Anyone who knows the storyline of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (Les Mis) knows that any cinematic rendition will push strongly against the most common USAmerican movie theme: revenge. In conversation recently with friends, we all were troubled by how many movies are driven by the energy of “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” My wife, Julie, and I attended the new musical version of Les Mis starring Hugh Jackman (Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), and Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) on Christmas Day. We both were astounded by how dramatically well the themes of God’s grace, forgiveness and caring for the “miserables” spilled from the screen. Because music is the language of the soul, the songs riveted lyrics to melody leaving the audience spell-bound. One movie review even stated, “[Les Mis] casts a spell.”
The story, set in France during the political tumult leading to insurrection of young students in Paris in 1862, recounts the parole of Jean Valjean who spent 19 years in hard labor for stealing a piece of bread for his sister’s hungry child. Valjean, hardened by life experience, believes that he is a criminal by nature. That changes when he meets a priest who deeply shocks Valjean with grace–the surprising, liberating grace of God. Yet, while grace liberates, grace also commissions. Valjean is to use the priest’s gift of the silver (actually stolen by Valjean) to only do good.
Grace and forgiveness effect a change of character in Valjean and he becomes a successful, wealthy and good man. Valjean takes it upon himself to find and care for Cosette, the daughter of an abused, single mother, Fantine. Valjean, for various reasons, had broken parole and Javert, the intensely “just” and law-abiding, justice-demanding inspector, tracks Valjean down. To use the words of biblical James, the movie shows how “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). “To love another person is to see the face of God” is a line in the musical.
An observation about Hugh Jackman’s character, Valjean, gripped me. In the musical we see Valjean singing prayers–prayers of penitence and confession, prayers of guidance and intercession. I leaned over to Julie at one point and whispered, “Valjean is a praying man. How often do we see this in a Hollywood movie?” During the violent clash of students and Parisean military, Valjean prays for the survival of Marius, a young man with whom Cosette had fallen in love. The song, “Bring him home,” left Julie and I teary-eyed.
Both Valjean and Javert come from criminal backgrounds. Javert chooses to follow and to enforce the very strict letter of law in his clean, just worldview. On the other hand, Valjean knows only that he was thrown upon the mercy of God and, thus, he seeks to live out, in my opinion, the (alleged) prayer of Francis of Asissi: “Make me an instrument of Thy peace.” Time and again Valjean actually expresses unexpected mercy toward Inspector Javert, yet Javert cannot receive grace, he cannot believe in mercy. Javert does not truly believe that people can fundamentally be converted, be radically changed. Rather than live as a recipient of mercy, he takes his own life. He chooses against the grace of God.
Julie formulated this question during the movie and we talked about it later: “What if everyone adopted a grace-oriented, forgiveness-offering worldview?” It sounds pollyannaish, I admit, but isn’t that why God became flesh and lived among us? If forgiving love is the fulfillment of the Law, then we pastors need to shout from the roof-tops, “Go see Les Miserables! It’s what we live for!”