Les Miz Sux: In Defense of Lisa Hendey’s Mom

Lisa Hendey’s mother is exactly right: the latest film adaptation of Les Misérables is terribly depressing.

It is a depressingly cheap and sterile substitute for a classic, beautiful story. It’s opportunistic, cast in serviceable plastic celebrities, and overwrought to compensate for the vividly clear failures of the cast. It surely wins every time for its literary content, obviously, but it fails miserably on its many demerits as visual and performance art.

Again: the depressing parts about Les Mis are not its well-known Catholic themes or riveting story. Hugo’s tale of mercy, love, and forgiveness is one of the greatest of Western literature. In fact, I think that many people who think they loved the movie are actually confusing themselves. They only loved the story, the content. They mistook their love of the story for their love of the movie. Hugo is the genius, not the actors, directors, or the rest. Some people, like Lisa Hendey, are simply kind enough to see and appreciate Hugo’s masterpiece, not the forced confusion on the screen and blaring through the speakers.

But Sam, didn’t the always unobjectionable Fr. Robert Barron love it, on YouTube?

No, not really. At least that’s not what he said.

He rehearses the contours of the original story, with loose allusions to the film, and notes how lovely it is for two deeply Catholic stories—The Hobbit (a downright atrociously awful waste of time and money and human imagination) and Les Mis—to be popular in the theaters during the Christmas season. Notice, however, how little he says about the actual execution of those stories.

Herein lies the problem. And this is why Lisa’s mother is exactly right in her overall dislike of Les Mis: there is a difference between content and execution. Even though you have the rarest, freshest, most expensive, and highest quality ingredients, you can still over-cook and under-salt the dish and present it in an ugly way.

Good ingredients do not guarantee good culinary art.

The same holds true for film, and all the visual and performing arts. Great content cannot redeem a bad performance. A beautiful story doesn’t guarantee a good movie.

As Catholics, especially in the United States, we are too quick to give a pass to bad art, simply because it has well-intended or truly good ingredients. Oh, this bread is made with wheat from the Holy Land, you say? Well isn’t this bread just delicious! No. It tastes like cardboard. What’s wrong with you? Are you saying that the Holy Land isn’t holy or something?—I think it’s the best I’ve ever had. No, I am saying that this wheat is very old and stale and probably not from the Holy Land to begin with: the bread is poorly baked and I’d rather eat a Big Mac than suffer through choking-down this pious, disgusting bread.

This logic that confuses good intentions or ingredients with good art and performance has contributed to aesthetic impoverishment of Catholic media, liturgy, and more. It also fuels a great deal of sentimentalist nonsense that only further damages our ability to discern things with taste and dignity. If you want to see how sentimentalism can ruin a religious palate, look up “The Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement, circa 1978-1993.” Or watch just about anything on EWTN. Or rent For Greater Glory.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Catholic kitsch. Mexican religious devotion is full of beautifully ugly folk art. I get that. But Les Mis is not that. Especially when you consider the score and the music.

Here are three critical details; three S’s: Sonic quality, Singing, and Staging.

Sonic quality: the film was compressed sonically to a level that really killed the audio dynamics. The orchestra felt like it was being digitally strangled to compensate for the bad and weak singing.

Singing: all around this was a bad outing. All the celebrities went from decent (Hugh Jackman) to embarrassing (the already much maligned Russel Crowe). As moved as you may have been by camerawork that tried to distract your eyes from your ears, especially when Hathaway did her thing, the vocals were quite bad. When you feel relieved that the notes resolved on key, you know that things are not going well. The other singers were decent by comparison, but their acting also suffered a bit as a consequence. Sasha Baron Cohen had something going on, but I suspect that mostly because I didn’t realize that he was an actor.

Staging: the film had its visual moments, but it seemed like a confusion between a film or stage production. That confused routine gave me vertigo until the ridiculous barricade made me laugh.

In a film that uses music as it’s main delivery device, combined with the usual visual expectations of a movie, it adds up to a spectacular failure in terms of its execution. This is depressing indeed, considering the prime ingredients that Hugo supplied.

Lisa’s mom was right. Luckily, “There’s Still Hope For People Who Love Les Mis,” opines The New Yorker. More seriously, you probably shouldn’t expect too much from these sorts of capital ventures. They are not intended to create quality art—they are created and promoted to get butts in seats. Make that munny, hunny. The Big Mac is their business model. And it showed.

If you’d like to see an alternative movie on themes of mercy and love and forgiveness, watch Babette’s Feast and/or The Tree of Life. Or, perhaps even better, read Les Misérables!

The lesson for Catholics is this: just because it’s Catholic, doesn’t mean it’s beautiful. It might even be downright ugly or just plain and forgettable, which is always rather embarrassing. Even more scandalously to some, the converse is also true: my favorite movie of the year was Wes Anderson’s hipsterific Moonrise Kingdom.



  • lisahendey

    Oh Sam, you are now officially and undisputedly my mom’s favorite blogger on Patheos!!

    • Anne

      So glad someone understands.

  • Petro

    Is this where I can argue that Moonrise Kingdom contains Catholic themes?

    It does. There is no other Hollywood director that is more pro-family than Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom was another strongly pro-family movie.

    • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

      Amen to that.

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  • http://egregioustwaddle.blogspot.com/ Joanne K McPortland

    I expected to agree with you on Les Mis, Sam, as I certainly do on Moonrise Kingdom. But I thoroughly enjoyed the film, vertiginous cinematography and ludicrous barricade and unpolished singing and Russell Crowe and all—with the exception of Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen who were, to my mind, much more involved with drawing attention to their iconic selves than they were with getting the Thenardiers right. (But then I find them irritating wherever I find them, so that’s personal.) Yes, it’s the story that works on us, as it always was with the stage show, which has all the foibles the New Yorker article pointed out when placed against the peppy, sunny, American musical tradition (even when that tradition goes very dark, as in Carousel). But in what adapted play script or screenplay or opera libretto is that not the case? I particularly appreciated the film’s allowing more of Hugo’s novel in than the stage adaptation did.

    But in the end, I’m just a butt in a seat, sniffling happily into my tissues. I didn’t love Les Mis for its Catholicism alone (though that has moved me to tears from the first time I saw it, during its opening Broadway run, in the company of the bishops of the USCCB’s Communication Committee, who could talk of nothing afterward but what a gift it was to see something in which a Catholic bishop was the Good Guy), so I don’t feel compelled to dismiss poor quality in favor of the faith. I just didn’t think it was all that poor. Fortunately, we can disagree. And I can salute you for your very JeanValjeanish defense of Lisa’s mom!

    • srocha

      Jeez, Joanne, when you put it THAT way, I almost want to agree with you. But I think I have to dig in deeper and say, “shucks, you don’t get a pass for false consciousness (wasn’t that a downright dirty trick to pull?), you’ll just have to be wrong this time.” Actually it’s more complicated than that. I am not a very cultured man and I don’t know much about the finer dissections of opera and musicals. I get it all mixed up in my head. Come to think of it, I don’t think I like any musical adaptations of this sort, except (GASP) ‘Jesuschrist Superstar.’ The character of Judas Iscariot and the funky music just kill it. Amazing. So fair enough. For those who do not suffer from false consciousness (and, nasty as it is, I think that is the true core of my objection), I suppose what I have left is a question of taste that is less cut and dry — like a person who simply doesn’t like cheesecake. Yep, that’s me!

      • http://manicdoodlings.blogspot.com Steve

        Ah Jesus Christ Superstar! I wore that album out as a kid. Ian Gillian from Deep Purple singing the part of Jesus–what’s not to like? Of course I didn’t see the movie or play & I likewise probably won’t see Les Miz… As always, a great read…

  • http://decentfilms.com SDG

    There’s a credible case to be made that Les Miz sucks, certainly.

    To keep things in perspective, there is also a credible case to be made that The Tree of Life sucks. And that Babette’s Feast is at least overrated.

    • srocha

      I don’t think a total equivocation can be made across these three films, SDG. In one respect you may be right, but I do not think that a total equivalence in quality follows from that.

      • http://decentfilms.com SDG

        I’m certainly not proposing an critical equivalence of the three films, Sam. I think each of these films admits a very different range of credible critical opinion.

        For instance, I think it’s possible to argue that The Tree of Life is one of a handful of the greatest films ever made — or a singular catastrophe. I don’t think one can credibly argue anything like either of those extremes of Babette’s Feast, or for that matter Moonrise Kingdom, and certainly not of Les Miz.

        One might credibly argue that Babette’s Feast or Moonrise Kingdom are comparatively modest but essentially perfect masterpieces. One might also argue that that Moonrise Kingdom is barking nonsense. I don’t think one can credibly argue that Babette’s Feast doesn’t have at least a certain baseline competence.

        I think Les Miz can be credibly construed as as a well-made, at times inspired adaptation, or as a pretty soggy mess with few bright spots. What it definitely isn’t is either an unqualified masterpiece or a complete disaster (unless you just hate the musical and wouldn’t like any filmed version, no matter how well-made).

        • srocha

          This reply makes sense to me, SDG. Although I, like Petro, will go to the mat for The Tree of Life.

          • http://decentfilms.com SDG

            Well, since it made my top 10 list for 2011, I guess I’ll go to the mat for The Tree of Life too, up to a point. I feel the weight of some of the critical objections, though. For me the film’s greatness is essentially bound to its transcendent first half; the second half is a struggle for me. I understand some people feel exactly the opposite way.

    • Petro

      “To keep things in perspective, there is also a credible case to be made that The Tree of Life sucks.”

      Credible, but wrong. ;)

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  • The Pachyderminator

    The trouble with your writing on movies is your critical switch has only two positions: “worst thing ever” and “best thing ever”. Have you ever seen a movie that you thought was just okay?

    • srocha

      Hmm… Moonrise was my favorite for the year, but, overall, it was a little better than just okay. I thought Batman was just okay, which was a major letdown. Argo was terrific, but I saw it again and it didn’t hold up like the truly greats. So, I don’t know; I could go on and on. The simplest answer is YES.

      • http://decentfilms.com SDG


        Your favorite film of the year was only “a little better than just okay”?

        Do I have a list for you…

        • srocha

          I’m told that I have to see The Master. It didn’t play here nearby and I also missed Anna Karenina. Oh, and Taken 2.

          • Petro

            I haven’t seen Amour, but Michael Haneke is one of the best directors making movies right now. You should try to find Code Unknown by Haneke. It streams on Netflix if you have that. I think you would like it considering your interests.

      • Petro

        I felt Argo was better than Moonrise Kingdom. I appreciated Moonrise Kingdom, but I think some choices that Anderson made took away from the overall effectiveness of the film. He needs to be more adaptable to his subject matter rather than trying to fit his subject matter into his stylistic molds.

  • Will

    Hey Sam.
    Not being a critic (in fact, I love your blog), but being just a non-Catholic college kid, I’m wondering if you could clarify about The Hobbit. I know that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and am not surprised to hear that the book is a Catholic story as such. I guess I’d love to hear you talk about The Hobbit specifically as a Catholic work of art – why and what parts of it are especially so or exemplary as Catholic or what not. I don’t know if this merits a blog post by itself or what, but I thought it might be worth asking about.
    Really loving your writing,

    • Bob

      Will, I don’t have as much to say about the Hobbit’s Catholicism, but on Tolkien’s Catholicism in general and especially concerning the Lord of the Rings, there is a video on the following site. It is from a conference given on Tolkien at the University of Notre Dame last fall. You might find it interesting and helpful in understanding the Hobbit (which I would argue is less obviously although still deeply Catholic).
      The video is the bottom right hand one on the screen titled “Tolkien and Catholicism.”


      • Will

        Hey, thanks Bob. I appreciate your intelligence. I’ll get back to you. – Will

    • srocha

      Thanks, Will!

      I honestly don’t know the details in Fr. Barron’s comparison. Bob’s link probably more helpful in that regard. What I do think about the Hobbit is that takes myth seriously. That alone, that concern and love of the mythopoetic, strikes me as deeply Catholic. I’m trying to finish a book that speaks to that, hopefully it’ll be done soon. Thanks for you kind words.


      • Will

        You got it, man. Thanks for responding.
        I posted that post and then realized I wanted to be clearer. Sorry for the repost.
        I’ve read some Tolkien (just re-finished “On Fairy Stories”), a ton of C.S. Lewis, and some Owen Barfield in the past two or three years, so I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, myth, and Christianity. And I understand the importance of taking Myth seriously. I wonder a lot of times if people who read Tolkien and other “fantasy” works don’t realize that the difference between them is Tolkien’s Christianity (possibly his Sacramentalism) and his Romanticism, at least in as much as he actually believes there’s something true and real and even almost “historical” about his work. I say that because of the way he talks about his work in his letters and stuff, like a real historian. You don’t see this with other “fantasy” writers. Yet without being Catholic, it can be hard to discern what derives specifically from Catholicism.

        In short, I’d be interested in that book. It’s one that you’re writing, or reading?

        • srocha

          Funny how threads overlap! I’m WRITING the book on liturgy, where lots of those themes should come out in terms of what makes it all so Catholic. But I am also READING a book that Bob sent me, on the same thing, but in a more theological and Eastern Orthodox tradition. So you’re right on all counts!


          • Will

            Wow, that is funny. Thanks for clarifying, and thanks for responding. Love to hear about either book when you finish, and I’m glad to hear that I’m on the right track.