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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Comments:


22 thoughts on “A Brief Review of Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables””

  1. Dan Keefe says:

    Wow,I’m not usually a fan of musicals but your review makes me want to see this movie.

  2. Thanks Trevin, a very insightful and helpful piece. I’ve added it to my Les Mis resources at http://ieday.net/blog/archives/9802 in the hope that many many Christians are going to use this opportunity to use Les Mis as a gospel starting point.

    Blessings

    Tony

  3. tory says:

    I’ve always loved Les Miserables…. the book, the musical and the music. I can’t believe I have yet to see the movie, because I’ve been drooling to view it since I saw a trailer of it months ago!

    Now I really can’t wait to see the movie!

  4. Paul says:

    I have a friend who was gravely offended by this movie. She is a sincere Christian, who regularly checks reviews of movies for content before going. Given the raves she’d heard, she decided to forego her usual procedure. She told me that she walked out early, completely floored by the sex scenes and profanity. I realize that Les Mis is a story of redemption…but she couldn’t handle the process, I suppose.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I understand Christians come to different convictions on these matters. For what it’s worth, Fantine’s descent into sex slavery is brutally portrayed (no nudity) in a way that emphasizes the deadness and horror of prostitution, not in a way that glorifies sin. The stark presentation intends to evoke disgust, not acceptance of evil.

    2. Susan says:

      I hope and pray your friend doesn’t slam the movie that so many need to see as it may be the start of their journey toward Christ. Please gently remind her that Jesus ate with sinners and the movie depicts the horrors of sin but also shows grace and redemption.

  5. Drew says:

    Fantine does NOT invite Valjean to see the face of God as he dies. She merely informs him of a decidedly temporal sentiment, that to love another person is to see the face of God. There are some religious elements in Les Miserables, but it mostly struggles toward transcendentalism without ever truly reaching it.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I could be mistaken, but I distinctly remember Anne Hathaway singing to Valjean, “You will soon see God.” Only later does she say “to love another person is to see the face of God.”

      Can someone else confirm?

  6. Drew says:

    She does briefly mention to him that he will “be with God,” but after that it stays very ambiguous, especially when the only evident religious figure he heads toward as he dies is another cameo of Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop, along with the aforementioned lyric, both of which I felt brought it squarely back down to earth. Still, it’s nice to see SOME religion in Hollywood.

    1. Susan says:

      “Some” religion – this is an incredible story of grace and redemption. Let’s not grudgingly give credit to Hollywood for this but let’s celebrate it. It’s not perfect but neither are we!

  7. Michael says:

    I must not be cultured enough, because everyone gives this movie rave reviews but my wife and I thought it was terrible. There is certainly some fine acting and singing (especially Jackman and Hathaway) but overall the movie ruins a good story.

    Unless you’ve read the book recently or seen the musical, it will be hard to follow. I have not read the book nor seen the musical, so I had a hard time with the story being believable. Why would Valjean want to die for someone he’s never met that wrote his daughter a letter? What’s the history with Valjean and Javert? These are just a couple of examples that left me pondering the story and distracting me from the acting/singing.

    Add to that every word is sung, and you will have to love musicals to like it. I felt the movie was made just for people who loved the musical by the same name. It’s a movie about a musical about a book.

    It’s not that I’m a purist either. I liked the Hobbit even though it was very unlike the book.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Michael,

      I agree that without any knowledge of the book or musical, this movie would be hard to follow. For example, the scene where Valjean is about to reveal his identity is handled in a few minutes on screen, whereas in the book, this internal battle is a lengthy section that spans entire chapters.

      1. Trevin Wax says:

        By the way, Michael, you’re not the only cultured person to hate the film. Here’s a great review from LaVonne Neff. She didn’t like it either! :)

        http://neffreview.blogspot.com/2012/12/les-miserables.html

  8. Carol says:

    I was surprised that the review did not mention that the stark portray of sin, whether meant to glorify or evoke disgust and the profanity were not even mentioned in the review. I realize there are differing opinions on what is appropriate to be seen. It would be nice if Christian reviewers would advise when giving such glowing reviews on media. I for one know now to always check a source that includes those issues specifically. I have been surprised too many times by well meaning christian friends, blogs and articles.

  9. Mark says:

    While “Who Am I” – which is a wonderful section in which he weighs his duty before God – is a GREAT moment, I would strongly suggest that the most moving “Christian aspect” of the piece (musical or movie) is watching Valjean virtually become regenerated before our eyes in his long solo piece immediately after his encounter with the Bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson, the original London and Broadway Jean Valjean!).

  10. mark zellner says:

    I agree with Carol, with a movie that contains such a high degree of moral depravity and depiction of sin, I’m surprised that no word was given to mention this at all. Makes me wonder as a lot of media does just how much sin we need to wade through in order to reach whatever deep truths a movie may contain. I’m glad to hear that the sin wasn’t “glorified” in the sense that it was shown to be gritty, harsh and wicked, but even when sin is depicted honestly I’m honestly not sure that makes it any better to be exposed to. Every other Christian I know has been raving about Les Mis, but I think I’ll give this one a pass.

    1. Brad says:

      Mark, If you aren’t sure if there is any value even in seeing sin depicted honestly, I would humbly encourage you to consider why God has inspired the Scriptures where so much sin is continually displayed so honestly and so horrifically. You can’t read a page in the Bible without exposing yourself to the gritty, harsh wickedness of sin. The Bible shows the immense value in teaching us through many provocative stories the tragedy and wickedness of our rebellion so we treasure and celebrate all the more the glory of our redemption.

  11. Donald says:

    The bible itself portrays sin in a gritty, realistic and horrifying manner.
    I have seen Les Miserables, stage musical versions and film musical version combined, hundreds of times. If you missed this movie, you “passed” on something absolutely wonderful.

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Trevin Wax


‚ÄčTrevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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