Last week I watched the musical movie Les Miserables with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.
Victor Hugo’s original book is like 1400 pages long. I have never read it. When I was a kid there was something called Classic Comic Books. That is probably how I became acquainted with the plot and characters of this and several other great books.
This is at least the second movie version of Les Miserables that I have seen. So I have the plot down pretty well. Jean Valjean spends the better part of two decades at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. This is part of Victor Hugo’s depiction of the cruelty and injustice of Napoleonic France. After parole he cannot find work. He responds to the kindness of a priest by stealing silver from the church. When the police catch him, he claims the priest gave him the silver. To his surprise, the priest backs him up and agrees that it was a gift. This saves Jean Valjean from a life of imprisonment.
From there the story is about grace. Because someone offered him mercy, Jean Valjean is able to live a life of mercy and love in the midst of an unjust society. He becomes an adoptive father to the girl, Cossete, and literally saves her life. I used this as a Fathers Day illustration when I preached Sunday.
Over against grace is the character Javier (Russell Crowe in the movie), a police official who represents iron-clad devotion to law over mercy. An abortive attempt to ignite a new French Revolution is also part of the plot.
My guess as to Victor Hugo’s point is that both authoritarianism and naive revolutionary zeal are dead ends (there had already been a French Revolution and it hadn’t turned out as planned). I read a biography of Hugo once and know that he loved liberty and spent much of his adult life in exile because of his political dissent. But in Les Miserables he resisted the temptation to portray a new revolution as the answer.
Hugo was not a fan of the church, although it was the church in the form of the merciful priest who introduced grace to Jean Valjean. But the latest movie version at least, has strong religious themes. Some of the songs are prayers. Jean Valjean goes home to God when he dies and this is beautifully portrayed in the film.
Although the music in the movie is sort of operatic (not my kind of music), I really appreciated the idea that God shines through all the crap of human existence. There is actually a scene where Jean Valjean is literally covered in crap as his prayer is being answered. If we would but notice, God is there in human expressions of love and mercy.