It’s one of those stories that seems as if it’s always existed. It’s enormous—a heavy tome, a lengthy musical—and complex enough that to think only one man wrote it is astounding. And, to me, it has something of an enigmatic allure. Les Misérables has always seemed to know something I don’t.
For years, I never questioned what that allure was. It wasn’t until that lump-in-the-throat moment that came upon me while watching the new film trailer that I began to wonder: Is that just what “I Dreamed a Dream” does to people now? Or is it something deeper?
Les Misérables has certainly proven longevity. It still resonates with those who read its lines and hear its lyrics. Victor Hugo’s novel was released in 1887; the musical premiered nearly a century later. And yet both are still popular. Another version is due in theaters on Christmas Day, and the buzz continues. How, in a world of seemingly bottomless remakes, has Les Mis persisted—and even taken on new life?
It’s a fascinating question, in part because, on paper, the story has a bit more against it than one would think. For one, the sheer number of main characters could easily overwhelm. Ever watch traditional soap operas? Me neither, because when I try, I can’t follow a single dang plotline.
And look at the title—any film that translates to The Wretched is surely not a contender for the feel-good movie of the year. Indeed, in the novel, Hugo paints an image of human suffering so vivid that it is physically agonizing to read. For an example, consider Fantine’s story. When she sells her teeth to have just enough money to take care of her daughter, nevermind herself, the image of her bloody smile and the “black hole in her mouth” is enough to make one shudder. It’s vicious. I suspect the brutality will be amplified to perfection in the film.
Yet this pain is not without purpose. As Fantine’s situation grows more bleak, her overlapping emotions are revealed: love for her daughter, Cosette; guilt she cannot do enough for her; disgust at her station in life; fear for the future. And what happens? We come to understand Fantine. In our minds, she grows beyond a mere prostitute with no name or hope. She becomes human.
Such storytelling fills an audience with more than empathy. It awakens real, visceral compassion. If the character is humanized, then it follows she is not demonized, and her story may well be true. It could belong to the homeless woman you saw walking downtown last weekend.
That’s the truth every one of us needs—the truth a strong story will use to punch us in our collective gut.
Les Mis succeeds because it takes its honesty a step further. The despair and pain are balanced by the love the characters have for one another. And just as the darkness and light even out, so too are the story’s truths tempered by the presence of grace. That’s what is so unique about Jean Valjean, and what makes him a hero. Valjean’s morality is one nearly everyone can comprehend. Like him, we are all prone to error; like him, we are all capable of redemption. Valjean redeems himself in a more epic way than most, of course. But it begins with a bishop who acts just as Jesus Christ would have: He gives Valjean grace, knowing the truth of his actions but also his potential as a human being.
Without grace, Valjean would have been no father, no hero. More likely, he would have met his end murdering his adversary, Inspector Javert. Instead, he takes his second chance full circle and gives the same to—who else?—Javert.
That’s what the legalistic Javert cannot pack into his worldview: that life is never about moral perfection or unreachable standards. You can’t do a thing for the misérables of the world when you’ve detached yourself from their misery. May we never forget this. May we learn from his tragic mistake.
As the magnificent chaos that is Les Misérables washes over us in coming days, so too will its complex emotions and truths. The heartbreaking and glorious story will, I imagine, come in at fuller force, becoming all the more real to us. And its message will continue to keep it alive, enduring as classics do. It’s one that teaches us to bear one another’s burdens and to help those who suffer. It’s one that teaches us to remember the prisoner and the orphan. It’s one that reminds us they deserve as much, for we all have been given a second chance at life.