Les Miserables: I Want To Talk About It  

Posted by Heidi

I get rather possessive of the things I love. This is entirely appropriate when it comes to ones spouse (cuz, duh!  Mine mine mine!) but not so applicable when it comes to things more in the public domain such as my favorite song, Carmel, Ca., the Regency (England 1811-1820) and, um, Les Miserables. As one of my all-time favorite stories, it is one that I am only slightly less possessive of than my own novels.  I tend to feel put out when others speak about it (mine mine mine!) and part of me doesn't want to share my thoughts on it because they feel so personal.  Yet, seeing the film version (almost 23 years to the day from when we saw the stage play) has prompted me to write something other than fiction for the first time in quite a while.

There are many themes in Les Miserables and a large cast of characters but when I read the book as a 16 year old, the part of the story that struck me most was the grace, forgiveness and charity of Bishop Bienvenue.  At the time a student of French, I adored that his name meant "welcome" and the fact that the bishop's welcome of this wretched convict saved Jean Valjean's life, literally and figuratively.  Looking back, I suspect I responded exactly as the author intended.  Valjean is indeed the protagonist of the story but he is not necessarily "the hero".  The name Jean Valjean translates to John, son of John;  in other words, "every man".  One could even say, "nobody".  Hugo's point (in my opinion, which is likely to be the least informed of any who embark on this line of thinking) was that we are all sinners and all require the grace of God to rise above our own humanity.  If the wretched Jean Valjean could be saved by the grace of God, so can any of us.

In the Victorian era, no novel worth its salt would dare to be about anything but religion and self-improving morals.  Think Dickens.  In the Regency (the era just prior) only women admitted to reading novels (think Austen)  though doubtless men read them, as well.  They wouldn't have admitted it to their friends at the club, however.  If a novelist hoped to be widely read and pass public scrutiny, his (b/c few women admitted to writing novels though they certainly did--usually under male pen names) work needed to be uplifting in a time when religion was very much a part of people's every day lives.  Therefore, Hugo's novel was about much more than Jean Valjean.

However, I was swept under Valjean's spell when I saw the movie.  By movie, I mean the Hallmark Hall of Fame, Robert Jordan (Valjean), Anthony Perkins (Javert) version.  This is hands-down my favorite non-musical depiction of Les Miserables, Liam Neeson and Gerard DePardieu notwithstanding. It focuses very heavily on the Hero/Anti-hero story line of the protagonist and the antagonist. Watching it, I had no sympathy for Javert--he was a monster.  I had nothing but admiration for Valjean--he was a hero who could do no wrong.  What touched me most was how he sacrificed everything that meant anything to him to save the life of Marius, rival for Cosette's heart. What a man!  I forgot my "every man" view of Valjean and saw him as a stand-in for Christ.  This version is very inspiring and a must-see for any  Les Miserables fan.  Perkins was born to play this role and Jordan is mesmerizing as Valjean.  He is just as believable as the 21 year old Jean as he is the 60 year old Monsier Le Mayor.

I saw the stage play when I was 25 and a new mother.  It was absolutely fantastic and not only because my newborn, at home with my mother, slept the entire seven hours we were gone from him that day.  I had a much better sense of what the central conflict in the second part of the story is all about.  I fell in love with the Marius/Cosette romance and though I felt sorry for Valjean, I was really rooting for Marius in a way I had never before. It struck me that Marius' surname means "Bridge of Mercy" and how it was literally because of Marius that Valjean extends mercy to Javert. His need to protect Marius left him no time, no room, no heart for killing Javert when he had the chance.  If only such mercy had been extended to the many youth who manned the barricades! We bought the cast recording on the way out and I listened to it ad nauseum for at least a year.  I knew every song, every word, every voice modulation.  Thank goodness my husband loved it as much as I (though he liked it much better when the singing was left to the professionals) and we have never stopped listening to it.

So, it was with great anticipation I awaited the movie version of the musical.  I wondered what would stand out for me this time.  What would the powers-that-be emphasize?  What would the actors up on the screen, every flare of a nostril larger than life, bring to this new interpretation? I was not disappointed.  It was just as fantastic as the stage play, but in different ways.  I walked away with a new hero, a new story line to focus on and to learn from; that of Fantine.  Though she describes her relationship as a romance, an older, wiser and less naive me knew her lover to be a pedophile. In contrast, it was easier for me to see Fantine as virtuous than in any other version I have seen.   Rather than feeling repelled by the way she is depicted in the bulk of her air time in most screen versions (a sick and dying prostitute) I found myself drawn to her youth and beauty. I better appreciated the way she rebuffs the advances of her supervisor.  It is clear that she is virtuous and chaste and I could only admire her for choosing to leave her child with strangers in order to work an honest job when she could have done what most in her situation did:  give up and become a prostitute at the outset. When she is condemned for what are at the consequences of the actions of the father of her child, I felt her suffering as I never had before.  Her progression from an honest, hard-working parent, not unlike you or I, to a cold, sick and desperate whore is more poignant, more powerful, more personal than it had ever been.

Right in front of me was proof of a belief I have long held--as you treat people, so they become.  Yet, even at the end, she was, at the core, a virtuous woman who did not want to do what she did.  I am convinced she would not have become "a fallen woman" merely for her own survival.  She would rather have starved.  But, for her child she was willing to endure humiliation, hunger, cold, and evil.  That's what stood out to me the most; Fantine, the hero, who did what was right for her child.  Then, when powerful people made that impossible, she did what she must so that her child could live.  She's my hero.

In America, women have far more choices than they did in Fantine's time--thank goodness! However, there are women and children all over the world who are are victimized by the selfish, the greedy and the powerful.  And here in America, victims of pedophiles are often still treated as unworthy, not as good as, stained and perhaps worst of all, responsible for the consequences of the actions of their abusers.  Perhaps the disabilities, both visible and invisible, of my oldest son make me sensitive to the prejudices people have for those who are not the authors of their own dilemmas.  I suppose this is one reason Fantine's story stood out for me so much this time around.  I think, though, that simply being a mother of 23 years, rather than 2-3 months, is what has prompted me to see Fantine with new eyes.  And, in the end, when she and Jean Valjean (still my hero) walk away from his used and well-worn body, I saw her, for the first time, as she was meant to be seen--a true angel of God.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 17, 2013 at Thursday, January 17, 2013 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

6 wise, witty and wonderful comments

Wow Heidi, I haven't seen the movie, but now will go see it with a little different perspective. Jenn, my youngest at 14, did the musical last year. It was very moving. Glad to hear the movie did it justice....

January 17, 2013 at 3:36 PM

I haven't seen the movie because I hear such conflicting things about it. Either people love it or they hate it. I've always wanted to read the book (but haven't yet) and I liked the theatrical production, but I've held off on the movie version. Maybe I should reconsider?

January 17, 2013 at 4:07 PM

Shanae and Laura, I think you would both love it. In my experience, peiole who don't like it are focused on the singing. The singing is not always perfect--but it wasn't on the stage either. Just go and be open to what it is. It made me cry more than any other version, stage or film. Well, except the book--I cried a lot at the end of the book but I *was* 16.

January 17, 2013 at 5:27 PM

I've been waiting for the movie since before it was even in production. For years I've said Hugh would make a great Valjean and it turns out, I was right:) I thought it was really wonderful. I've never been a fan of Anne Hathaway so I struggled with her, but as 'Lovely Ladies' was happening I had a sense of pity and sorrow for the poor woman that were being portrayed that I hadn't felt before. On the screen, the were broken and devastated and had nothing left---you don't often get that image in the play and I felt it was done very well.

I was also super impressed with Marius, and I always love Enjolras more than anyone else. Every performance I've ever seen---HS, community or professional---he's the best.

And finally, seeing Colm Wilkensen play the Bishop---it was just beautiful. So touching.

January 17, 2013 at 8:57 PM

Barb, you are so right! How could I have forgotten about Colm Wilkinson playing the bishop? And I agree with you about Enjolras, as well--he was stellar!

January 17, 2013 at 9:11 PM

I saw the play when I was 17, at what our "broadway" in Seattle would be. It was beautiful and I remember sitting there in awe and overwhelmed. I've watched movie versions as well, and I'm reading the book at the moment. I get what you're saying when you feel a connection with something, its like the people who talk about it cannot possibly love it as much as you do and they are not allowed to talk about it so casually! haha I haven't gotten to see the film, but will you answer a question for me that I haven't gotten a clear answer for yet? I was told that there are parts that are gruesome and very graphic, especially about the prostitutes, and someone being killed. Did you feel like it was too much? Did you feel like it took away or would ruin things, for me? Love this post Heidi, and I miss you! :)

January 18, 2013 at 10:36 AM

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