Like a beautiful moment, historical milestone, or tragic event, I still remember the day I first discovered this beautiful story. I was home one weekday afternoon watching HBO when the 1998 version came on, featuring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, and Geoffrey Rush (who was awesome). I’d seen the pictures before of the black and white little girl, but I had no idea what Les Miserables was all about. I watched the movie and found it brilliant. Rush’s character, Javert, was my favorite.
Immediately, I bought the unabridged version and ate it up during college classes, during wall-climbing, while out with friends, after church, on my way home, etc. The first thing I found was that the movie was nothing compared to the book. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but the medium’s. You simply can’t replicate the level of detail, immersion, and therefore, impact of Victor Hugo’s work in a two hour long film designed to appeal to the average movie goer.
Secondly, I found myself being moved constantly. I was angered by the injustice to Valjean, appalled at how low Fantine sunk, infuriated by the Thenardiers, infatuated along with Marius and Cossette, sometimes loving sometimes hating Javert. I wanted to be Enjolras, but liked Courfeyrac’s easy-going nature. I was sad that the book was over, but was also relieved because I wasn’t used to such emotional upheavals from books, from anything.
Then a friend lent me a cassette tape (!) of the original album. Too lazy to rewind it and figure out which songs started where, I popped it in the tape player to listen to whatever started first. To younger people, that’s like putting your mp3 player on random. What I found amazing was I could pinpoint exactly where each song fit in the storyline just from the sentiments in it, so accurately did the writers capture the book’s essence. (I felt.) I listened to it repeatedly, memorized every song, and sang them with my crazy, bestfriend blockmate in the halls. That was 10 years ago.
Through the years, I’d listen to the songs from time to time, but last Saturday, I found myself listening to a few particular ones over and over. It’s funny to compare which parts of the book or musical I would find most moving in a particular season of life.
When I first picked it up, it was early in my college life – full of emotionalism and infatuation, I found myself relating the most with Marius and Cosette – the lovers. I felt so torn and emotional when they would be separated and imagined (a very important word) that I could relate to their pain. Eponine’s unrequited love also added to the emotional gumbo.
A few years later as I contemplated a career in law, politics, social work, or ministry, I was drawn to Enjolras – the revolutionary. Now here was a real man, not like that sissy Marius. He did what he had to do for his country and expected nothing in return. He held himself to a stricter standard than his friends because he was a man on a mission. I secretly wished that one day someone would describe me like Enjolras in the book – “bold as fire, cold as ice.” He entered the ranks of Sherlock Holmes, Horne Fisher, and Batman as one of my heroes.
I can’t decide which of those two stages was more immature.
Now and for the past 3 years, I’ve been fixated on Valjean and Javert’s struggle. It has taken on new light that has given it deeper meaning. Valjean is the ex-convict who from an act of kindness by a priest believes his soul has been saved by God and lives his life based on the belief. Javert is the police inspector who through hard work and determination carried his way out of the lowest dregs of society into respectability and honor. The two would clash constantly, with Javert trying to recapture Valjean and Valjean leaving good deeds and changed lives in his wake.
More than any of the other characters Valjean and Javert are most like me. And they’re most like you too.
Too often, I’m Javert. I work hard and want to excel to get ahead in life. I have little tolerance for quitters, whiners, slackers, and compromisers. I’m harsh to others because I’m harsh to myself. Nothing is ever good enough. There will always be more to do. I’m only as good as my last performance and when I can no longer perform I’ve lost my value. Javert’s songs – Stars, Confrontation, and the tragic Javert’s Soliloquy - show his mindset and the terrible results – as await all who insist on trusting in their own strength. As he says in the movie, “I’ve tried to live my life without breaking a single rule.” Not realizing that the harsh implications of the law crush all who hope in it. Oh the things we miss out on just so we can cling to our feeble boasts.
But thankfully, I’m starting to be more like Valjean. Not better than Javert, and in many ways worse. But because of grace, because of mercy, because of something I did not deserve given to me so lavishly, I cannot help but be changed by it. Like Valjean sings in What Have I Done?, “What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?” And there is. Like Valjean realized, God doesn’t turn away the sinner, but He calls him to come back. He does this by showing us generous and extravagant amounts of grace. As Romans 2:4 says, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.
Like Valjean who deserved to go back to jail, we deserve to be in Hell – separated from God forever. Like the priest who didn’t turn him in, Jesus does not treat us like our sins deserve. Like the silver which the priest even gave him as a parting gift, God doesn’t just give us what we need to survive but even more – blessing, peace, friendship, purpose, healing, everything! And like Valjean’s new life, we too live differently when we’re changed by this truth.
Things that weren’t possible before become natural now. Resisting sin, facing our mistakes, and confronting our accusers becomes a simple thing, when compared to the lavishness of what’s been given us. In the song Who Am I? Valjean realizes, “My soul belongs to God I know. I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on.” This allows him to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life. We also can draw strength for our present situation when we remember who we are because of what He’s done for us. His Spirit moves us to the right path no matter how obscure, enables us to climb no matter the difficulty.
I’ve gotten emotional just now as I finish this and my wife is looking at me. So I think I’ll end here. If you haven’t read the book or seen the musical, do yourself a favor and pick it up. You can start by watching the YouTube links above. Though that might spoil the story, it’s still a beautiful journey. The unabridged book contains tons of information on French history, language, society, and architecture. It often goes on extremely long descriptions and backstories. It would be like rendering a videogame character right down to the DNA double helix in his blood. In colloquial Filipino: exaj. I read it once and never again. If you want to read it for the experience that’s good, but otherwise the abridged one will work just fine. And finally, if you want to watch a movie, it seems to be available in 14+ parts on YouTube. But that’s like going to an expensive buffet and having fried chicken. (Sana nag-chicken joy ka nalang.)
Any of those options are definitely better than any of the latest series that are out now. You’ll come away with something more long lasting than any video game you’re into. If you don’t want to… Well, it really isn’t for everyone, so that’s understandable. I really love it though and I think you will too.