If you are allergic to emotion, this may not be the film for you. But if your heart yearns for good to triumph over evil, for beauty to emerge from squalor, and for the vindication of strong heroes who can fight, shoot, and pray, Les Misérables will be an exhilarating experience. Putting this story before a movie-going culture that may never read the book or see the musical is definitely a good thing.

It is astonishing that a film version of Les Misérables was made at all at this point in American cultural history, especially a film told entirely in song. This faith-saturated story of sin, redemption, courage, and heroism is an utter anomaly in our post-modern landscape of doubt, ambiguity, and meaninglessness. I remember thinking the same thing when I first saw the musical in London in 1989, after living in post-Christian Europe for seven years. I could not have guessed that Les Miz would go on to break all box office records in a 30-year run to become the longest running musical of all time, seen by 60 million people in 42 countries. 


After seeing it four times with Broadway casts in various cities across America in the years since, and hearing the sound track several hundred times (our children played it incessantly), I was hard to impress with a film version. I found that this film of Victor Hugo’s novel is moving in a ways that the stage cannot be. The camera offers the intimacy of close-ups views on the protagonists who weep, quiver, and shout, as well as spectacular panoramas of sweeping cityscapes and mountains. The cast played the story with its full range of intense emotions, which grip the viewer in the drama. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine deserve the many awards recently garnered for their moving performances.

Les MiserablesAnne Hathaway threw herself so thoroughly into the role that she took another 25 pounds off her already thin frame in five weeks to play the factory worker turned prostitute, dying of consumption. She actually had her head shaved with the cameras rolling, as Fantine sells her hair to pay for the care of her young daughter. Hathaway overrode her musical theater training to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” with raw emotion instead of prettiness. Fantine lies in the hull of a beached ship used as a brothel, remembering the father of her illegitimate child: “He took my childhood in his stride, then autumn came and he was gone.” Wracked with despair as she realizes she has lost her dignity, her self-esteem, and all hope, the camera is close on her face, her brimming eyes are rimmed with red and wrenching sobs choke her words. It is impossible not to be moved.

Compelling and Fresh but Flawed

 Les MiserablesPurists who loved the gorgeous voices in the musical came away disappointed in the uneven musicality of the casting, which must have been influenced by the need for names with box office appeal. Having a pristine classically trained voice proved less essential than the ability to deliver a wide range of emotions in a tight close-up. Director Tom Hooper built the cast around Hugh Jackman, whose singing is more like talking on a pitch. Jackman’s spirited acting almost made up for it. Almost. Russell Crowe, who had never sung a role before, lacked the powerful baritone his stage counterparts brought to the role of Inspector Javert, but in his duets with Jackman, at least they struck a balance. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen played a version of Madame and Monsieur Thénardier that was more sly and wicked than the bawdy, bigger-than-life characters innkeepers on stage.

EddieRedmayneMariusEddie Redmayne brought a clear, strong voice to his role of Marius, as well as acting experience, most recently in My Week with Marilyn. He pursued Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried, who had already merged song and acting in Mama Mia! Several veterans of Les Miz musical productions made their film debuts, including Samantha Barks as a compelling Eponine, and the charming children who played Gavroche and the young Cosette. Aaron Tveit displayed his musical Broadway experience from Hairspray and Wicked in the role of Enjolras. He and the other singers in the ensemble of young men were so good that they reminded us what excellent singing actually sounds like.

Criticism aside, the singing in Les Misérables does bring an immediacy to the film that is quite appealing and fresh. Director Tom Hooper made the bold decision to record the songs live on site, rather than lip synching studio recordings. The film was shot on location in France and England using landmark historical sites and authentic buildings of the period, and on spectacular sets reconstructing Paris of 1832. The actors wore concealed earpieces through which they heard an off-stage piano accompanist as they sang live. The songs grew almost organically from the action, so every breath, sigh and sob of the actors is exactly what we see and hear as it happens. The orchestration was added later, to capture each nuance of tempo and emphasis.

Hooper made the gutsy decision to film the singing live because he didn’t want to simply make a movie of the musical. He says he wanted to make it a true cinematic experience, using the unique strengths of the medium, while keeping the DNA of the original musical. Dialogue written in the initial film script was compressed into new musical bridges between the songs and expanded into one completely new song, “Suddenly,” which was composed expressly for the film.

Because cameras can change scenes faster than the stage, the film version has the luxury of including several scenes from the book that didn’t make it onto the stage. More of the bishop’s story is rendered in the film in the pivotal scene where the newly released prisoner Valjean is welcomed in by a trusting bishop, whose silver Valjean steals. In another addition, Valjean and Cosette scale the walls of Paris in a dramatic escape from Inspector Javert, who is in hot pursuit on horseback, as the fugitives take refuge in a convent, hidden from prying eyes.

Les Miserables The arc of the story from Valjean’s release from prison through his spiritual awakening and twenty years of his life raises the timeless themes of justice, mercy, duty, selflessness, blood-red courage, and honor. Their dramatic treatment is a bracing double-slap to contemporary consciences. The rousing choruses and whispered prayers are oxygen for a culture anesthetized with mindless relativism. Why has Les Misérables maintained its steady popularity over the past thirty years on stage and now made it onto the big screen? Is it possible that the unabashed call in the final chorus to “join in our crusade” is rousing slumbering souls?

Books mentioned in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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9 replies to this post
  1. I was lucky enough to see the stage production before I went and saw the movie. The Broadway cast came to OKC and put on a spectacular show. I went to the movie and came away weeping, the same way I came out of the play. I felt myself captivated by the epic and contrasting duo of Valjean and Javert, particularly Javert. It was in Javert that I found many parallels with myself, particularly in the song "Stars." But I was shocked and disturbed by what happened to him in the end and was forced to examine my own life. I wept hardest when Javert was forced to confront his own faults and was unable to cope. I saw myself and it startled me out of a reverie in my life. Afterward, when I talked with my mother about it, she remarked that "God knew that you needed to see it." I can't say that she was wrong. What a great story, and what a wonderful message. Truly, "To Love another person is to look into the Face of God."

  2. I loved the movie, but I do believe "the arts" have twisted the moral of the story in their favor (not that I'm surprised). Please correct me if I am wrong but in the book, Javert was an atheist and he represented the French Revolution in that it wanted to replace faith with reason. Reason for Javert was Law, and Law was his religion, not Christianity. It was a tale about the competing philosophies of the age and Javert kills himself in the end because his Godless philosophy couldn't handle the proof of a reformed man. As if a Christian man would be represented as one who doesn't believe in human reform! Christianity is all about forgiveness and therefore redemption – Jean Val Jean, (Amazing Grace).

    I went in wondering how Hollywood would secularize it and at first I was pleasantly pleased with the Christian fervor of it as it should be but then I realized how they were able to undermine the integrity of Hugo's message, which goes against everything the arts believe. They made Javert a Christian and by this they removed the competition between the two philosophies and their beloved anti-Christian enlightenment message remains unharmed.

  3. I wasn't going to go see the movie, because I too played the soundtrack relentlessly and couldn't see the point. But now I may have to go. This was a really perfect review for me, because I probably never would have noticed the clever touches and whether or not they worked.

    All the same, it's not all that that has made me reverse course. If the movie includes more backstory on the bishop whose action of mercy precipitates Valjean's change of heart. Given that that one thing changes the entire course of the hero's actions, you would think that the play wouldn't have given it such short shrift. I think I figured that secularists probably couldn't handle thinking that a Christian would really do something totally good.

  4. The law was definitely the organizing principle in Javert's worldview, in the book, musical, and film. His legalistic approach is what drove him in his pursuit of Valjean. The transformation of a man who has experienced unmerited forgiveness is the fulcrum of the entire story. And you are right, Javert kills himself because he realizes that everything he had relied on in the law is rendered impotent by Valjean's transformation. Excuse me if I missed it (I've only seen the film once), but in what way did the film portray Javert as a Christian?

  5. I agree, the encounter with the bishop is the pivotal event in Valjean's conversion. Hugh Jackman shows the emotional turmoil full throttle in the film. I don't know what decisions were made and by whom in the musical, but the same original French writers who adapted the novel for the stage in France before it became an English language musical were involved in this rewrite for the film. I can't imagine why they would have bothered to do this in the first place, if they didn't believe there was an important message there. But when you try to compress a fat book into a couple hours of action, some of the nuances end up on the cutting room floor, just as a matter of time constraints.

  6. In two scenes, the first one that he had his own song, it opened up with him in in a chapel kneeling before a cross and the song was a prayer to God about righting wrongful sins. The second was the end when he was singing about sin again and forgiveness, he mentioned God a few times. I found it very Christian.

    As many know, in the aftermath of the french revolution, the revolutionaries tore down the crosses in all the churches and in particular raised the goddess of reason in place of the cross in Notre Dame. Removing faith from reason was the underlining objection Hugo had and Javet represented that and how reason without faith man goes mad.

    Also Explains our modern zanex society as well. Remove faith and society will go crazy!

  7. Thanks for the clarification. Yes, clearly the French Revolution was the triumph of ideology, which is a false religion in its worship of reason. But I would characterize Javert's worldview as centered on the law, arguably to an obsessive degree. When confronted with mercy, he can't deal with it, it doesn't fit into the model. And even if he was going through Christian motions, his breakdown indicates that he hadn't really understood that Christianity is the triumph of Christ's forgiveness over the old law that condemns us. Others in the story were insincere in their faith. The innkeeper and his wife, the Thenardier's, bargain for more recompense for Cosette, claiming their care for her was "what we Christians would do." Yes, you are absolutely right. If you remove faith, society does go mad, and we are witnessing the results of that unraveling all around us.

  8. That line about loving another person and seeing the face of God is one of the most moving of all. Like you, I wept when I saw the stage production. The story has so many facets that reflect bright, healing light onto our own shortcomings and wounds, even if we differ from one another in our woundedness. That healing property may be one of the reasons Les Miz has proven so immensely popular over time. It is a story that transcends the ages to point us toward eternal truth. Your mother sounds like a wise woman.

  9. Ok I got ya. I'll have to listen to the lyrics of Javert's song again. I'm really happy to have some clarification on this. Les Mis is one of my favorite stories and it's over all moral is in many ways my cri de coer. It's message being compromised infuriates me, but I'll have to reexamine that. Thanks so much Barbara, and just want to say I love your writings and thrilled to be conversing with you!


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