Help Educate My Mom on the Merits of Les Mis

This morning, I had a shocking conversation with my own mother that caused a near collision when I almost ran my car of the road in dismay, confusion and disgust. The source of our debate: the movie version of Les Miserables. (Cue “I Dreamed a Dream” now…). The conversation went something like this (daughterly liberties taken with exact dialogue):

Me: What did you do this weekend?

Mom: We went to see Les Mis. I hated it.

Me: What????!!!!!

Mom: Yeah, I thought it was depressing.

Me: What????!!!! Les Mis — you mean “the” Les Mis right? You didn’t go see the wrong movie right? What???!!!

Mom: Yeah, it was so depressing. It was also ugly – everyone was so dirty. And everyone died. I couldn’t really understand what they were singing about. And what was the point? It was too sad.

Me: What???!!! How can this be??? (Continued by fifteen minute dialogue on the redemptive value of the movie, religious themes, beauty, and altogether world-changing perspective of Les Mis)

Mom: Yeah, well I still don’t really like it. It’s so depressing…

Thankfully for me, we have another case of Father Robert Barron to the rescue. While Mom and I were chatting, Fr. Barron’s Word on Fire team was uploading this video, which has all the answers to my mom’s questions.

I promptly shared it with Mom in a further attempt to win her over to the light. For me, Fr. Barron’s video here is the perfect example of our efforts in the New Evangelization — the opportunity to take a thoughtful look at a piece of popular culture, and to explore it through the lens of faith. My mom (who is actually much smarter than I make her sound in our fake dialogue above) sees her world through the prism of faith. I do believe that when she has a chance to better know the context of the film, to learn the words to the songs, and to understand the themes of redemption that permeate the story, she will fall in love with Les Mis. But another equally likely scenario is that someone who already loves Les Mis will go surfing around Youtube today in search of videos about their favorite movie, find Fr. Barron, and fall in love again with a faith they perhaps never knew or put up on the shelf years ago. Can one video — or one movie — change a soul? I believe the answer lies in the tiny seed of faith and hope planted by them, and would answer with fervor, “Yes!”

But I also thought that to continue Mom’s education, I’d call in the cavalry next and ask YOU to chime in here too. What did you LOVE about Les Mis? What would YOU say to someone who perhaps missed the major themes of the film? And finally, what impact did the movie have on you personally? I promise to share each of your responses with Mom — hopefully they will be more persuasive than mine were!

About Lisa M. Hendey

Lisa Hendey is the founder and webmaster of CatholicMom.com and the author of The Grace of YesA Book of Saints for Catholic Moms and The Handbook for Catholic Moms. Lisa writes for several online and print publications, enjoys speaking around the country and is a frequent television and radio guest and host. Visit her at LisaHendey.com.

  • http://onlifeandstuff.wordpress.com Ariadna

    Les Miserábles is all about redemption and the quest to do what is right, no matter what the cost. And if you add to that beautiful music and singing, it’s just EPIC!!

  • Sr.Mary

    While I can’t say it better than Fr. Barron, Les Mis is THE supreme study in mercy … mercy lived out and mercy that changes lives and unqualified mercy. It’s the very opposite of depressing — it’s uplifting and enlightening. It gives me hope that God can be as merciful as the Bishop, and that it can change me the way it changed Jean Valjean, and that I’ll learn to be merciful as he was.

  • David

    I heard this on the radio on Saturday, Garrison Keiller apparently also does not like Les Mis. And while I do like it, I thought this parody was pretty funny. You can google it and hear it, or you can read it below.

    GK: It is finally here, the movie musical that you wished would not have happened, because it reminds you of the part of yourself that loved it thirty years ago. You were 17, you sang a song from it at the high school talent show, but time has passed, you’ve grown up, you’re over it —– and you’ve heard it too many times —- played by bluegrass bands (BANJO) and bagpipers (PIPES), people have taught their Chihuahuas to sing it (DOG), people have played it with air wrenches (SFX) and fire extinguishers (SFX) —- it’s been used up, and now it’s a major $61 million motion picture and you see it on a marquee and you can’t avoid going in, even though you hate yourself afterward.

    CHANTICLEER SOLOIST: I DREAMED A DREAM

    I saw a movie yesterday
    And it went on for hours and hours
    I fell asleep and had a dream
    I sent the actors to the showers

    And there was young Anne Hathaway
    And Russell Crowe, their talents wasted
    Alas the soundtrack was so bad
    You wished someone had just erased it

    I’ve heard those songs too many times
    By little girls in recitals
    I was tired of this film
    Before they got through the titles.

    GK: The musical Les Miserables premiered in 1980 and it was so successful, they milked it for thirty years, first on Broadway, then road shows, and now comes the movie version, and guess what —- we’re not in the mood. We’re over it.

    SECOND SOLOIST: ON MY OWN

    Overblown
    Pretentious, more than slightly
    Where’s the phone
    Would someone call a taxi
    Please stop it
    I feel my stomach churning
    Could you pass it, please, the antacid
    My heart is burning

    I am trapped between two giant people
    And they’re weeping up a river
    In the darkness, they sit and eat their popcorn
    This simple stupid song goes on forever and forever

    GK: Two hours and thirty-seven minutes. Keep that in mind. Two hours and thirty-seven minutes. And the second half feels like three weeks. You sit and remember the person you used to be long ago who liked this.

    THIRD SOLOIST (DRINK WITH ME)
    Come with me
    This movie is done
    Wait hold on
    There’s still one more song
    I can’t take this film
    Much longer I swear
    Yes I get it Fantine cuts off her hair.

    I don’t care
    It’s all a bore
    I hope it
    Wins for worst film score.
    I don’t know why
    Some people said this was great.
    Maybe they just showed up 2 hours late.

    GK: Another thing people dislike about Les Miz is that the actors can’t really sing. Russell Crowe, grunting, singing on his horse in the rain. Why did they try to save money by not hiring real singers for the soundtrack?

    CHANTICLEER:
    Have you heard the actors sing?
    All through the movie called Les Miz?
    It is the music of some people
    Who don’t know what singing is.
    Actors don’t know how to sing
    There is no passion there or fire.
    Next time you make a movie you should
    Get yourself a choir.

    GK: The third problem with Les Miz is that —- okay, it’s very heroic, fighters for freedom (SHOUTS), to the barricades (SWORDFIGHT), cannons (SFX), the cavalry riding in (HORSES GALLOPING) —- but this is San Francisco, it’s the most liberated city in the world, so why a movie about fighting for liberty —- why not a movie about something we really care about? A movie about San Francisco?

    SOLOIST (“Everybody loves a landlord” from “MASTER OF THE HOUSE”)

    Everyone loves San Francisco.
    Cafes everywhere.
    Bookstores in the square
    Walk down to the wharf and get some fresh sea air
    Look for a cheap duplex
    Buy shoes, buy some specs
    Work out at the gym and tighten up your pecs.
    Everyone loves San Francisco
    Everything you need is there.
    Nail salons and hair salons
    If you want nice hair.

    SOLOIST (“CASTLE ON A CLOUD”)

    There is a cafe on a hill.
    I like to go there every day.
    I get a tall latte.
    There in my cafe on a hill.

    And the WiFi there is free.
    And the people all know me.
    I always get a free refill.
    From the baristas, Jack and Jill.

    GK: Now you’ve got an idea for a movie. A café in San Francisco. And the patrons aren’t looking for liberty —- they’ve got that already — what they want is freedom. Freedom from the electronic world they have created. Freedom from cellphones.

    CHANTICLEER (DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING)

    Do you hear your cell phone ring?
    Several hundred times a day.
    Does it make you want to fling
    It out into the Bay.
    Are you tired of emails,
    Tweets and texts and one more call
    And that tone when someone’s
    Posted on your wall.

    I am tired of my phone.
    I do not want to hear from you.
    I am sick of my ring tone.
    I can not wait to say adieu.
    And I wish this song would end
    And I’m sure it will someday.
    I’ll be less miserable
    When Les Miz has gone away.

  • http://www.breakpoint.org Gina

    I thought “Les Miserables” was wonderful, but if there’s anything I’ve learned over a long career of passionate online arguing, it’s that you can’t talk someone out of a reaction to a movie. :-)

  • http://ellengable.wordpress.com Ellen Gable Hrkach

    Lisa, I loved the movie, although I have to admit I prefer the stage version (which I’ve seen four times). The “live” singing was great, for the most part, but the “emotional, raw” singing occasionally distracted me. One thing about the movie I preferred to the stage version is the beautiful, breathtaking photography. Regarding the story, yes it is depressing, but I think people nowadays just aren’t accustomed to death and hardship on a daily basis that the characters in the movie (and real people) had to endure in the 19th century. That being said, one of the things I love about any version of Les Miserables is how it portrays the Catholic Church. It’s so unusual in this day and age for a popular movie to show the kindness, beauty and truth of Catholicism (not to mention the themes of mercy and redemption etc).

  • srocha

    I haven’t been advertising it too much, but I really thought Les Mis was atrocious. This chap agrees with me — and your mother: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/01/theres-still-hope-for-people-who-love-les-miserables.html

  • http://pontifexlibris.blogspot.com Jo

    I’ve discovered that some people have varying degrees of what I call, for lack of a better phrase, “dramatic imagination.” Drama and fictional stories, written or performed-no matter the quality-don’t seem to resonate with some people at all. That, or like the experience of Lisa’s mother, the literal details and prevailing aesthetic of the movie dominate their impressions. I often have difficulty discussing art, literature, and film-even very good stories with Catholic or religious themes-with my own father, who has never had a significant quotient of “dramatic imagination.” Forget the overall theme of redemption-he can’t get past the fact that it involves scenes in a whorehouse. After years of encouragement, he still won’t read the Lord of the Rings. I don’t think this is a problem with particular films or stories, but rather an issue of how one has (or has not) been educated to “read” stories in any form. This requires time and practice, especially for musicals if you are not especially a ‘musicals’ type. It often surprises (and frustrates) me that otherwise dedicated Catholics haven’t developed this capacity of ‘dramatic imagination’ or don’t care to do so-not only can it be a useful tool for evangelization, but I think this kind of imagination is vital to a good spiritual life. For people who belong to a faith that calls us to have a supernatural outlook, there are many who struggle to actually do so, both in daily life, and at the movies.

  • http://begojohnson.com Bego

    Tell her to read the book. The book is always better.

    Always.

    I agree with her…it’s ugly. Death. Depravity. Selfishness. Sin sin sin. A perfect backdrop for the goodness in valjean’s heart.

    Then again, you could just agree to disagree. I empathize with her — I’d rather watch CSPAN than any Lord of the Rings anything. I detest the books, and the movie puts me to sleep.

  • Marion

    Eh–the movie was OK, although I have low tolerance for musicals in general. Now the book, I adore: that’s where I really discovered the themes of mercy and redemption, which I enjoyed seeing played out in the movie. It could just be a “medium is the message” thing with your mom. I don’t think you can “convince” someone not to have a particular artistic taste.

  • http://cajuncottage.blogspot.com Cay Gibson

    I would say that that is what makes Les Mis so great. It is life in the raw.

    Life is (at times) dismal and dirty.
    Life is (at times) burdensome and bitter.
    Life is (at times) gray and dismal.
    Life is (at times) cruel and crude.

    Yet, deep within, God’s grace and mercy lies beneath the muck and madness.

    Thank you for sharing this video. I love Fr. Barron, love Les Mis, and love my Catholic faith! :)

  • http://randomactsofmomness.com Ginny Moyer

    I just blogged about why I loved “Les Miz” the movie (after loving “Les Miz” the play). I’ll take a stab at convincing your mom. :)

    I think the main thing I took away from the movie was the Valjean/Javert contrast, especially in the way each man views God. Valjean’s God (and the bishop’s God) is a God of love and forgiveness and second chances — a God who takes time to hear and understand the circumstances that have led to our mistakes. Javert’s God is a God of swift retribution and fixed categories (eg., Fantine is a prostitute, therefore she’s evil, even though her backstory obviously cries out for understanding of the circumstances that brought her there). What the story shows is that Javert’s spiritual rigidity harms not only others, but also — ultimately — himself. That, to me, was a fascinating aspect of the story and one that I didn’t fully understand until I saw the movie.

  • Anne

    OK = Mom here…I did not say I HATED Les Mis…I said I thought it was depressing and I wanted to give everyone a bath. I was glad I saw it. The music was very nice, but I don’t want to see it again. I saw the goodness in the love, but also too much evil. I understand that there was a good message, but I like to see movies that are “feel good” and happy or that make me laugh. I told Lisa it was a hard movie for me to watch…

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  • http://kristenwestmcguire.wordpress.com Kristen

    This comment is for your mother.

    1. I am sorry your daughter decided to publicize your conversation in this way. There were less didactic ways to present your conversation, and I would have hoped she would be more tactful. I have also been a little shocked at how many people had negative reactions to the movie, which I loved…loved…loved.

    Point is, when we disagree, we don’t need to bring in the cavalry to all jump on and force a conversion of heart. The faith is PROposed, not IMposed.

    2. Remind your daughter not to talk on the phone while she is driving. You are not the only one who appreciates her, and I presume we all would like to keep her around awhile longer.

    3. The ‘ugliness’ of Les Mis’ striking portrayal of the suffering of the poor is true to Victor Hugo’s novel and very real. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine haunts my thoughts, and I saw it two weeks ago. She drew me in kept me there the whole movie. I walked out convicted that my priorities were awfully shallow, and committed to figure out what God would have me do to help the poor more than I already am. So, in a sense, you could say I hated it too, because it really caused me discomfort to think of the difference between my life and Fantine’s especially knowing that there are thousands of women suffering as she did today. Yeah, I guess I hated it too.

    And we all need an education.

    • lisahendey

      Kristen, for the record, my mom actually kind of encouraged me to write about our conversation and understands my (I guess poorly written) attempt to humorize our conversation (especially the part about “near accident” which was simply me being silly). I’m sorry that didn’t come across. But I hear you on the wrongness of me trying to change Mom’s mind – so thanks for underscoring that. I learn new lessons every day from my readers.

      On the talking on the phone issue, I always use my hands free speaker phone option in the car, which is legal here in California. I love talking with my mom so much that we speak almost every time I’m in the car for more than 20 minutes — she lives very far away so this is a time with her that I treasure… I’m blessed that even though I’m almost 50, my mom is always there for me.

      • http://kristenwestmcguire.wordpress.com Kristen

        Lisa, you know I am a big supporter of your work…and I probably came on a little strong…

        My parents are still wondering why the heck I became a Catholic 20 years ago…and still are a little hurt about it…so i am extra sensitive always about how I talk about them, and never to belittle their opinions. Prolly hit me the wrong way for that reason. You are very blessed.

        Still…I think it is worth talking about how we challenge ourselves after the movie. I found myself really questioning a lot of things. What kind of impact could we have if we let that message that the poor suffer so very much change our lives? I do think that was what your mom was saying – that it is depressing. And it really is depressing.

        Best wishes!

  • Lisa

    To be honest, I did NOT want to see this movie. A whole movie with only singing? Yuck! But my 17- and 19-year-old sons saw it first and LOVED it! They convinced me to see it and we all went on my birthday yesterday. I went in with a positive attitude since my sons enjoyed it so much. The Catholic themes throughout were so heart warming…a rosary factory, priests, nuns, crucifixes….To see Fantine sacrifice so much for her child – unbelievably moving. To hear Valjean admit he did not know love until he had Cosette as his daughter, made me remember how much I fell in love with my boys when they were born. And the line “To love someone is to see the face of God,” so beautiful. I am at the point where I have to give my sons away to the world (and it’s so difficult to let them go), that to see Valjean admit at the end that he could not keep Cosette, he had to let her go…let’s just say: pass the Kleenex please!

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    • Deb White

      Again I totally agree with the people who DIDN’T enjoy it. I cannot stand films with full “sing talk” I find that so annoying!! Singing in a film is beautiful – but every word – give me a break. Would you say to someone at work “Would you like a cup of coffee” in a singing voice – no! I love the story, so you can’t say I didn’t get it. I did and have been through awful times in my life, death of close people, bullying, illness etc so you can’t say I have no emotion, I cry at any film. But that no and never will! The sing talk annoys the hell out of me. So if someone said pass the tissues that was because I couldn’t wait to get out of the cinema. Still I was a good girl and went with my mum because her boyfriend wouldn’t and afterwards I pretended I liked it. I just think I would like Les Mis more if there was talking and singing. Not all the way through.

  • Jane

    Leave Mom alone. Not everything speaks to every person. For my part, I don’t care for the musical, liked Liam Neeson in the earlier movie and loved the book. But Lord of the Rings in any form leaves me cold. No big deal. It is not a character flaw not to appreciate Les Mis (or Tolkien), nor does it indicate that the individual involved is insensitive to human suffering or redemption….

  • Peggy Coffey

    I am just an ordinary person and I had not seen the play, but I absolutely loved the movie. It , loved me unlike any movie ever has. I felt the emotions of all of them, and the live singing made it so raw and real. It was an amazing experience.

  • sg

    here is the deal. people who have lived through miserable crap for real just don’t find this stuff entertaining. i speak for myself. it is too close to home. i prefer comedy or action adventure.

    • Christopher Lake

      SG,

      I have lived through “miserable crap for real.” I was born with with a physical disability, my mother was committed suicide when I was nine years old, I have struggled mightily in my career life… and I love serious, thoughtful movies with “heavy” themes. I don’t often go to the movies to escape. I go to the movies to see art. I go to be challenged. I go to be moved. I cannot stand most action movies. I like some comedies, but I find few comedies made in the last twenty years or so to be really funny (there are some exceptions, such as “Best in Show”). I don’t mind movies that are “close to home” emotionally, because they resonate with me. They remind me that I’m not alone. I haven’t seen “Les Mis” on the big screen yet, but I look forward to doing so.

      • Christopher Lake

        Oops… sorry for the typos! I know better, seriously… but I guess that I shouldn’t be typing this early in the morning!


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