Hope for the Miserable Ones
I recently had the pleasure of watching the newest movie adaptation of Les Miserables. It was an excellent film: in fact I’d have to rank it as one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. However I feel that my love for it has more to do with the story that it is based on then the movie itself. I loved the movie because it told the story extremely well; why I love the story is something I’ve been reflecting about lately, as well as exactly why I thought the movie did a superb job of telling it.
I have said before that the question “If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” is one of most reasonable questions a man can ask. However, too often in this case we treat suffering as an intellectual concept rather than a very real and terrible reality for people around the world. Les Miserables shows us human suffering in vivid and concrete terms that are hard to brush off or easily forget. The story captures the misery and injustice we find in the world around us and refuses to sugarcoat it.
And yet the story does not stop there. The film is not content to paint misery in hundred foot letters for the mere point of saying (as so many “dark and gritty” movies these days do) “Life sucks and then you die.” Les Miserables forces us to gaze upon the ugliness of suffering, but then it calls us to witness something far more beautiful: the love of God reaching down to touch those who suffer. The story gives us man’s capacity for deceit, cruelty, and indifference yet at the same time shows us our ability to forgive, show compassion, and love one another. I found myself tearing up at three points in the movie: once because I was moved by sadness, but twice because I was moved by love. This movie—this story, rather—hits a soft spot for me. I love to see evil struck down, innocents saved, and love overcoming hate.
Some would argue that (as far as the story goes) it is unnecessary to bring God into the equation. They would say that Jean Valjean is a good man and that his good actions do not need to be explained by some higher power. There is merit to this; all the same the movie would have been incomplete without God. If all there was to the story were the events that we can see with our eyes, if this world is all there is, then Les Miserables is nothing more than a farcical tragedy. Everywhere we see good and innocent people brought to ruin, despair, and death by the cruelty and conniving of evil men and the indifference of the respectable. When things start to go right sudden events bring catastrophe. Many die seemingly for nothing, having accomplished little by their sacrifice and changed less. Meanwhile evil men and women live to prey on the weak another day which gives us a profound sense of injustice. Les Miserables would be a sad tale indeed if this world was all there was. But Valjean has a better hope. At the end of his life he tells God he is ready to come home; to be released from the shackles and miseries of this world. His cry is not one of a fatalist but rather of one who is ready to leave this shadowy world in order to enter into the true one. He has carried his share of suffering and now it is time to be relieved of his burdens. It is time to come home.
And man does this movie deliver! Fantine, who despaired for living and died a penniless prostitute, appears to Valjean. No longer is she the sad, dirty, and pitiful thing we saw before. Now she is beautiful, clean, and full of joy. Her story did not end in that dark hospital nine years ago. Valjean’s will not end either. He dies and his daughter weeps for him, but Valjean does not weep for himself. Fontaine leads him on and there we see the other side of death. The loving priest who changed his life is here to welcome him; and outside the convent walls Valjean finds the brave men and women (and children!) who died bloodily in the streets during the revolution. These souls who we last saw suffering and dying for their ideals are now proud and grinning. Though in the world’s eyes their deaths accomplished nothing in God’s eyes they have accomplished everything. They fought valiantly and died for the good of others. Though others weep for them they do not weep for themselves. They are triumphant!
Les Miserables is ultimately a story of good’s triumph over evil, and it is a story framed in a way that we do not usually expect from a book or movie. The story stays true to what we see in life; the good die, often horribly and unjustly, while the evil live on and profit from their cruelty. This is not what we expect from a story of good triumphing over evil; in the same way that the disciples never expected Jesus to die on a cross. And yet that act of suffering and death became the ultimate victory over suffering and death everywhere. Whether a story has a happy ending depends on when you choose to stop reading. Often we close the book too early. We think that death is the final chapter. If it is then life is a tragedy. As a Christian I know that death is not the end. We cannot see how our own (or anyone else’s) story ends from this side of eternity; we are still in the middle of the book.