1/29/2013 12:36:00 PM Publisher's Column
Critics off base
with Les Mis reviews
I'm a bit surprised at the negative critics' reviews that have been published and broadcast about the film version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. While the film isn't the masterpiece the novel is, it is still a pretty impressive undertaking, given the popular success of the stage version upon which it is based.
Emily and I have been working on the novel for the past year. At almost 1,500 pages, it is a challenging piece of literature.
Contrary to what some of the critics seem to think, the book is not about the French Revolution. It does have a great deal of historical information about the revolution, the battle of Waterloo and life in France during the 1800s, most of which is left out of both the stage and film versions. It is nevertheless interesting to read that historical information because it relates well in many ways to life in the United States today. There are several conflict issues in the complex plot of the novel, but one of the most interesting to me is the struggle between liberal and conservative political philosophies both within the society and within the characters.
We have a rather naive and juvenile attitude here in the United States that there are two distinct and separate political philosophies into which people can be easily divided-liberals or Democrats on one side and conservatives or Republicans on the other side. It is, of course, nonsense and serves only the cause of lobbyists and politicians. In truth, every human being is a blend of both liberal and conservative views, a blend that changes within each individual from time-to-time. Sometimes we even see the views change rapidly within a party, as we are seeing in our nation since the last election, as Republicans adopt views they see as more acceptable to various voter groups. In the novel, Hugo explores some of the same phenomena both within the society and within the individual characters.
The main plot line of the story follows the life of an unfortunate young man, Jean Valjean, who breaks a window and steals a loaf of bread for his sister's family. He is sent to prison and, as a result of three attempts to escape, spend 19 years there. When he is released, he is given a document identifying him as a convict which he must present when arriving in a town or applying for a job, which results in him being unwelcome everywhere until a bishop takes pity on him, feeds him and puts him up for the night. During the night, Valjean awakens and steals the bishop's silver. When he is caught with the silver, the police take him to the bishop. After the police leave, the bishop tells Valjean he has purchased Valjean's soul and that Valjean must use the silver to become an honest man-a reversal of the more common literary theme of a man whose soul is sold to the devil-Valjean's soul has been sold to God. Valjean does not believe in redemption so he does not understand.
Valjean struggles with the spite and resentment that built in him during his years in prison but ultimately settles down in a community where he is unknown and does not identify himself as a convict. He invents a process for creating jewelry that makes him wealthy and becomes the mayor of the town but always lives with the possibility of being discovered. That fear is almost realized when his nemesis, a police inspector, Javert, who knew him in his youth comes to town and recognizes him. When the inspector contacts his superiors to let them know he has found Valjean, they tell him Valjean has already been captured and is about to go on trial. The inspector tells Valjean, who then must decide whether to let the innocent man suffer in his place. His decision means an end to the life he has enjoyed, to the prosperity he has furnished to the community and the beginning of a life always on the run from Javert, who makes it his destiny to see Valjean brought to justice.
Javert, like most of the society, does not believe in redemption so, despite seeing the good that Valjean accomplishes, he only sees a convict until a situation arises where Valjean saves his life-an event that causes him to question all his formerly rigid beliefs.
Another character, a wealthy conservative grandfather, whose daughter dies in childbirth, forces his liberal son-in-law to give up his son under threat of disinheriting the grandson. The father, who is a soldier, succumbs and the grandfather raises the boy to despise the father. As an adult, the boy learns the truth that his father was an honorable man and a national hero. He tell the grandfather about his father and is banished. Both love each other and struggle with their hurt and anger, ultimately examining their lives and finding what is really important to them.
Throughout the novel, there are characters struggling with the challenges of life and how to deal with them as they apply their changing views of what is important, of what they owe to their friends, of what they owe to society and what they owe to God.
It is a very powerful novel, much more so than is able to be conveyed within the limits of a stage play or movie, but both are worth seeing. It is unfortunate the critics aren't more familiar with the subject.