“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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The epic tale begun with Batman Begins and continued with The Dark Knight comes to a fruition in The Dark Knight Rises. Batman has always been my favorite hero (I say hero and not superhero because he has no superpowers), and I couldn’t wait to see the finale to the trilogy I had been awaiting for some time. It didn’t disappoint. Herein, I reflect from my Christian background on the many themes in the movie.
Here’s the last warning: THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE. BIG ONES.
I’m going to eschew giving a plot summary because what I want to contribute to the conversation is a discussion on the themes. If you don’t feel like bothering with the movie, it would be good to at least know about the plot before reading this post. Check here for a brief summary.
Throughout the movie I kept noticing faith as a major theme. There were those who had maintained faith in a lie: Harvey Dent. Batman had taken the fall for him in The Dark Knight in order to provide Gotham with a needed hero. This faith was misplaced, and Jim Gordon, the police commissioner of Gotham City, almost destroyed himself keeping it inside himself. He said, at one point, “I knew Harvey Dent. I was his friend. And it will be a very long time before someone… Inspires us the way he did. I believed in Harvey Dent.” Yet the whole time Gordon knew he was speaking a lie. He believed in Dent, but he no longer believes in him.
Batman placed his faith in Catwoman/Selina Kyle. He firmly believed that there was more to her than the anger she continually expressed. This interplay was made more interesting by the interaction between Batman’s and Catwoman’s alter egos, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. Selina Kyle, who seemed generally upset with all the rich and famous in Gotham and the decadence found therein–told the rich billionaire Bruce Wayne, “You think this can last? There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” More on the interaction between the two later.
Alfred put his trust in Bruce Wayne. He strongly wanted Wayne to have a satisfying, fulfilling life, and throughout the film he worried that Batman would destroy Wayne. When push came to shove, Alfred was willing to leave Wayne in order to try to save him. Again, more on this later.
Finally, there were those who had faith in Batman. Batman, to them, was more than just a hero, he was a symbol of hope and justice.
One thing viewers should note is that the use of “faith” in The Dark Knight Rises is not some kind of hack definition. It doesn’t mean “belief in the face of insurmountable evidence to the contrary” or “belief in something you know ain’t true.” Instead, faith in the movie is faith in–a trusting faith based on evidence. Those who believed in Harvey Dent were mistaken, but that wasn’t due to evidence, it was active deception. Batman’s faith in Selina Kyle was firmly based on his ability to read her character. Others’ faith in Batman was based upon either a personal knowledge of the secret (Gordon) or knowledge of his actions as Batman (John Blake, others). It is very similar to the faith of the Christian, which is based upon knowledge.
The most obvious theme in the movie was that of “arising.” Bruce Wayne had to overcome his doubts, fears, and become something greater. Yet he had to rely on others to build this journey. The knowledge of his fellow prisoners in ‘the pit’–a prison into which people were thrown, but could climb out. Only one had ever managed it, however, and that was Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter, who had subsequently saved Bane. Ironically, then, the rise of his enemies forced the Dark Knight to meet their challenge. He had to transcend his limits and become that which Gotham needed in order to save it.
Yet Batman/Wayne wasn’t the only one who rose in the movie. Selina Kyle also experienced a major transition. As a character, she was initially powerfully motivated by anger and a desire to escape. She was portrayed as being very frustrated and angry with the social imbalance of the world and determined to not only try to balance it–in her favor, of course–but also to punish those who made it so imbalanced. When Batman returns to Gotham after his exile by Bane, he confronts Selina. He points out that the storm she predicted earlier has hit, and it doesn’t seem like it was what she wanted. Still, however, she seems determined to be in it all for herself. Yet ultimately she comes back to fight with the Dark Knight against the evil powers that are trying to destroy Gotham. In the end, she does manage to rise, with the guidance and help of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
John Blake–the incorruptible cop–also rose. It is revealed shortly before the film’s end that he is Robin–and that he is about to take up the cowl of Batman, to become the symbol for Gotham. Here, I sensed a feeling of fulfillment. We encourage others to walk in our shoes and left them up when they are down. Without Batman, Blake would not have survived. Yet he goes on to [presumably] become the next Batman, to save others.
The world is not all sunshine and daisies. The world is full of corruption and sin. Interestingly, The Dark Knight Rises has much less corruption on the part of the police force than the previous movies. The turn was a noticeable, perceptible shift. As far as the plot goes, I wonder if any of that was due to the “Dent Act” which effectively ended organized crime in Gotham. Despite the relative “cleanness” of the police force, however, there was plenty of corruption to go around. Once Bane overthrows the city, there are “people’s courts” where “justice” is dole out on those already deemed guilty. The prisons are ripped open due to the lie [Harvey Dent] that many were imprisoned by. One wonders, how much of this is justice? Is any of what Bane says true?
Furthermore, it is a powerful reminder of the human condition. Given the chance to rule themselves, Gotham erupted into violence and brutality. It is little wonder that this should happen, given a Christian worldview, because all are sinful and need grace. All deserve justice.
Justice and Freedom
Is there justice? Was Batman just in continuing his adventures as the Caped Crusader? Is violence ever a justifiable means to an end?
Within Christianity there is a long history–traceable to Augustine, at least–of the concept of a “Just War.” There will be much debate over whether the actions of someone like Batman could be justified. Is it ever permissible to take justice into one’s own hands? I leave the question open.
Yet more important questions loom. What is justice? Who is to determine it?
One wonders what worldview could plug these holes that continue to open as human nature is probed by director Christopher Nolan throughout the Batman Trilogy. From the irrational desire to cause fear and anarchy of Scarecrow to the anarchist nihilism of the Joker to the over-reactive retribution of Bane, Nolan has exposed viewers to the depths of human freedom. What price, freedom? Bane tells Gotham he has set them free, yet he has truly imprisoned them by their own nature. What occurs is a vivid portrayal of human nature and destruction.
I can’t help but think of Bruce Wayne’s ascension from the pit to the chants of “rise” without thinking of the Christian faith. We sinners are in our own pits of sin. Yet just as Wayne we have a very real lifeline. Yes, Bruce Wayne shunned the physical lifeline, but he clung to an idea: he clung to faith. Similarly, the Christian shuns the physical realm and is saved by faith. Rise.
There is the notion of a “clean slate.” Selina Kyle is primarily motivated by her desire to have such a clean slate. She wants to start over. Batman offers it as a tantalizing price to pay for her help in the final battle. Yet in the end, Selina comes back and redeems herself more than was required by the Bat. At the end of the movie, however, it is revealed that both Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle have managed to use the “clean slate.” They have started afresh. Again, a Christian allegory or overlay could be applied here. We are all sinners in search of a clean slate, yet we cannot provide it for ourselves. While have no nearly-magical technology to give us a clean slate, we do have salvation by grace through faith. And that, my friends, is something worth considering.
Finally, Wayne’s “rise” coincides with the need I described earlier. The fact that enemies had arisen meant that Batman had to also rise to the challenge. Christians know that once sin came into the world, the only way to cure it would be for God to come into the flesh to save us. Such is poignantly portrayed when Jim Gordon talked to John Blake. Gordon talks about the evils of Gotham and describes how Batman transcends the filth, but he “puts his hands into the filth [with us]” [I believe he says filth, but I have a suspicion it may have been muck–correct me if I’m wrong here]. Wayne, though having no obligation to these people, still loves Gotham, and he is willing to condescend to get his hands dirty–to put his hands into the filthy muck and dirty them in order to save it. Is it an allegory? It certainly works as one. Jesus is God incarnate. A God who loved His creatures so much that He was willing to become one of them–to put his hands into the filth and reach down to save us. Just as Batman did what was necessary to save while also dealing justice, Christ did what was necessary in order to save humanity from its own sin. The Son Rises.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.