Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Life and Writing: Thoughts on Les Miserables

So this is the post where I try to gather all my jumbled thoughts concerning Les Mis into a comprehensible post. I shall do my best to remain intelligible.


I'd been waiting for this movie for almost a year, since I first heard about it. I'm not really a fan of musicals, but I am a huge fan of Les Mis, so I expected to love this movie, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I loved it so much that I went back to see it again. And then again. Three times in the theater. Let me just start off by saying that very few stories have impacted me the way this one has (and Harry Potter is the only other story that comes immediately to mind) -- specifically this musical adaptation. I loved the abridged version of the book I read a couple years ago, but this film just brought it to life for me in a way I wasn't expecting. I knew I would love it -- I didn't expect it to have such a powerful influence on me.

The thoughts in my head are all related to each other -- from the singing and imperfection to the grittiness and realities of life, the themes, and how it relates to my own writing and that of OYAN as a whole -- so I will do my best to present them in as smooth a manner as possible.

Do You Hear the People Sing?
First off, the singing was incredible, and don't let any Broadway snobs tell you otherwise. (If you are a Broadway snob reading this, I mean no offence, but ... I'm right.) The sheer raw emotion the actors poured into their performances, both through their vocals and their acting while singing, was simply amazing. All the vocals were recorded live on set so that the actors had to sing and act their part simultaneously, as opposed to lip-syncing over a previously recorded track. As a result, the actors were able to completely give themselves over to their roles and really become the characters during their performances. Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is the most powerful scene I have ever experienced on film. It along with several others moved me to tears (and while Eddie Redmayne's performance of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" did not, I have to give him credit for having the most emotional performance after Hathaway). And the last song ... well, that last scene my be my favorite from any movie.

Since I did mention Broadway snobs, I should probably address them. Actually, one of my main reasons for writing this post is so I can rant about this. I have read different opinions on the movie and been involved in various discussions, and the one thing that drives me crazy more than anything else is the complaint that "the vocals weren't up to par with the Broadway show."

Commence the repeated banging of head to desk.

Besides the obvious refutation that the Broadway stars are standing in front of microphones on a stage (and perhaps making dramatic hand gestures) whereas the movie actors are pouring their hearts and souls into their performances and expressing all the raging emotions of the character while delivering the vocals, this complaint completely misses the point. Are the Broadway vocals technically superior to the movie vocals? Absolutely. You know why?

Simple: a woman who has lost everything and been dropped at the absolute bottom of life, a young man who has lost all his friends in a day, and a convict whose heart of stone has been shattered by an incomprehensible act of grace -- none of these people, when they release their emotions through song, are going to be physically capable of delivering technically perfect vocal performances. It's just not going to happen. The emotional turmoil will be too overwhelming. You would expect to hear their voices tremble and quake and overflow with the pain they're experiencing -- this is Les Miserables, after all: the miserables. Miserable people who sing out of the depths of their misery will not and cannot be vocally perfect. This is the way it is in real life, and this is the way it is in the movie.

So not only do I approve of the imperfect vocals -- I think perfect vocals would have hurt the movie. It would have broken the spell, the illusion of reality, simply because it can't be real. That's my biggest annoyance with the Broadway show and its fans who insist that the movie should have conformed more to the stage production. The Broadway feels more like a concert, an opera -- and it tells the story, but not convincingly, at least for me. The characters stand there and sing, with very minimal acting and maybe a few stage props or special effects. But it does not draw me in like the movie did.

This segues into the second thing that has been on my mind -- the grittiness and darkness portrayed -- which is going to blend with my next two subjects: the themes and our own writing (and by "our" I am referring to the OYAN community).

Lost in the Valley of the Night
Les Miserables is undeniably Christian -- in fact, it's one of two stories that convinced me one could have an explicitly Christian story and theme without becoming preachy. (The second is Runt the Hunted by OYAN's very own founder, Daniel Schwabauer. He uses a fantasy setting and in some ways his method is similar to Narnia, but I'm sure I'll have a review of his books later on.) I wonder, though, if Victor Hugo was alive today and trying to sell Les Mis to a Christian publisher, would he be successful? I haven't read the full-length book yet (it's on my list for this semester), so I'm not sure how explicit the content is compared to the movie. It is there, however, and the very title of the book reveals the darkness and grittiness the story contains. The main character is a convict on the run from the law who adopts a prostitute's daughter who grew up in an in run by scam artists. Years later this prostitute's daughter falls in love with a revolutionary whose friends are all violently killed during the French Revolution, along with a young boy (who happens to be a son of the aforementioned scam artists). Oh, and the "villain" is a police officer -- the man dutifully following the letter of the law. To be fair, he isn't a villain so much as the antitheses of the protagonist, Jean Valjean. More on this in a moment.

Given the reputation of the Christian fiction industry, would they be likely to publish such a story? Perhaps certain publishing houses would take it now -- I know of at least one recently founded in order to publish such grittier stories -- but this is a very new development, and for years the CBA has been stereotyped by such works as Amish romances. Why? Because they're safe, they're clean, and they're inoffensive to the uber-conservative Christian (the "lowest common denominator" if I may be so bold). Certain branches like Christian fantasy and sci-fi are a little better -- the villains are allowed to be evil, but only to a point. They can kill as many poor innocents as their black hearts desire, so long as they speak nice words and stay dressed. I'm not quite sure at what point murder became okay to portray in "Christian" stories while cussing is still a no-no, but it seems just a tad inconsistent and even ironic to me. (In my opinion, killing someone is worse than saying "the d-word," but I digress.)

What is the problem with these "safe, clean stories"? They're not real. Life isn't safe. Life isn't clean. And life does not have bright, happy endings -- at least not this life. You may overcome one obstacle, but another will replace it before you've finished celebrating your victory. You might come to terms with a close death, but eventually someone else you love is going to die. That's the way it is, and it will continue until you die as well. Here lies the fork in the road: either "the miserables" will enter into perfect everlasting joy where all their sorrows will at last be wiped away, or else they will enter true misery and become les miserables forever. Les Mis, in the last scene, shows this first alternative, where Valjean dies and is led by Fantine to a giant barricade, on which stand those who have gone before him, and they are all singing,

"Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of the people
Who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.
We will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord
We will walk behind the plough-share
We will put away the sword
The chains will be broken
And all men will have their reward!"

Fairly Christian lingo, no? But I've read reviews from Christian websites that just can't seem to get past the negative content of the story. Why is this, I wonder? Are we as Christians so afraid of it, to the degree that in our own stories we simply pretend it doesn't exist? When, though, did Jesus ever say to ignore the dirty stuff of the world and act like everything is just glorious? Show me the Bible verse, and no, Philippians 4:8 doesn't count. Thinking about the pure things does not mean ignoring the impure, at least not in the sense that is often assumed. In fact, I think that seeing clearly the impure, the gritty, the dark, and the profane gives us an even richer perspective on the pure, clean, bright, and sacred. This leads into the topic of themes and how the story of Les Miserables relates to the stories we as Christians should be writing.

The Doorway to Paradise
Les Miserables boils down to Law versus Grace. That is the theme of the story, embodied in the dutiful police inspector Javert and the convict Jean Valjean. The whole story revolves around the clash of these two ideals and the commencing struggle.

Javert gives us his backstory in a verse he sings while trying to capture Valjean:

"You know nothing of Javert
I was born inside a jail!
I was born with scum like you
I am from the gutter too."

He is the self-made man who rose above his circumstances to achieve greatness, becoming a respected police officer and servant of the law. His only goal in life is to see that justice is served, that the law is kept. There is no room for mercy -- it only gets in the way of justice.

"So it must be, for so it is written
On the doorway to Paradise
That those who falter
And those who fall
Must pay the price!"

Valjean, in contrast, is "scum," one of those who had faltered and fallen. He spent nineteen years as a convict, prisoner 24601 -- five years for stealing bread to feed his sister's child, and the rest for repeated escape attempts. At last he is let out on parole, which dictates that he must report at each town he passes through and show his yellow papers that mark him as a "dangerous man." No one wants anything to do with him, and so he is rejected wherever he goes. At last he comes to the door of a bishop, who welcomes him in and offers him food and a bed to sleep in. But during the night Valjean steals the bishop's silver and runs off. He is caught, brought back, and then the bishop lies to the police. he tells them he gave Valjean the silver, and then gives Valjean the candlesticks that he had apparently "forgotten." When the police leave, the bishop delivers the life-changing words to a bewildered Valjean:

"But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the passion and the blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have saved your soul for God."

Afterwards, Valjean is alone in the church, where he sings his torment and his guilt, trying to understand how this could have happened. How is it possible for the bishop to have forgiven him and let him go free? But here is the interesting thing: before his encounter with the bishop, Valjean sings that he will never forgive the police, the guards, those who he believes have stolen his life from him: "Never forget the years, the waste -- nor forgive them for what they've done. They are the guilty, every one." But after his encounter with grace, his perspective changes. As he kneels before the alter and stares up at a crucifix, he spits out the words in something like disgust:

"I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
As I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin."

This is where my earlier point about the pure vs. impure comes in. It is only after Valjean encounters grace that he realizes how desperately he needs it. Only after he sees the light does he realize that he has lived in darkness. We only see the darkness clearly once we have seen the light, and this works vice versa as well. We will only really appreciate the light once we recognize the depths of the darkness we surround ourselves in -- because honestly, light isn't really that impressive unless contrasted with the darkness. A flashlight is only bright in a dark room. And the Good News isn't good news except in light of the Bad News: that we are les miserables, that we are the guilty, every one.

This is what Javert cannot understand. He sees himself as the servant of the law, and the guilty must be punished. Justice, pure and simple. After Valjean breaks his parole in order to start a new life, Javert pursues him, hunting him across the years until, finally, he ends up a prisoner of the young revolutionaries and at Valjean's mercy. Valjean does what Javert cannot fathom him doing and lets the inspector go. Javert's entire world comes crumbling down around him as a result. Valjean is a criminal, a man who has run from the law for almost two decades. Why, when he has a chance to at last be free of the man who has pursued him for so long, does he not take it?

"Who is this man
And what sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!"

Javert cannot make sense of it, but he feels that it is somehow irreconcilable and incompatible with his view of justice.

"Damned if I live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I yield at the end of the chase!
I am the law and the law is not mocked!
I'll spit his pity right back in his face!
There is nothing on earth that we share!
It is either Valjean or Javert!"

Javert has lived in a world where such a thing as mercy isn't even an option. There is only Justice, the righteous who bow to it, and the sinners who don't. When mercy slams him in the face and he is forced to confront the fact that Valjean is not the man Javert believed him to be, it is incomprehensible to him. He realizes that his world is a lie, he has lived by a lie, and the real world is something he cannot accept. So he does what, I think, many of us do when we are faced with something we cannot comprehend or accept: he runs.

"And must I now begin to doubt
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles.
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold.
I'll escape no from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on..."

He kills himself rather than allow his life to be changed by the mercy of a convict.

In the Garden of the Lord
Last summer I attended the OYAN summer workshop, and in the last session Daniel Schwabauer (Mr. S to us) made the argument that no one really believes that there is no good and evil. We may try to deny it, but we all know it's real. The stories we write, then, while they will necessarily involve the struggle between good and evil, should not stop there. He encouraged us to write stories that go beyond good vs. evil and revolve around the greater conflict: that of Law vs. Life. He did not use Les Mis as an example, but I wish he did, because it is, in my opinion, the single best story ever written that not only shows this theme but actually uses those ideals at the center of its story. Les Mis is not about the good guys versus the bad guys. It's about the Law that binds us all to death and the Grace that gives us life. Javert is a picture of us, trying to live by the law and make ourselves righteous by our obedience to it. We must be confronted by grace, and then we have the choice to either respond like Valjean or Javert. As writers, this is the choice we should present to our readers, more than just "this is good and that is bad for such and such a reason; therefore you should live like this."

That workshop session inspired me to write such stories revolving around Law vs. Life, and Les Miserables has shown me how to do it. One of the keys I have picked up is that contrast is important: life must be shown for what it is, in all its grittiness, all its darkness, all its misery, in order for the pure, joyful Light to shine through in all its glory. This life is a warzone and there is no point in denying it. The harshness of life is real, and it is our duty as storytellers to portray it as such. But as Christians we also have the unique privilege of being able to point to something greater, beyond the misery of the war.

The song sung at the end by Valjean and those who preceded him in death is very similar to the song sung by the revolutionaries, but in a new context it takes on a different meaning. The music also changes subtly: when sung by the young rebels, it is a war hymn, a call to arms. Their revolt against an oppressive government is crushed and they are killed. But in that last scene, at the border of the afterlife, where they can all clearly see the greater war being waged, they stand on the great barricade, and the song they sing is victorious and the music is triumphant -- like they have already won.

"Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of the people
Who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.
We will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord
We will walk behind the plough-share
We will put away the sword
The chains will be broken
And all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!"


  1. Excellent thoughts! Can't wait to see how this story matures you as a writer!

  2. Wow! Well said, Justin. How old are you? It is great to see your depth of comprehension of the complexities and deeper meanings--lots of adults don't cue into all of this. It will be interesting to see how your writing evolves!

  3. I haven't seen the movie yet but I saw the play, at a big theatre in town because my friend was in it. A lot of the things you pointed out tied over anyway. Great analysis! Keep up the good work!