Returning home after a rare night out I opened QOL to read Steve Kates’s review of the movie I had just seen: Les Miserables. To my surprise I discovered that his assessment is more than somewhat at odds with mine.
A few points of retail agreement before I get to my wholesale disagreement with Steve’s unfavourable review. Yes, if taken as a glorification of the type of Parisian revolutionaries we got to know all too well during the 20th Century, I can see how skewed the heroism of the student rebels would strike him. Yes, if taken as social commentary on the exploitation of the proletariate by the bourgeoise, I can see how the distortion of economic history would grate. And yes, if taken as naturalism, I can see how the sequence of events would strain credulity. But inferences such as these are to my mind besides the point of Les Miserables.
I could argue that the Parisian students of 1832 were rebelling in the name of liberty against the tyranny of an absolute monarchy, while warning followers not to replace it with the tyranny of another Napoleon. I could argue that, despite the misery of the workers, it was the ingenuity and enterprise of the self-made ex-convict capitalist hero that was lifting them out of their poverty.
I could argue that the implausibility of events such as the Bishop’s charity and the students’ martyrdom were deserving of poetic license, given the condensation required to fit Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel onto stage and screen. But I won’t base my case on contextual distinctions such as these, since their significance is pretty much lost in condensation; and since, "at the end of the day", a central theme of Les Miserables is society’s injustice to those "at the bottom of the heap".
But however annoying erroneous political inferences may be, they are swept from my mind by the sheer drama of this story – a story of heroic struggles of unforgettable characters to resolve excruciating conflicts and rise above their miserable circumstances in pursuit of "higher goals". For Fantine the higher goal is a life for her daughter, Cosette; for Cosette and Eponine it is their love for Marius; for Marius it is his torn loves and loyalties for Cosette and Eponine and Enjolras; and for Enjolras the higher goal is the cause of liberty. And tying these and all the unique characters of the novel into its plot is the central conflict between the indefatigable instrument of law and order, Javert, and his quarry, Jean Valjean, whose higher goal is the mission placed on his indomitable shoulders by the Bishop.
The epic duel between Javert and Jean Valjean is not between a villain and a hero, but between two heroes committed to two irreconcilable conceptions of justice. The virtue dramatised by both, and by the novel as a whole is: integrity. Characters without integrity, such as the Thénardiers, have no redeeming value; in the novel the Thénardiers are the scum of the earth, in the musical they are jokes. It is the conflicts between the characters with passionate commitments to their chosen values that drives the story. You don’t have to agree with their choices to be moved by their commitments.
All the threads of all the characters’ struggles finally converge behind the barricade, where a showdown between the central protagonists is resolved with an unpredictable but, in hindsight, inevitable flick of a knife. This climactic scene and its consequences in the sewers and streets and ballrooms of Paris resolve all the conflicts. It took Victor Hugo more than a thousand pages to bring his masterpiece of struggle to its conclusion (his literary genius did not encompass brevity). It took the magic of music to create its emotional sum almost instantaneously on the stage. It took state of the art cinematography to create a visual setting worthy of its drama.
What Les Miserables offers is the experience of fighting for something of supreme value, be it as lofty as "the right to be free" or as personalised as a child’s doll, and of the panoply of emotions that may result depending on the outcome of the fight. But maybe the full impact of this emotional tour de force cannot be experienced from the screen version without first experiencing the written and staged versions.
John Dawson is a Melbourne writer