#1 Les Miserables
Right off the bat, I must admit, I am a Les Mis junkie. I was first introduced to the story when my theater group performed it in high school. Since then I have seen more film adaptations, concert and stage performances than I can count. That being said, there is no particular version that I am referencing here. I have my favorite, mainly being the musical- but when I say Les Miserables is the number one Christian film- I mean that in the broader sense, that Les Mis is the number one Christian story. No matter what version you see, the core remains the same.
With the 2012 musical film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, I think I can safely assume more people have at least heard the name “Les Miserables” than ever before (although we still have a difficult time pronouncing it).
Before Anne Hathaway made everyone bawl nonstop through “I Dreamed a Dream”, there were two other powerful “Les Mis” media phenomenons: namely the Broadway Musical and a 1988 film adaptation starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush.
My personal taste leans towards the musical. The 1988 version changes some elements to the story, and while they do not nullify the main theme- in my opinion these cuts dilute the epic and muddy the convictions and goals of the protagonists.
Have I bored you with all my geeky “Les Mis” facts? The real fact, is that this story is extremely dear to my heart. Why? Because in my opinion, “Les Mis” is one of the greatest love stories ever told.
Back in high school, while I was just coming into my Les Mis obsession, I was also attempting to learn more about film. The result was that I analyzed every story that took my fancy as I tried to figure out what made it so enthralling.
How did this epic historical piece measure up? Well.. it’s a very long story, you might want to take a seat.
I mentioned this is a love story. You may or may not agree with me, probably based on your definition of love. The English language only has one word to describe a very important concept. We use this word to describe people who are dear to us, but in each situation it might mean something slightly different. The Greeks got around this problem by creating not just one, but four words that all have to do with that thing we call love. My hypothesis is that any great story or film, must contain all four. Les Mis is the perfect example.
Storge- Family love
Although there are a lot of broken families in Les Mis, Storge has a strong presence. Fantine loves her daughter- so much in fact that she will sacrifice herself in the hope her child will live a better life. When Fantine entrusts Cosette to Jean Valjean, he develops a storge love for Cosette. We also see a twisted version of this kind of love in the Thernardiers. They are selfish and only care about themselves. At first this brings their daughter- Eponine, good things: toys and dresses that were really meant for Cosette. In the end it destroys the clan. Eponine’s brother is thrown out of the house and Eponine is left to wander the streets by herself.
Philia- Friendship love
Also called Brotherly love- this is the bond between friends. The students at the ABC cafe are prime examples in Les Mis. They share common interests, ideals, and a brotherly affection for each other. One could argue that this is the weakest of the loves- but even so, many of the revolutionary students end up dying for the ideal they share, and appear to find solace in their friendship even when the future is bleakest.
Eros- Romantic love
As Americans who are exposed to vast amounts of erotic film TV, and music, this is probably the sort of love we are most familiar with. It’s romantic and passionate. The stuff rom-coms are made of. When I mentioned that Les Mis is a love story- this is probably where your mind went first. Yes, there is romantic love in Les Mis. Cosette and Marius share a passion for each other, and Eponine is hopelessly “in love” with Marius. As it is rather self- explanatory, I won’t waste too much time here. There is a place for romance, and while I don’t want to belittle it, I also dislike our culture’s emphasis that suggests this is the “greatest kind of love”. I reserve that title for...
Agape- Unconditional love
In my study of the four loves, I discovered that this is the only “pure” love. All the others are conditional on some level, and can be twisted until they are no longer beneficial but destructive to the relationships that define them. Not so with Agape. By its very nature it sets itself apart. It applies to anyone and everyone. Even though the other loves appear in this story- Agape gives them meaning and power.
The relationship that first comes to mind is Jean Valjean’s relationship to God. When I speak of Les Mis as a love story- this is what I mean. It’s a love story between a man and his Savior.
The first Agape moment comes when a Bishop shows kindness to a criminal. The criminal did nothing to deserve this and the Bishop has no incentive- except that God wants his servants to love others.
Agape changes lives. That criminal in turn takes up the mantle of Agape. It would take too long to detail every example, so I will focus on the ones that impacted me the most.
During my first brush with this epic story, I quickly decided two things. One: Jean Valjean was my favorite character, and two: I hated Marius with a vengeance.
Marius is an aimless, selfish character. His big dilemma comes from his split devotion to his friends at the ABC cafe and his sudden and all consuming love for Cosette. He is annoyingly oblivious to Eponine- who obviously adores him. He is so caught up in his emotions, he is blind to her love, and treats her rather cruelly, although this is unintentional.
As romance was rather low on my list of favorite things in high school- Marius embodied the stupid lovesick stereotype I despised.
Then Jean Valjean showed me up and presented Agape to Marius. It’s obvious Jean Valjean disliked Marius as much as I did. He resents Marius for loving Cosette and tries at least once to keep them apart. But when Jean Valjean realized Cosette loves Marius- he puts aside his own selfish Storge and saves Marius’s life.
Honestly, I’d have been tempted to leave that hormonal mess at the barricade.
There is a powerful line in the book. After Jean Valjean drags unconscious Marius from the battle, he is described as gently lying him down, attending to his wounds tenderly as he makes plans to bring the boy to safety. Then he steps back and looks at Marius “hating him”.
This is powerful love. It is not a feeling, or an affection. This is a bizarre conflict between emotion and action. The best sort of stories mirror something bigger and better than themselves.
That’s when I realized, I am Marius. I am selfish, aimless, and will often mope and moan about my stupid feelings at the expense of greater ambitions. Yet, by that same bizarre contradiction that led Jean Valjean to save Marius, God decided to save me.
Relating to Marius shames me, convicts me, and gives me tons of hope.
Jean Valjean was a Marius too. By the end of the story, Jean Valjean is no longer the main character- he has passed the mantle of Agape to Marius. He gives Marius his life, Cosette and new hope. It’s actually the same story starting all over again- only this time the criminal has replaced the Bishop.
The themes presented in Les Mis are obviously Christian. Which is why I am slightly confused when it is so critically acclaimed by our secular culture. God is not a subtext- the characters talk and sing about Him and to Him all the time!
I appreciate Les Mis as Christian art for many reasons, but I present it as the number one film in distinct contradiction to two common cliques in “Christian film”.
As its name implies, “The Miserables” is full of characters who... are pretty miserable at times. These days I am sad to see attempts from the Christian church to “glamorize” Christianity. Some actually go as far as to market it as some kind of “life improvement” plan. Perhaps this is because our society puts so much effort into advertising.
Christianity is not something to be analyzed by the same people who research how to sell you a certain brand of toothpaste. The fact is, it’s not glamourous. It won’t make you rich, beautiful, popular, or even happy!
Why am I so touched by a story about miserable people? Why do I feel such affinity with Jean Valjean? Other than Fantine, he’s probably one of the most miserable of the characters.
Following God is hard, and just like Jean Valjean, I often find God asking me to do difficult things that stretch me and pull me in directions that are not always pleasant. But following God is a better way to live.
If Jean Valjean had never changed, he would have stayed a bitter ex-convict for the rest of his life. Because he pledged his life to a higher calling, he found a family in Cosette, an unlikely friendship in another character, who ends up hiding and helping Valjean in his time of need. Valjean’s life made others better.
I’ve tried to solidify this concept, and it’s a tricky one to pin down. That is why I love art, because it can express things, I can’t.
All I can do is direct your attention to this fantastic story and point to it saying, “That! See that? That is how I feel! That is how I want to live.”
And at the end of it all, that is exactly what defines good art. It shows us, and doesn’t tell us.