How do you bring a beloved 150-year-old story that inspired the world's longest-running musical (seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and 21 languages) to the big screen? And, perhaps even more important, why?
There have been at least seven movie adaptations of Victor Hugo's classic novel over the years, but this is the first cinematic rendition of the world-renowned musical that first debuted in London in 1985. It has all the heart-tugging songs ("I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own," "Bring Him Home," and the rest), and is told almost entirely in song—all performed live, as opposed to the pre-recorded tracks used in most movie musicals. This Les Misérables also has impressive star power, with Oscar and Tony award winners topping the list of credits.
For the uninitiated, Les Misérables tells the tale of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man in 19th century France who spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. We meet him as he is being released, under the watchful eye of the doggedly law-abiding officer Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean soon realizes he is shunned by society, as well as by any potential employers. Destitute and desperate, Valjean only finds kindness from a humble bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in London and on Broadway), who offers him food and lodging, and an amazing act of mercy that changes the course of Valjean's life.
Following the bishop's challenge to make an honest life for himself, Valjean breaks his parole, changes his name, and becomes a respected mayor and factory owner. There he meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a woman whose life he unintentionally destroys, a fact he tries to make up for by agreeing to care for her long-lost child. But then Javert shows up, eventually recognizes Valjean, and hunts him down to bring him to justice for breaking parole. Thus begins a life of fear and love for Valjean—living on the run while caring for the young girl, Cosette (when grown, played by Amanda Seyfried). Then the Paris uprising begins and things get even more interesting and complicated and heart-breaking.
Victor Hugo's story is a masterfully crafted tale of law and grace, love and loss, sacrifice and redemption. After seeing the stage production of Les Misérables for the first time in high school, I found an abridged version of the book (still about 500 pages!) and devoured it. It is deeply spiritual, emotionally charged, and morally challenging. And while this Les Misérables is more about bringing Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Shonberg's musical interpretation of Hugo's work to the screen, the film does a decent job of capturing these sweeping themes.
As a Christian, I have always been drawn to the portrayal of faith in Les Misérables. The bishop displays a Christ-like mercy to Valjean that literally transforms him. He emerges from that church figuratively born again, with a new identity and an entirely new course in life. And we see this transformed life touch others in need with compelling grace and love. This is all in sharp contrast to the character of Javert, a man of the law. He shows no mercy, and when mercy is eventually shown to him, instead of being transformed he is undone. Wonderful discussions could stem from these two characters alone. And I love that there are such beautifully faith-inspired characters in a film today.