How is it that the story of Les Miserables has tapped into the emotions of so many?
I first read Victor Hugo’s novel in my late teens/early twenties, and a central idea stayed with me over the years (though not necessarily in the exact words Victor Hugo used):
You have been taken away from evil, and been given back to God.
When questioned, often even the actors and actresses in the movie cannot necessarily explain why Les Miserables has such power. This may of course be because they’re so close to the story. Ann Hathaway was a recent example. When asked this question, all she could reply was, “I don’t know. It’s just a great story.”
But I’m fascinated by what lies behind this: for Les Miserables is an intensely religous story. And this is a society in which the majority of people would not describe themselves as ‘religious’ (if collectors of statistics are to be believed). And so this begs another question: Why is the opinion I quote below such an uncommon one?
The authors have pared down Victor Hugo’s great wallow of a novel to its dumb, pious moral (Christian forgiveness always wins, though you might not live to break out the champagne).
I would dare to believe that the majority of the 60+ million people who’ve seen Les Miserables as a musical over the past 3 decades do not agree with him.
I believe that part of the success of Les Miserables is due to the fact that it has many hot story moments.
And these are bound up with the archetypal themes of the story, redemption, forgiveness and unconditional love.
As a romantic suspense author, I know only too well how vital these hot story moments are.
For me, the most emotional moment in the movie was when Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried) sings, “Papa, you are going to live.”
Superficially, this is just a young girl who refuses to believe she is about to lose the dying man in front of her. And for Valjean, this must be his supreme moment when he is given a sense of belonging.
But the power of these words, for me, works on another level; as does most of the movie. Cosette is re-stating the theme; the theme of eternal life through spiritual redemption.
In creative writing, we cannot afford to ignore the different levels on which a story moment may work. For me, our ability to do this is a matter of both mystery and imagination.
Although the characters of Les Miserables are in extreme, unjust circumstances, their emotions are, I believe, emotions many of us share on the spiritual journey.
Though you might not dare to believe your own deprivations compare with those of Valjean, Fantine and Cosette, being minor by comparison, we do feel the same.
Over the course of this life, at different times, we too may feel the same wretchedness as Fantine, the same self-doubt and guilt as Valjean, the same obsessiveness as Javert, the same grasping small-mindedness as the Innkeeper and his wife.
I believe that we’d feel the same if we were also visited with a great act of grace; and especially if we were in Jean Valjean’s position, and heard these words: “My brother you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.” (words the Bishop speaks to Valjean after he has given him the silver Valjean tried to steal). When I read the Bishop’s words to Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel, for me they had the power of a blessing, one which would stand by you throughout your life – as of course they did for Valjean in the story.
Over the past 3 decades Les Miserables has been seen by more than 60 million people in more than 40 countries and in more than 20 different languages.
I believe that Les Miserables shows that many more people respond to themes of spiritual redemption and forgiveness and unconditional love, than would ever call themselves ‘religious’.
These are archetypal themes, and they are written on our hearts.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments!