By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
People have been raving about the musical version of Les Miserable which has already had around three hundred million dollars in worldwide box office sales.
Nicky Gumbel calls it a superb film, a triumph of grace over law, good over evil, love over hate. Eric Metaxas said that it is one of the most vivid, most moving examples of God’s goodness and mercy currently playing at a movie theatre near you. I enjoyed the new movie so much that it inspired me to again watch the 1998 version with Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman. Though my wife and I saw the Les Miserables production many years at Queen Elizabeth Theatre, this time round seemed to be striking a deeper chord with myself. The original novel, which I now have in eBook version, has been in print for over 150 years. Upton Sinclair calls the novel Les Miserables one of the five greatest novels of the world. With 1500 pages (1900 in French), it is also one of the longest novels ever written.
Many of you already know this delightful story of how an embittered ex-convict named Jean Valjean stole from a bishop who turns the other cheek and challenges Valjean to become a new man. Victor Hugo has the bishop say: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” In gratitude, Valjean spends the rest of his life showing amazing grace, love and forgiveness to others. The forgiven forgive. Valjean’s life is based loosely on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, an ex-convict who became a thriving entrepreneur known for his good works. In 1828, Vidocq, like Valjean, rescued one of his factory workers by lifting a heavy cart on his shoulders.
The tension in the movie between forgiveness and judgment is expressed through the police inspector Javert relentlessly pursuing Valjean. Javert tells Prisoner 24601 (Valjean) that ‘men like you can never change’. Again and again Valjean shocks Javert by forgiving the unforgivable. Valjean offered to Javert the same radical reconciliation and healing that had been given to him. Javert cannot handle forgiveness because he is so fixated on people getting what they deserve. Javert was legalistic and self-righteous. This caused him to persecute the very person whose life had been transformed, the very person who was doing so much good for others. Javert’s compassion is completely lacking. Life becomes no more than following the rules and trusting in one’s own efforts. For Javert, God is an unforgiving moralistic tyrant. For Valjean, God is personal, caring and loving.
Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine was spectacular, particularly in her singing of ‘I Dreamed a Dream.’ In 1841, Hugo personally rescued a prostitute from arrest for assault. We grieve with Fantine over the injustice of her losing her job and being forced into prostitution to feed her child Cossette. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times notes that Les Miserables ‘delivers an emotional wallop when it counts. You can walk into the theater as an agnostic, but you may just leave singing with the choir.’
Les Miserables reminds us that anyone can change; anyone can become a new person. We are not fated to be bitter and miserable. We can choose the way of forgiveness and joy. We can choose to be a new creation like Valjean. My prayer for those reading this article is that the movie Les Miserables may inspire each of us to forgive and serve one another as did Valjean.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News
award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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