Tom Gilson

Les Misérables and the Surprising Gospel of Grace

“That was perfect.”

That's what my wife and I said to each other the first time we saw Les Misérables on stage several years ago. Through the generosity of others who have helped pay for tickets, I've been privileged to see it twice since then. I still think it's pretty near perfect. And now it's in theaters. I've been waiting for it for months, and yet unbelievably I haven't had a chance to see it yet this week. Be assured that I will at the first opportunity.

This post is mostly for those who have seen Les Mis, to help you see the grandeur of grace in it that may not be obvious on a first viewing, for I consider it the most Gospel-centered work of creative art I know of from the 20th century. (I am counting on the film being at least nearly as good as the stage play.)

This post is also for those who have yet to see the film, to help prepare you to recognize what is there, for it may not be obvious on a first viewing. The story is complicated, with multiple plots flowing within, beneath, and upon one another. You'll want to see it more than once, to get a grasp of all it has to say. Don't worry–if the movie is anywhere near the same quality as the musical on stage, it will be worth it.

One of those plots pits the protagonist, Jean Valjean, in a great battle of righteousness with the lawman, Inspector Javert. It's not that Valjean would see it that way, but the Inspector certainly does. Javert represents the right thing in all the wrong ways. He sees himself as a man of great virtue: he represents the law, and he always does what's right.

Valjean had been freed from prison and placed on parole. Parole, in pre-revolutionary France, apparently meant that one had to identify oneself as an ex-convict everywhere one went. For Valjean that means there are no jobs to be found, and thus no living to earn, and thus the temptation to steal again: which he does, while receiving hospitality from a Catholic bishop. Javert catches him and is about to be return him to hard labor when the bishop intervenes with forgiveness, mercy, and a valuable gift of goods to help Valjean get on his feet again. It is an incredibly moving moment which I hate having to present so prosaically; I cannot take the space to try to do it full justice.

Valjean responds by turning toward God and devoting his life to doing good. His repentance is incomplete as he goes into hiding, taking up a disguise and an assumed name. Still he makes good on his commitment, founding a factory for the benefit of both laborers there and the larger community, and becoming a respected and beloved man.

But Javert, bound by law, cannot let him go. He swears “by the stars” that he will find the evil Valjean, the one who (in his view) could never repent, never be as good as he, and bring him to “justice.” His obsession with Valjean controls him. It illustrates the chains by which a life centered on law holds men and women captive.

Does it surprise you to hear a Christian say this? Javert certainly didn't see it as bondage: he thought he was doing the work of the Lord. This is the great mistake of the ages: to believe that Christianity is about being right and doing right. No other error has been so destructive. It makes the Good News into a report of bondage. It makes men and women ugly in self-righteousness if we think we are succeeding in doing well, and hopeless in despair if we realize we cannot. It puts a hard face on what should be the joy of following Christ.

And yet millions have thought it was right.

Jean Valjean, the fugitive on the run, was nevertheless the one who knew the meaning of freedom; and even more so after he came out of hiding and gave himself up to Javert. He had discovered grace: the principle that doing good and being good are gifts from God, given to those who know they do not deserve them. He was simultaneously softened and strengthened by grace: strengthened to do what was right, with great courage and self-sacrifice; and softened to do it beautifully and well.

In their final dramatic encounter Javert is forced to recognize that Valjean's virtue is truer and nobler than his own. The realization kills him. Law was kept in bondage until the very end. Grace prevailed. This is the way of the Gospel; it is the way of Christ.

There is paradox here. God's law is good—it must be, if it came from God!—and yet the human urge to follow God's law has done great harm. I've explained how this makes sense in my article The Map or the Fuel. I write that piece originally for Discipleship Journal, and I had wanted to include this material from Les Mis in it. My editor there nixed that part of it, recognizing that it was too complicated and unfamiliar to serve effectively as an illustration for my message there.

It may not be so unfamiliar now. Now is your chance to experience one of the great musicals of all time, and to gain a deeper grasp of God's grace. I can't wait.

Update January 2, 2013: My review of the movie

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11 thoughts on “Les Misérables and the Surprising Gospel of Grace

  1. I read Les Miserables as a senior in high school, and it was one of the most influential books at an influential time I’ve ever read. I wonder how the musical/movie compares to the book?

  2. Sadly, the movie, while powerful, is flawed in three substantial ways (slightly obscured to reduce spoiling):
    1. They actually botched the most emotional scene in literary/cinematic history.
    2. They up-played a non-existent (in the book or the musical) aspect of Javert’s struggle.
    3. They forgot the value of “modulation”, instead opting for the Hollywood “full-throttle” approach.

  3. With so many moments from which to choose, can you be more specific on point 1, Doug? I Dreamed a Dream? A Little Fall of Rain? Empty Chairs and Empty Tables?

    Or maybe it’s best that I don’t know, so I won’t be expecting it to fall short…

    Steve, I would definitely recommend tissues. I’ve seen the musical four times, and just thinking about some of the words makes the hair on the back of my neck bristle, along with a severe case of butterflies. I simply *love* this musical. Can’t wait to see the film and I’m really hoping for soft seats, since my posterior usually starts complaining somewhere around the 90 minute mark.


  4. Parole, in pre-revolutionary France, apparently meant that one had to identify oneself as an ex-convict everywhere one went.

    Just a correction.
    Valjean is paroled in 1815 therefore after the French Revolution.

  5. I saw the movie yesterday with my family. I would rate it lower than what I had hoped it would be, though still well worth watching.

    It’s partly because of the tyranny of the camera, which forces the producers to cast actors who can sing rather than singers who can act, as in the stage productions. The singing was fine enough, but that’s in contrast to the absolutely breathtaking quality of the stage version. Jean Valjean’s “Bring Him Home,” for example—the most stunningly beautiful musical moment in the play—lost much of its power by being sung in a lower register—at least a minor third (a quarter octave) lower, I would guess.

    The cinematography was rich, perhaps too much so. It seemed to me to compete with the story and the music rather than to add to it. I wish the editing had been slower paced.

    And surprisingly, there are things that are easy to accomplish on stage that just cannot be done in a movie. If you’ve seen the play, you know how sadly thrillng the scrim effect was in “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.” You know how effectively it was communicated that some of the characters were ushered into heaven upon their deaths. The devices used to accomplish those effects are unique to the stage. I missed them yesterday–but I’m also glad they didn’t try them.

    Finally as Doug said, the movie’s producers forgot the value of modulation. The “Lovely Ladies” scene in particular goes way too far. I think they erred very badly there, and it marred the movie needlessly.

    All in all I would rate the movie about one-third to one-half the quality of the stage musical. Let’s put that in context, though: the stage production was so stellar that half that good is still very, very good. I could still recommend the movie highly (although see below), while still urging you to try to find the real thing too.

    (P.S. I noticed at the opening of the movie that I got the date wrong. Prof. Bobo has already covered that correction–thank you, Prof. Bobo.)

  6. It was actually a really great movie (I have never seen the play). I think it played to the strengths of the medium well. All the long closeups of the actors as they were singing were just captivating in a way not possible on stage, where (unless you’re in the front) are they are just blurry blobs. Pretty much actor/actress in this movie deserves an award, IMHO.

    Interesting note about the film… it’s the first musical ever where the actors are not actually lip syncing and/or dubbed over with separately recorded songs. What you are hearing is what the actor was singing, while they were acting the bit. That’s something I think I’d like to see more of.

  7. I’ve not seen the film yet, but I love Victor Hugo.

    The most apt summary of the theme I’ve encountered is “the brutality of grace”. Javert’s story, in particular, highlights the degree to which God wants to rip out our foundations and give us something better.

    It forces me to see why it is so hard to accept such a perfect offer.

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