In answer to the title of this blog post?
Absolutely, positively, YES.
There’s been a huge amount of hype surrounding Les Mis over the past several weeks due to the movie’s release in the U.S. on Christmas Day and just a few days ago in Britain and several other countries. This movie has been twenty-five years in the making, and so long time fans of the musical, the book, or even just the music are flocking to theaters; seriously I’ve been four times, and the theater was packed three of those four times. The only reason it wasn’t packed the fourth time was because it was two in the afternoon on a Wednesday. It was nominated for four Golden Globes and won three, and it was nominated for several Oscars, including best picture. The purpose of this post isn’t really to debate the finer points of the film, or to judge how well it was adapted from the stage show or how faithful it was to the book (although personally I thought the film was completely, utterly fantastic, and the entire cast just blew me out of the water. I shook my seat I was crying so hard) this post is to talk about the overwhelming power of this particular story, and why it’s endured since the late 1800s.
(Although seriously? If Anne Hathaway doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, there’s no justice in the world. I accept the fact that Hugh Jackman the Amazing might lose to Daniel Day Lewis for Lincoln, but Anne Hathaway at least, deserves that freaking award.)
I’m sure a lot of people know the outline of the story, but I’ll still talk about some basics.
The Book: Published in 1862 by famous French author Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame? That was him too), this novel is one the most influential and beloved works of western literature, and details the life of Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison after nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread (to feed his starving family) and subsequently attempting escape. (And just as a side note, it doesn’t take place during the French Revolution, but rather after the restoration of the monarchy, when there was a great amount of social unrest in France.)
Granted, it’s also one of the longest works of literature; depending on the version and the translation, it can range anywhere from 800 to 1400 pages. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculously long, and it did take me a few months to get through, but it was honestly one of the most fantastic books I’ve read in my entire twenty-four years, and I’ve read a LOT of books. (I’m a librarian and former English major, after all.) It’s actually in my top five. It was one of those books I always swore I’d read, and when I finally got around to it, it was absolutely worth my time. I underlined the hell out of my first abridged copy of the novel (though I’m much kinder to my unabridged hardback copy a friend gave me for Christmas) and my tear marks are probably still on the final pages detailing Jean Valjean’s death. As the preface to the novel says, “…in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
If you’re interested in more detail, here’s the Spark Notes plot summary and character list (and no, I’m not suggesting you ONLY read the Spark Notes version): http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/lesmis/summary.html
The Musical: Known for such iconic songs as “Bring Him Home,”, “On My Own”, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing”, (among many others!) Les Mis originated as a French stage show and then premiered in London’s West End in October 1985…and hasn’t stopped running since. A long-time owner of multiple cast-recordings as well as both the 10th and 25th anniversary concert DVDs, I only got a chance to see the stage show live this past December, when the phenomenal U.S. tour came through D.C. (Mind you I wanted to see the show when I was in London, but no one would go with me, and I was only twenty at the time, and didn’t want to wander London alone at night.( “The show’s so SAD,” my study-abroad classmates said. “You’re missing the POINT,” I responded.)
By the time the curtain-call came at the National theater that night, my friend Katy and I (from our amazing mezzanine seats!) were practically in hysterics, laughing and crying all at once as we clapped furiously for the cast. I might have been in emotional shock, I might have been near sobbing as I walked down the street, arm linked with Katy’s, but never have I been filled with such a resounding sense of beauty and hope. One of the moments that will stick with me forever was when the Marius character (the love interest of Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette, and a student revolutionary) enters the cafe where his fellow revolutionary friends gathered, all of whom were killed, singing the previously mentioned “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” At first he’s on stage alone, surrounded by a number of votive candles, until suddenly as he sings, the ghosts of all his fellow compatriots appear around him. I have absolutely never been struck so forcefully by a moment of live theater (which is saying something, I’ve seen Phantom of the Opera four times) and it’s something I’ll absolutely never forget. Just as an example of the pure epic-scale of this musical, here’s one of the big numbers from the 10th anniversary performance (as the 25th clips have been taken down from youtube):
The Movie: I essentially said what I needed to say about the movie version in the beginning of the post, but I can only emphasize it again…go see it, because it was one of the most touching film experiences of my life, and it did a beautiful job adapting the musical as well as adding in bits from the original novel. Even people who don’t like musicals loved this movie.
But so many people die in this story, people say, why on earth would I want to watch something so miserable? But truthfully? The only miserable thing about Les Miserables is putting down the book, leaving the theater, or exiting the cinema, because you’ll find you just want to hear the story again. However, in this misery lies greatness. Because greatness is the triumph of the human spirit. And the human spirit triumphs when it seeks to help others, which is the overarching message of this story. After kindness is shown to him by an elderly bishop, Jean Valjean strives to help anyone he can, especially his adopted daughter Cosette and her mother, Fantine; Fantine strives to help her daughter, sacrificing everything in the process; the revolutionary students seek to help the poor and suffering of France; Eponine strives to help Marius, and it goes on from there. Les Mis is a story of sacrifice, redemption, loss, compassion, and most of all the overwhelming power of hope in the face of adversity. As Jean Valjean says in the finale, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
So when I emerged from the movie theater for the third time on New Year’s day, the words of the student revolutionary leader, Enjolras, rang in my head:
“It is time for us all to decide who we are.”
I couldn’t help but think of New Year’s resolutions and all the people who were flocking to the gym, determined to slim down their hips or lose a pant size, but as I contemplated the movie I’d just seen, I was filled with the zeal to do something more than that, was filled with the desire to help someone else, whether it be one person or many, whether friend, family, or stranger. I wanted to touch the world as Victor Hugo did with his groundbreaking novel, as Boublil and Schönberg did with the musical, and as Tom Hooper did with the movie. It might not be practical for me to start building barricades and run through the streets shouting “Vive le France!”, but I could make a point of finishing the memoir I’ve started writing, I could start this blog…I could connect and hopefully help people with the immense power of writing, with the unforgettable power of a story. I could put my fears behind me and try, in my own way, to make a positive impact on the world.
“There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes…”
Quite honestly? This story changed my life; it taught me to raise my voice in the face of oppression, it taught me to live, and it taught me to never give up hope.
As Jean Valjean so famously says at the end of the novel: “It is nothing to die; it is frightful not to live.”