It’s one of the most respected pieces of classic literature in the world. It’s one of the most successful broadway plays of all-time. And now it’s arguably the best film musical this side of 1950: Les Miserables. That’s for many reasons. The music is incredible, and the film was revolutionary by having barely ten lines of spoken word throughout the film, with characters speaking more than 90% of the time in song. But more importantly, and most especially for our purposes, it’s because the story takes a very Theistic and ultimately Christian perspective on life.
Meet Jean Valjean. He’s a tortured man at the beginning of the story, having endured a terrible 19 years in prison. And we’re not talking about sitting in a cell all day. This is back in the time when prisoners worked tirelessly like slaves for the state they had dared disobey. Valjean’s crime? Stealing some bread to help feed his starving nephew.
From that information alone, you might think that the film was more a political treatise on the criminal justice system and less an exposition of a Theistic worldview. That is the way it seems at first, but the tables quickly turn when he see that Valjean is not an inherently moral man. The so-called crime which landed him in prison may have been less than vicious, but the audience is left with no doubt within moments of his release that he has become, whether through his own hard-heartedness or the hard hand of the state, a thief through-and-through. But when a priest saves him from being thrown back into prison, his perspective changes. He realizes that he’s been given a second chance. A chance to make something of himself. A chance that was given to him by God on high.
And make something of himself he does. That’s through some somewhat questionable methods, skipping parole and taking on a false identity, but he lives a morally upright life, taking interest in the socially outcast, even a former worker of his factory who turns to prostitution in desperation to feed her son. She’s abused and treated like filth by everyone around her, eventually leading her to say that if there is a God, he must hate her. But Jean Valjean does what he can to save her and her daughter, because that is quite simply the kind of man he is. He’s a man that was given a second chance, and therefore, he believes in giving second chances, which happens numerous times in the film. It’s a beautiful expression of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, at the end of which Jesus says to “go and do likewise.” He does so, not only to the social outcasts, but also to his enemies, which is largely the point of the passage, with a Samaritan saving a Jew.
On the other side of the ideological conflict, there’s Jalvert, a soldier who oversaw the release of Valjean, and chases after him after he disappears. Jalvert believes that there are no second chances, and there is no mercy. He grew up in rough circumstances as well, he reminds Valjean in one of their confrontations. But he never broke the law. He expects the same of everyone else, and if you have broken the law, then you don’t deserve anything better than to be punished and cast out.
It’s this ideological conflict that the story draws its nearly overwhelming depth from. It’s not an easy conflict to solve. After all, there are some prisoners who definitely deserve to be there, and have committed awful crimes. We see that’s not necessarily the case with Valjean, particularly in regards to violence, but we don’t want murderers and rapists in the streets; no one does! But is this the natural outgrowth of that truth? Or is it a more radical extrapolation of moral absolutism?
Valjean treats morality as objective. He believes in an absolute right and wrong, which is what differentiates him from the man he was before his conversion. But the difference is that one of these two men believes in the rule of law without any room for forgiveness. Valjean believes that sinners can be reformed. Jalvert, on the other hand, believes that no sinner can change.
Coincidentally (or not so much), that’s the exact concept that Scripture addresses in several passages, perhaps the most notable being Galatians 3:21-22: “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
The story emphasizes redemption in a way that is almost impossible to view from a secularist perspective, especially due to how Valjean credits God with his reforms. In the end, Jean Valjean is every bit the man I want to be, and so much more. If there was ever a man who could be a role model in cinema, then he is truly it.