however, is the way it tackles worldview questions head-on. Humanity is found even in the darkest pits, and God’s work continues to be done even in the most desperate of hours. The movie is not for children, but it will serve as an inspiring foil from which to start discussions about Christianity. The beneficence that comes from the Christian worldview is very much on display, along with Christian themes of God’s sovereignty and plan of redemption. I encourage readers to see the film and realize the way it can be used to discuss issues central to Christianity.
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