The filmed musical version of "Les Miserables," I am delighted to say,delivers on the main message of Victor Hugo's story: Law versus Grace.
The film brings out the historical background of a failed rebellion against a king and his army in France. It sets a Dickensian picture of dirty, desperate peasants and callous aristocrats. And it tells a poignant subplot of a loving father who must accept that his daughter is grown, and release her to the young man she loves.
But the heart of the tale remains the duo of Jean Valjean and his antagonist, Inspector Javert: one a repentant criminal, the other a ruthless policeman.
The story opens with Valjean ending two decades of hard labor for the crime of stealing bread for his family. Javert tells Valjean he will be on parole forever, and Valjean finds it almost impossible to find work. He turns bitter and brutal, using his strength and wit for no one's good but his own.
A priest takes him in for the night, but Valjean thanks him by taking off with the silver chalices. Police catch him and return him to the priest, who says he gave the items to Valjean -- and gives him his candlesticks. It's a vivid picture of Jesus' instruction, that if someone takes your coat, "give him your cloak as well."
What happens next changes Valjean: The priest says his soul has been bought and he is obligated to become a better person. A repentant Valjean takes another identity and founds a humane, well-run factory. He also finds a sick, destitute street woman and nurses her, and pledges to raise her daughter after her death.
Unfortunately, Javert finds him out and pursues him -- this time for jumping his permanent parole. Valjean is forced to flee again, this time with his grown adopted daughter. The antagonists meet again during the street rebellion, this time with Javert in Valjean's gunsights. Valjean spares his life, yet Javert insists he will keep up his pursuit and catch up with him yet again.
The final face-off ends with a stark difference between the men: Valjean wanting only the safety of his daughter and her lover, Javert driven by his rigid, heartless version of justice. The inspector can no longer deny that his quarry of several decades is a changed man. Yet the law he serves allows for no compassion or leniency. Under this unbearable strain, someone must break.
How remarkable that a popular author -- and gifted scriptwriters and filmmakers -- should grasp the nature of the gospel, whether they know the source or not. That belief acknowledges the evil nature of humans and the stern demands of divine law. Yet it also states that God designed an end run around his own law: Jesus, in his own death, pays the penalty, secures forgiveness and provides a way for people to change.
But paying the price carries its own price: Once people belong to God, they are responsible to turn their lives around -- i.e., repent.
"Les Miserables" works on a human level as well. Many people try to distract from their own flawed nature by pointing the finger and exposing those around them. Others understand flaws, but they can still see how people can change for the better. Which person makes the world better? Who really pleases God?
These are more than heady thoughts. They are soul-searching concepts.
-- James D. Davis