Movie review and Bible study: Les Misérables

EDWARD MCNULTY’S books on faith and film are used in congregations nationwide. Earlier, he reviewed Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. In 2013, ReadTheSpirit will publish his new book, Blessed Are the Filmmakers. In the following review, McNulty shows how to spark discussion in your congregation.

Update for New Year’s: We are not alone in encouraging discussion of the religious themes in this new version of the classic. In reviewing Les Misérables for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis made the same point, writing: “Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Mr. Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest.”

Les Misérables


OUR WAIT IS OVER! The long-awaited Les Misérables musical is here.

In world literature, the original novel ranks with War and Peace. But Victor Hugo’s story has been produced for film and television in at least 80 different forms over the past century, compared with less than 10 of Tolstoy’s epic. That shows the enduring, worldwide affection for Les Misérables. I think that we really have two great stories of Law and Grace in Western culture: Saint Paul’s transformation in the New Testament and Hugo’s celebrated tale of Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean.

If you’re like me and can’t get enough of Les Misérables, I recommend that you also enjoy other film versions, especially if you would like to lead a small-group discussion with this review and guide. Each of the filmed versions has some details that are omitted in other versions. Among earlier versions I can recommend are: the 1935 version with Frederick March and Charles Laughton, the 1958 version with veteran French actors Jean Gabin and Bernard Blier in the two central roles as Valjean and Javert, and then I also like the 1998 version co-starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as fugitive and policeman. Like millions of moviegoers, you may have your own favorite version.

In Tom Hooper’s newest release, opening nationwide on Christmas Day, music moves from a supporting role into the heart of the story, thus adding an emotional intensity not possible in the straight dramas. The spiritual agony and questioning of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is beautifully expressed in the song “What Have I Done?” As fans of the story know, the repentant thief’s life is transformed by a graceous bishop—and, in a chapel, Valjean addresses his prayer to “Sweet Jesus.” He reflects upon the past injustice committed against him and the remarkable man who shows him such inspiring kindness. Valjean vows to live up to the bishop’s love and trust in him as he sets forth to build a new life, devoted to serving humanity and thus serving God.

Valjean succeeds and eventually becomes the mayor of the town where he settles. Unfortunately, the town’s new police chief turns out to be his nemesis from years ago, Javert (Russell Crowe). Close at hand and increasingly suspicious of Valjean’s real identity is the very man who can destroy him.

Inspector Javert is an uncompromising enforcer of the law with the zeal of a man who was born in prison but rose above his past. He clings to the law as his own form of faith. At one point, Javert sings: “Mine is the way of the Lord/And those who follow the path of the righteous/Shall have their reward.” But what of those who stray from “the path of the righteous”? “And if they fall/As Lucifer fell/The flame/The sword!”

There is more—much more—that could be said about the spirituality of this version, including other prayers and invocations of God in various scenes. If you are familiar with the Bible, you will see other stories and passages resonate throughout the film that you may want to raise in a discussion with friends. Clearly, though, the most striking is the parallel with the New Testament life of Paul.

And, what if you are not interested in these biblical connections? Well, you’re sure to enjoy the terrific storytelling and stirring music. Toward the end, the rousing repetition of the chorus “Do You Hear the People Sing” even puts a positive spin on the tragedy of the freedom fighters at the barricade, suggesting that eventually the struggle of people for justice and freedom will triumph. There is no doubt that this belongs at or near the top of this year’s best films!

Want more from Edward McNulty? See the links, after the Brief Study Guide. Through his own website, Visual Parables, Ed produces much more detailed versions of his film reviews and study guides for group leaders who like to regularly feature film-and-faith discussions.

Les Misérables Brief Study Guide

DISCUSS LAW and GRACE / SAUL and PAUL: An easy way to spark lively discussion is to revisit the life of Saul, who becomes known as Paul in the New Testament accounts. You can read about Paul’s transformation in the book of Acts. In addition, there are many passages in Paul’s writings that you can share with your group to get a Bible-related discussion going. Talk about Javert and Valjean in the film as embodiments of Law and Grace—the dual spiritual poles in the life of Saul/Paul. Here are a few passages from Paul’s writings that could be useful in discussion …

In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
Saint Paul in Philippians 4:12-13

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Saint Paul in Ephesians 2:8

The Lord said to me, ‘My Grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
Saint Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:9

DISCUSS RELIGIOUS LEADERSHIP: You also could start the discussion by focusing on the role of Victor Hugo’s fictional bishop as a religious leader who has a great impact on the world. If you care to get DVDs of earlier film versions, I suggest looking for the three productions I mentioned above. Find scenes involving the bishop and show them to your group. How does the bishop embody the best in faith and leadership? What do you think of his actions? Are there parallels with choices we face today?

DISCUSS THE MUSIC: Congregations struggle all the time with choices of music for worship and other settings. Is music relevant today? What kinds of music express faith today? Discuss the powerful message of the music in this version.

DISCUSS THE STATUS OF THE IMPRISONED TODAY: Many congregations have connections with prison ministries. America’s prison population has grown dramatically over the years and many religious leaders are raising questions about our current legal policies on crime and punishment.

Where to find more from Edward McNulty …

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