A Brief Review of Les Miserables

Ever since the trailer for the new Les Misérables movie made the rounds online, I’ve been highly anticipating this film. Last weekend, Corina and I went to see it. We were not disappointed, but we were surprised in ways different than expected.

Here are some initial thoughts.

(Caution: Spoilers ahead!)

From Book to Broadway to the Box Office

How does one judge the faithfulness of a screen adaptation of Les Misérables?

Do we judge it based on its fidelity to the book? To the musical? To the spirit of both?

If you’ve read the book, you can imagine the difficulty of translating such a sprawling piece of literature to the big screen. Directors and screenwriters have tried and, in my estimation, failed. (Even Liam Neeson.) It’s simply too hard to pack the emotional punch of Hugo’s masterpiece into a two-hour film.

Unless… you’ve got music on your side. This is where the musical excels. By telling the story musically, the composers capture the spirit of Hugo’s novel without slavishly following every detail.

I am a fan of the book. I am a fan of the musical. Now, finally, I am a fan of the movie. Hooper deserves accolades for pulling it off.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine has gotten a lot of buzz, deservedly so. Her gut-wrenching version of “I Dreamed a Dream” rescues the song from the sentimentality of Susan Boyle and reminds viewers of the despairing lyrics that work against the soaring melody. Also powerful is the deathbed scene where Fantine longs for her daughter.

Because Hathaway has received so much buzz, I can’t say I was surprised by the emotional depth of her performance. She lived up to the hype, but didn’t exceed expectations (perhaps because expectations were so high). Likewise, Hugh Jackman did a fantastic job capturing the progression of Valjean from sinner to saint.

Marius’ Empty Chairs

What surprised me most was Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Marius. His rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was so authentic that, for a moment, I felt as if I were in the room with him, feeling the same wave of anger and grief he was experiencing. It was a stunning performance. Corina and I looked at each other after it was over and said, “Unbelievable.”

The Killing of Gavroche

After the tragedy in Connecticut, it was especially difficult to watch the little boy Gavroche get killed at the barricade. The film didn’t belabor the tragedy by showing blood; even so, the sight of a young child being shot and killed was disturbing. (There were audible gasps in the audience when this took place on screen.)

Christian Imagery

I was also surprised by the pervasiveness of Christian imagery in the film. The clearest use of the cross was saved for Valjean’s moment of truth, as he faces the inner conflict of choosing to reveal himself in order to save the life of another man. While Valjean sings these words, he is looking at a crucifix:

Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgment in my place

Christian Resonance

While Les Misérables was playing, we could hear people weeping. When it was finished, the movie-goers burst into applause.

The “experience” of this movie got me thinking. How many people are moved by Les Misérables without really knowing why?

Is it the portrait of law and grace? Valjean – a man who offers grace without conditions, set against the backdrop of Javert, who in his pride would rather die than be humbled before a thief.

Is it the light of grace shining in darkness? We see the ugliness of sin: theft, hypocrisy, and immorality. The darkness of evil makes the light of love shine all the brighter.

Is it the hope of heaven? As Valjean dies, Fantine sings about how he will soon enter his reward – seeing God. The end of the movie is shot through with eschatology:

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
They will live again in the freedom in the garden of the Lord…
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?

I wonder how many people long for the better world behind the barricade, but don’t know how to get there. Moved to tears by grace-on-display in the character of a man who lays down his life for others,  they miss the connections between this literary classic and the greatest Story ever told.

The music written for the grand narrative of Scripture can’t be contained in a 2 1/2 hour film. It’s sung day after day, week after week, year after year, by millions who walk the fallen soil of this planet, but who have tasted the forgiveness and grace from the One who made Himself nothing that we may be free.

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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