Making the Grades
Published 150 years ago, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables remains one of the most powerful accounts of justice and mercy in all of literature. Now Director Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the musical version of this story promises audiences a compelling telling of this tale.
Yet despite the incredible musical score and a song designed for comic relief, Les Misérables deals with mature themes in desperate times. The portrayals of child abuse, prostitution, and a bloody rebellion may make this story too explicit for many younger viewers. However the unnecessary inclusion of a moment of sexual activity during the sole scene of comedy is the greatest factor in not being able to broadly recommend this film. But for adults and older adolescents, the narrative of Jean Valjean’s unjust imprisonment and ultimate redemption remains as forceful as ever.
Released from jail after serving nearly two decades for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) finds the outside world as inhospitable as his prison cell. Forced to carry papers that identify him as an ex-criminal he can find neither work nor friend until a generous priest invites him to sleep inside a church. As repayment for the hospitality, Jean waits until his host is asleep and then stuffs the church’s silver into a bag before stealing away. When he is apprehended by the local authorities and returned to the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson) the man of the cloth, rather than revealing the truth, instead chides Jean for forgetting the silver candlesticks and sets him free. This one act of kindness in an otherwise cruel world offers a rebirth to the broken man.
Years later as a successful businessman living under the alias of Monsieur Madeleine, Jean has the opportunity to reciprocate this kindness by offering mercy to one of his former employees who is driven to despair and prostitution by her vicious coworkers. As Fantine (Anne Hathaway) lies dying, Jean promises to find her daughter Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried) and raise her as his own. However, even while the reformed man attempts to fulfills his promise, he is haunted by his past in the form of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a zealous police officer with an aim to find and punish Jean for breaking parole.
Intermingled with the main plot are the stories of the unscrupulous innkeepers Madame Thénardier (Helena Bonham Carter) and her husband (Sacha Baron Cohen) who rifle through their customers’ pockets as soon as they step into their establishment, the bloody 1832 June Rebellion in Paris staged by a group of students and the unrequited love of Éponine Thénardier (Samantha Barks) for rebel Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne).
Actress Anne Hathaway and others better known for their Hollywood movie roles bring this evocative musical adaptation to the theater with their passionate performances set in a dreary era of social injustice. With strong moral dilemmas and personal heart wrenching dramas, Les Misérables’ complex characters and scenarios can push audiences to consider their own level of human compassion. Just leave the kids at home for this heavy tale.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Les Miserables.
While it is impossible to help everyone, what does this story say about the value of being willing to help even one person? What difference does the Bishop’s kindness make in Jean Valjean’s life? What moral obligations does Jean feel toward his fellowman following his own redemption? Why do you think he is willing to risk his own security so a wrongfully accused man can go free?
How do the values of mercy and justice juxtapose one another in this story? Why is Javert so driven to punish Jean Valjean? Who is willing to extend mercy?
The group of rebel students who stage the June Revolution of 1832 want to cut down the wealthy in their society. While this inclusion of a bit of history in Victor Hugo’s novel speaks to the desperation of the times, how is this rebellion similar to others throughout time, including the Occupy Wall Street movement? What was the outcome of the students’ rebellion? Would there have been a way to get their point across more successfully? What, if any, responsibility do each of us have to ensure social justice in our society?