19 December 2012
Ripples of grace
The Victor Hugo classic, which tells the story of grace, redemption and peace out of personal conflict and the strife of revolution, will hit the big screen in January.
The stage show has played to more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages across the globe. The poster image – showing a sad-faced girl against a French flag – is iconic. And now Les Misérables will be reaching an even wider audience, with a new film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe.
Jackman plays Jean Valjean, the Parisian convict at the centre of the story. Forced into 19 years of hard labour for the crime of stealing some bread, he is embittered against God and against the world. When he’s finally released on parole, and invited in out of the cold by a bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the original stage show), he repays the man’s kindness by stealing his silver. But instead of handing him over to merciless police inspector Javert (Crowe), the bishop forgives him completely, even making a gift of the silver so that he can start a new life.
Valjean’s world is changed forever by this single act of grace. He breaks parole and becomes a different man. Rising to the position of town mayor, he encounters Fantine (Hathaway), a single mother forced into prostitution, and agrees to adopt her daughter Cosette (Isabel Allen/Amanda Seyfried). Some years later, as the 1832 revolution sweeps across France, the grown-up Cosette falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) – and Valjean discovers that, despite all the years which have passed, the dogged Javert is still intent on hunting him down.
It’s no coincidence that young Cosette (the child on the poster) has been the face of Les Misérables since the show began. The image comes from an illustration in the original edition of Victor Hugo’s novel, showing a ragged and frightened Cosette mopping the floor. Servant to the cruel Thénadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) until Valjean comes along, she represents the downtrodden masses whose plight concerned Hugo so deeply.
He wrote the book to highlight the suffering of these wretched poor, the ‘misérables’ of the title. The story seems to reveal a profound belief that, however small and insignificant each of them might appear, their experiences should matter to us – and they matter to God. “At that moment,” the author writes, describing Cosette’s terror when the Thénadiers send her out alone into the woods to fetch water, “only the Eternal Father saw this sad thing.”
Through a chain of events, which seem set in motion by divine intervention, we see Cosette lifted out of poverty and into a new life where she is loved and cherished. No tragedy or injustice, Les Misérables suggests, is beneath God’s notice, or beyond His power to redeem.
This power ultimately takes over the story, bringing good out of personal conflict and even the strife of the revolution. In the end, only three characters remain untouched by the grace which ripples out from Valjean’s encounter with God. The Thénadiers refuse anything which doesn’t feed their immediate greed; and Javert – hardened by a lifetime of self-righteousness – is blind to the possibility that he might be wrong. Baffled by the idea of unearned forgiveness, he turns his back on the new start which his old enemy offers him.
This outwardly upright, religious man has always followed the law and toed the line. But in the process, he’s missed the heart of the Christian message. It’s the ex-convict Valjean – knowing from the beginning that he never deserved a second chance – who allows mercy to completely transform him. In contrasting their journeys, the story becomes a parable about our different reactions to God’s grace.
In one of his own parables, Jesus talked about two sons: a younger brother who wasted his father’s money before returning destitute and humbled, and an older brother who believed he’d lived well enough to earn his father’s favour. To the surprise of his original hearers, Jesus suggested that the younger son was in a far better position. Les Misérables echoes his message, and this, perhaps, is the key to its popularity and power. We all love a good story, memorable characters, stirring songs – but more than anything, we’re hungry for grace.
Les Misérables is released on 11 January.
For free official community resources see damaris.org/lesmis
Sophie Lister: is a researcher and writer for The Damaris Trust. For more articles and study guides see culturewatch.org and toolsfortalks.com