You will not soon see a better film about redemption and its effects than Les Miserables. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, director Tom Hooper has brought the Broadway musical version of this tale to the screen in all of its ethical and spiritual complexity. Sure, there is romance and some revolutionary action (though the story takes place in post-Revolutionary France), but the focus of the tale is Jean Valjean.
Valjean is a convict. After serving nineteen years in prison at hard labor for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, he is released -- but can find neither work nor kindness. Valjean becomes a drifter and a vagrant, sleeping on the streets, constantly exposed to ridicule and brutality. But, by an act of grace, Valjean is approached by a concerned local bishop who invites him to come into the church where he might find rest and food for his body and soul. Desperation overcoming wariness, Valjean accepts the kind offer. But in the night, he cannot resist stealing the silver from the sanctuary and running away. What happens when Valjean is arrested for this crime and brought back to face the bishop sets the stage for the remainder of the film.
Cinemas are filled with stories of criminals – whether wrongly or justly accused – so what makes this story any different? It is the way Les Miserables refuses to focus on the sins of humanity, though they are in plentiful supply, but on the power of an act of grace to redeem a soul, and the impact that one redeemed person can have for good in the midst of a sinful world.
Sin in the Cinema
A quick look at the sins prevalent in Les Miserables – injustice, lechery, prostitution, thievery, opportunism, coarseness, betrayal, legalism, and pride – helps viewers to understand that very little has changed since the time period of the film. Hugo admitted, “If the writer wrote only for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” There is nothing new about sin. It is, as G.K. Chesterton notes, a fact of the human condition as plain as potatoes. But there is something about the way film can compress or distill sin to bring it quickly to the foreground. Perhaps it is the way film focuses or frames sin that makes it so apparent. In any case, the world is filled with misery, and most of it is caused by sin – either our own or the collateral damage of the sin of others as its effects wash over those in proximity to its epicenter.
Les Miserables is a microcosm of what ails us; its power over us the result of that recognition. Jean Valjean’s desperation leads to an encounter with titanic injustice. But he is not the only one who feels sin’s effects. Fantine, a factory girl, becomes a dual victim of sin: of sexual harassment by her leering supervisor and the sin of omission, as the factory owner is too busy and too trusting of his overseer to see the danger or recognize the damage. Fantine is fired and thrown into the streets. Penniless, her circumstances drive her into prostitution. Many of the characters who populate this story are not good people. But they also are not strangers. To varying degrees, they are us – writ large, certainly, but their sins are recognizable, even familiar, all the same – if we dare to look.
But unlike many contemporary films where bad people doing bad things represent the heart of the movie, in Les Miserables sin is a backdrop against which God’s mercy and redemption are played out. Because we are sinful, we cannot recognize good as it stands alone. But shine the light in a dark place and it becomes startlingly brilliant.
An Act of Grace
The central point of Les Miserables is not sin, but grace, and its transformative power. Grace is favor by God given to those who do not deserve it. There is nothing that qualifies Valjean for God’s special favor. By the time he arrives at the church he is wretched. By the time he flees the church in the dead of night, he falls into the pool of people Paul describes in I Corinthians 6:9-11: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Valjean the thief finds grace. And the way that grace was extended was by one redeemed sinner – the bishop – extending mercy to another sinner who expected wrath instead.
The bishop’s action unmoors Valjean. He no longer knows what to do. He sings:
One word from him and I'd be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
It is this song, this soliloquy, which marks the beginning of a new life, both temporal and eternal, for Jean Valjean.
Grace and Obedience
Detrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, discusses what he calls “cheap grace” – the grace that comes too easily, and does not require the obligation of obedience. Common in contemporary politics, in which offenders only have to mouth acknowledgement of some vague sense of “responsibility” when their sins are found out, it is absent in Les Miserables. There is no cheap grace. Valjean makes a promise of a changed life there in that chapel, in response to the tremendous gift he has received, and he delivers on that promise. He becomes a respectable man and a local leader. He is not perfect; he makes mistakes. But when he discovers his sins, he repents and makes restitution. He refuses to allow others to suffer for his own choices, offering to return to chains rather than enslave the innocent while he goes free. He is a provider and protector, extending to all those around him the benefits that he obtains in his obedience. Grace is not a one-time act in the life of Valjean, but an ongoing experience resulting in a joyful obligation to others.
We watch Valjean run his race. Not the race of a super-saint, a monk, or a martyr – but of a man. He works out his salvation in the present, but viewers (whether they have the theological understanding to grasp it or not) come to know that Valjean has his eyes on the eternal. Valjean, a fictional character, represents the kind of faith found in Hebrews 11 among those who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.”
Is Les Miserables Right for Christmas?
It may seem odd to release a film such as Les Miserables at Christmas. But when you consider that the Incarnation of the Son of God into the midst of a sin-filled world is the very heart of Christmas, it doesn’t seem so out of place. God invaded this world to save sinners. The world is filled with sin. People are sinners. Some have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and have an obligation to share the good news about the availability of that redemption with fellow sinners. Les Miserables will not fill in all the blanks for those who don’t know Jesus, but it does provide believers with all of the context needed to share the Gospel in a powerful way.
Patrons emerging from theaters this Christmas will be weeping, moved by the story of a tragic man whose life was changed when he encountered a believer who shared with him the grace and mercy of God. Some of them may not understand why this story moves them so profoundly, but many Christians will. It moves us because it is the story that, deep down inside, we all hope for. The ultimate good end. The story that no matter how mired in sin we are, no matter how desperate our circumstances, God will find a way to save us, redeem us, and bring us home. Christians can extend grace, we can point the way, and there is probably no time in the year when people are more open to engaging in spiritual discussions. Let’s not take this movie for granted. Share the film. Share your faith. Help others to open the gift of Christmas: the Son of God come in the form of a baby, to live and then to die upon a cross as a man to pay for the sins of the world, to rise from the dead, to extend the grace of God to real sinners that they might become saints – the very children of God. Into our miserable darkened world, God shines His light. Good news indeed.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman also teaches in the graduate program of School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.