The Les Misérables Movie: Surprises at the End [Major spoiler alert]

Warning: If you have not seen the film version of Les Misérables and you intend to see it sometime in your life, I would encourage you to stop reading now. Instead of finishing this piece, read instead the excellent post on Les Mis by Tim Dalrymple.

For me, the biggest surprise of the movie version of Les Misérables came right at the end. I suppose I would have been more surprised by the addition of the song “Suddenly,” but I knew before I saw the film that it had been added. Yet, I was not expecting a couple of innovations that appeared in the closing minutes of the movie. I want to comment on these today.

Once again, I’ll follow the pattern of my last three blog posts of the Les Misérables movie (1. Fact Check, 2. Script Changes, 3. Suddenly). I have been evaluating differences between the stage and film versions of the musical Les Misérables, comparing these to Victor Hugo’s novel. As I do, I’m asking: Do the changes in the script makes sense in the story? Are they faithful to the novel?

In the closing scene of the movie, as Jean Valjean is dying, he writes a letter to Cosette, singing:

On this page
I write my last confession.
Read it well
When I at last am sleeping.
It’s the story
Of one who turned from hating
A man who only learned to love
When you were in his keeping.

This differs somewhat from the stage version of Les Mis:

On this page
I write my last confession
Read it well
When I at last am sleeping.
It’s a story
Of those who always loved you
Your mother gave her life for you
Then gave you to my keeping.

Both of these version emphasize key elements of the Les Mis story. The movie version focuses on the transformation of Jean Valjean, which is fully in keeping with Hugo’s story (see yesterday’s post). But, in the novel, Jean Valjean’s last statement does indeed focus on Cosette’s early life and on her mother. In fact, in Valjean’s last statement, he finally reveals to Cosette the name of her mother, Fantine, adding: “Remember that name—Fantine. Kneel whenever thou utterest it. She suffered much. She loved thee dearly. She had as much unhappiness as thou hast had happiness.” So, in this case, I’d give the nod of accuracy to the stage production, though allowing that the movie is faithful to the novel in a different way. The movie does give appropriate honor to Fantine, however, when she appears as a ghost to welcome Jean Valjean to glory.

The Bishop, played by Colm Wilkinson, and Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman

But then comes a much bigger surprise. As Jean Valjean’s spirit gets up and begins to walk toward heaven, he is welcomed by none other than the Bishop, the one whose mercy turned Valjean’s life around. The presence of the Bishop completes the circle, as he once again blesses Jean Valjean with grace.

This creative innovation, not found in the stage production, moved me. It also made me curious. Does the Bishop show up in the final scene of Hugo’s novel?

In a sense, the Bishop is always present with Jean Valjean through the symbolism of the candlesticks, which the Bishop once gave to Valjean and which he has treasured his entire life. So, you don’t need a human figure of the Bishop to remember his transforming influence on Jean Valjean. The candlesticks figure prominently in the final scene of the story in all three media: novel, stage, and film.

But does the Bishop show up in the novel, or is this innovation in the movie only? To answer this question, I had to go back and do some homework, re-reading the final chapter of the novel. What I found fascinated me. Yes, indeed, the Bishop is present in Jean Valjean’s last moments. In his final speech, for example, he says to Marius and Cosette:

I bequeath to her the two candlesticks which stand on the chimney-piece. They are of silver, but to me they are gold, they are diamonds; they change candles which are placed in them into wax-tapers. I do not know whether the person who gave them to me is pleased with me yonder on high. I have done what I could.

Yet, this is not the only place Hugo mentions the Bishop in Jean Valjean’s last minutes of life. A bit earlier, the woman overseeing his dwelling asks Valjean, “Would you like a priest?” Notice how Hugo portrays Valjean’s response:

“I have had one,” replied Jean Valjean. And with his finger he seemed to indicate a point above his head where one would have said that he saw some one. It is probable, in fact, that the Bishop was present at this death agony.

Though I’ve read Les Misérables two times, and I’ve read the final scene probably a dozen more, I had never before paid attention to this piece of the story. The Bishop was with Valjean in his death. Surely, by implication, he was also there to welcome him to heaven. Once more, I credit the film with making changes that both strengthen the story and are faithful to Victor Hugo’s novel.

In case you’re interested, here’s how  Hugo narrates the death of Jean Valjean:

He had fallen backwards, the light of the candles illuminated him.

His white face looked up to heaven, he allowed Cosette and Marius to cover his hands with kisses.

He was dead.

The night was starless and extremely dark. No doubt, in the gloom, some immense angel stood erect with wings outspread, awaiting that soul.

The Bishop is not mentioned, though his presence is conveyed through the candlelight that illuminates Valjean’s face.

In the stage and film versions of Les Mis, the Bishop plays a small but crucial role. We feel as if we know the Bishop, though he is barely introduced to us. In the book, however, we get to know the Bishop much better. In fact, the first 70 pages or so, that’s about 7% of the novel, are devoted to introducing the Bishop. I’ll say more about this in my next post on Les Misérables.

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  • I was waiting to see what you would write about this change, as I think it’s the biggest change, and possibly the best change between the two versions. It was made all the more special by Colm Wilkinson playing the role, too.

  • Harrison K. Long

    I like the “Les Mis” movie version of the ending better – with some focus on Jean Valjean’s spirit moving toward heaven and welcomed by the Bishop, whose mercy changed Valjean’s life.

  • BennyAce

    I’m not that familiar with the stage version, but isn’t the movie different in that Javert threatens Valjean in their final confrontation (“Another step and you’re dead”) while on stage he allows Valjean to take Marius to the hospital?

  • markdroberts

    Indeed. The scene was brilliant. Using Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop was doubly brilliant.

  • markdroberts

    Yes, that is new in the film. In the book, the interaction between Javert and Valjean at that point is much more complicated, but I don’t think Javert ever threatens him. I expect this was added (unnecessarily) for drama.

  • I actually took it a different way, which was to suggest that Javert still believed he could revert to his normal self after being released by Valjean. It was only after Valjean walked away, and he was unable to act did the realization that Javert’s own reality was crumbling before his eyes begin to really sink in.

    As for if it was needed, I’m not sure it is. I would have preferred them to closer mirror the book, where Javert escorts him to Marius’ grandfather’s house. Then he requests to say goodbye to Cosette, and Javert allows him to do so. While inside, Valjean looks out the window and Javert is gone. This doesn’t work on stage, for obvious reasons, but seems made for the cinema.

  • W. Patrick Jones

    Agreed. I’ve never been a crier (though I have done more of it since my marriage ten years ago (not sure of the meaning of that!)), but when Fantine came to “bring him home” and the bishop was there waiting, I cried. So moving!

  • Perico de los Palotes

    What’s this fixation with shortening everything: “24/7”; “9/11”, “‘coz”, “Les Mis”?. read the book and you’ll make your own judgement, of course, reading is too much to ask for a culture of morons and ignorant……………bye…….

  • bw00ds

    And unfortunately, there are those who publicly display their ignorance of civility and manners and readily show their arrogance and complete ignorance of what is going on. I describe you, sir, of course.

  • Sandy

    This was another very moving scene. Another tear jerker… I so loved Colm Wilkinson playing the role. Watching the movie, made me understand the play better, which I have seen many, many times. Saw the movie 3 times and plan on getting the DVD and complete soundtrack, when it comes out. Love your articles on the movie and play….

  • CarlH

    It goes almost without saying, of course, that the imagery of the Bishop welcoming Jean Valjean to heaven makes very clear (completes, even) Hugo’s use of the Bishop as a figure of Christ–source of grace, light and ultimately love–a symbolism that would be particularly strong for a Catholic author and readership for whom every priest, particularly when serving at the altar in dispensing the Eucharist, acts for and in the place of Christ and the intermediary between man and God. Taking that perspective, the movie ending is especially powerful.

  • Paul David

    I think my eyes played a trick on me, but at the end .when it looks like the Bishop is greeting Valjean in “heaven”, I thought i saw the Bishops face morph into Javert. I know this is contrary to the spirit of the novel, which sees the unforging inspector even unable to forgive himself, but , I would rather see the two reconciled.

  • EllenB

    I loved the ending—thought of one improvement and would like to know your thoughts? I would have loved to see Fantine with her long locks (hair) come for Jean Valjean. No matter, the ending scene, songs, my favorite of all time.
    Also, interesting how Fantine stays back after she send Jean toward the Bishop–almost as if she is still waiting to enter Heaven—she is “hovering” around Cozette & Marius–could this be a reference to purgatory as she later joins the others on the grand barricade.

  • dahszil

    There was a version of the movie made in France many decades ago. It was pretty good. I never heard about this latest movie. but I almost always find first seeing the movie on any book never comes close to the greatness of the book by reading it or listening to it unabridged as on for free. Seeing the movie destroys what using your imagination and historical text research to recreate what characters and looks like, the facts of that period, and the mood that pervades. Movies because of time constraints are almost always abridged.

  • wowzolo

    Thank you for this great piece. Just finished tonight and your blog made it feel complete.

  • Jordin

    I was wondering if you could explain Jean Valjean’s, Fantines, and Cosettes’ reaction to Christianity