Les Miserables – Review
Whatever you may think about the various choices the directors made in this current version of Les Miserables—you like the singing, you don’t like the singing, or the close-ups, or what have you—wherever your personal tastes may lie, almost none can deny the story itself is powerful enough that it should not be missed. If singing isn’t your thing, try the Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush version. Prefer to read? The book, if you can not be daunted by its sheer immensity, is fantastic. Some way or another, this is a story that none should miss.
It’s a story about the conflict between the law and grace. Jean Valjean is an ex-con who was given grace and a second chance at life. That grace changed his life forever. It broke him. He now spends his life giving grace to others. Javert is his parole officer, who has dedicated his life to the law and the pursuit of justice. He doesn’t believe in grace. He doesn’t believe people change. He therefore cannot trust the good and the change he sees in Jean Valjean.
In the end, grace and mercy triumph. The law is insufficient to reform a man, but grace is transformational, over and over again. Jean Valjean ends up holding Javert’s life in his hands. Javert fully expects to receive justice and retribution from Jean Valjean (as he himself would have done in the situation were reversed), but instead he receives mercy. The same mercy that broke Jean Valjean broke Javert, but where the one responded with humility and became a better man, the other responded with pride and died. The law could not be broken and survive. Javert said, “By granting my life today, this man has killed me even so.” He realized his life’s pursuit was wrong. A man could change. The law wasn’t the only force, nor was it the best. Grace was more powerful. Javert felt that he, the law, could not live in a world with Jean Valjean, with grace.
The one scene in the movie which has haunted me (in a good way) since first I saw it, above all others, is the scene where Jean Valjean is first given mercy. He has been released from prison, but the stigma of being an ex-con haunts him so that he is unable to get work or shelter anywhere. He wasn’t a bad man, but the hardness of the world had hardened him. In his words, “I had come to hate the world, this world that hated me.” At this point, a kindly Bishop took him in and gave him shelter and food. So desperate and hardened, rather than repaying the priest’s kindness, Valjean took advantage of it and left in the night, stealing the fine silver.
The police found him and brought him to the Bishop to confirm that the silver was stolen and return him to prison. This is what has haunted me since first I became acquainted with the story. The Bishop, rather than demand his rights, rather than even simply asking for a return of the silver, gave grace, costly grace, and he gave it abundantly, lavishly, recklessly even. He commended the lawmen for doing their duty and then said that the silver was given to Valjean. He then went on to point out to Valjean, “You left so early, you forgot, you left the best behind.” And with that he gave Valjean the silver candelabras with the admonition, “Use this precious silver to become an honest man… God has raised you out of darkness; I have bought your soul for God!”
Such extraordinary grace. Valjean’s first crime, the one that put him in jail, was simply that he stole a piece of bread for his sister’s starving son. He never felt he really deserved prison. He did what he did for someone else in dire need. This time, however, he could have no such illusions about his guilt, or about what he deserved. He deserved prison this time, or worse, and he knew it. Not only did he steal, but he did so for his own gain, and from a godly man who had only shown him goodness and kindness. He was guilty, and he absolutely knew it. Grace might not have meant so much before, but now, face to face with the depth of his guilt, grace was overwhelming.
Perhaps this is why the Bishop treated the lawmen with such dignity, and why Valjean later treated Javert with such understanding and respect. Perhaps it’s because they both realized that the law was necessary. The law showed man his need for grace. Had Valjean not broken the law, grace would have meant nothing to him. It was because the law condemned him that grace was able to break him, heal him and restore him.
I don’t know if there is another story on earth which so clearly illustrates the principles in Romans of law and grace.
For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new ways of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” … For apart from the law, sin lies dead. … The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. …So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Romans 7:5-12
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. …For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Romans 5:6-11
Do you see the parallels? Javert thought the law promised life, but it became death to him. Once the Bishop and Valjean understood grace, they also saw the need for the law and honored it as good, good because it showed them their need for grace. Grace, however, all the more beautiful because of the law, released them from the law and freed them up to serve in new ways. It was while Valjean was at his most vulnerable, weakest, most desperate state that Christ (via the Bishop) saved him. It was while he was a thief and a sinner and an ungrateful, miserable wretch, (not once he was worthy or had proven himself in any way), that the Bishop reconciled Valjean to God through the gift of life-giving silver. That silver was enough to buy a new identity—it was truly that the Bishop gave Valjean a new life.
See Les Miserables, some version of it or another. Let its truths sink in. Take stock of your own life. Have you received grace, or do you, like Javert, cling to the law, thinking through it to gain your salvation and bring others to justice? Know that the law is good because it shows us our shortcomings, our desperate need for grace; but also know that the law is insufficient to save. Only grace can save, which is why, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Questions for Discussion:
- What scenes were most powerful to you, and why?
- Why do you think Javert felt he had to die in the end?
- Did it surprise you that Valjean was so understanding of Javert and his dogged pursuit?
- How many examples of “the law” can you find in the story?
- How many examples of “grace” do you see in the story?
- Who do you identify with more, Jean Valjean or Javert? Why?
I encourage you to read Romans (especially chapters 5-8) with Les Miserables in mind. See if it doesn’t help the themes of law and grace come alive in a fresh, new way for you.
By Stacey Tuttle
Click here to read quotes from Les Miserables.