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Les Miz: Mizleading on History of Change

seyfried

Revolutionary fervor in seizing the barricades for change makes for great theater and grand cinema, but seldom produces the positive results that young idealists desire. Those constructive consequences come much more reliably from middle-aged, middle-class virtues, patience, planning, deferred gratification, hard work, incremental improvement—with far less flash and glory.

That’s the problem at the very heart of the magnificent new movie version of Les Miserables, an obvious front-runner for nominations in every major category in this year’s Oscar race. In faithfully adapting the hit stage show, which in turn followed the classic outlines of the revered Victor Hugo novel of 1862, the movie hands audiences an inescapably disturbing and ultimately dishonest conclusion. It’s unsettling rather than uplifting—not at all what the heroic filmmakers (led by director Tom Hooper, who previously did brilliant work on The King’s Speech) intended.

The final segment of the sprawling story focuses on a bloody incident of French history: the failed “June Rebellion” of 1832. Following the wrenching disruption and slaughter of the original French Revolution (beginning in 1789), the constant warfare of the Napoleonic era, the emperor’s exile and brief return (1815), re-institution of the monarchy, and another violent uprising in 1830 that installed the “Citizen King” Louis-Phillipe, the short-lived revolt dramatized in the novel and movie would be largely forgotten were it not for Les Miserables. The failure of the student-led uprising, culminating in nearly 200 deaths in two days of street battles, produced only more repression, and then more grisly turmoil, until another Revolution in 1848 gave way to another Emperor (Napoleon III). That imperial episode collapsed after disastrous defeat in a major war with Prussia (1870), and the brutal failure of the world’s first Communist revolution (1871), yet another forlorn and violent attempt to bring on a glorious new day.

No one can expect a movie or a stage show to portray or even hint at the turbulent, dysfunctional, corpse-ridden course of French history throughout the 19th century. But as grand entertainment with a passionately personal focus, the movie version of Les Miserables almost entirely ignores historical context while glorifying the revolutionary inclination, regardless of results. A reprise of the stirring song “When Tomorrow Comes” concludes the epic journey of the story’s long-suffering characters with unbridled utopian visions:

“The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the distant drums?
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!”

Astonishing visual splendor accompanies these rousing lyrics, with tens of thousands of impassioned revolutionaries (provided through the magic of computer graphics imagery) joining back-from-the-dead characters on screen, waving red flags on huge barricades vastly more formidable than those portrayed in the film’s extended sequence showing the doomed, minor rising of 1832.

The implication? That the youthful and handsome true believers may have failed to win a brave new world in the episode dramatized on screen but their revolutionary cause ultimately succeeded when future generations rallied to the call of “distant drums” and rushed to other barricades to make sure that “the chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.”

This glorious deliverance never occurred, of course: the violent revolutions that wracked Europe and Asia in the spirit of Les Miserables only served to make humanity more miserable, not to produce some glorious worker’s paradise. Does anyone still believe that the Russian or Chinese revolutions, with their tens of millions of slaughtered civilians, actually succeeded in bringing about “a world you long to see?”

Sure, Russia and China today offer vastly more benign and productive societies than the corrupt feudal days of the czarist or imperial past, but that’s because they followed the inspiration of the American revolution, not the French version. The founders of this country–nearly all of them merchants, planters or commerce-oriented lawyers–extolled the power of business and the profit motive, and the benefits of disparate centers of individual enterprise, rather than grand utopian and collectivist visions leading armed youth to the barricades. George Washington never made himself an emperor or a dictator, and the new nation never followed his eight-year presidency with an era of revolutionary violence and instability. Two hundred and fifteen years after the Father of His Country left his presidential perch we may wince at the dysfunctional politics at the edge of the fiscal cliff, but we should still feel thankful that we’ve always avoided the chaotic and devastatingly destructive discontinuity that has characterized all nations with a more radical revolutionary past.

American audiences may thrill to the big-hearted and redemptive storytelling of the movie version of Les Miserables, but their reaction will stem in part from the confidence that the “tomorrow” promised in the movie’s conclusion has already arrived for most of humanity. Following the incomparably influential American model, France and the other developed nations of the planet have mostly eliminated the brutal squalor and oppression dramatized so vividly in Victor Hugo’s 19th century masterpiece and its latest adaptation. That transformation occurred through the virtues exemplified by the novel’s central figure, Jean Valjean, the reformed ex-convict who remakes himself as a businessman, factory owner, and mayor of a small city. In the best traditions associated with modern conservatism—pursuing profit, productivity, middle class respectability, local community service, and even religious redemption—Valjean offers the right prescription for shaping a kinder, gentler society. Since that failed rebellion of 1832, building businesses changed the world for the better, not angry mobs mounting the barricades. Tomorrow did come, but it was through Les Biz rather than through Les Miz.

Comments (23)

  1. From: Doug Nelson   On: December 26, 2012

    Did any movie ever get history right?

  2. From: karen Rossi   On: December 26, 2012

    It was mesmerizing. No one moved in the theatre, and we forgot to eat our popcorn. Great voices, acting. May the hx is inaccurate, but a great story of good and evil.

  3. From: Igetstabby   On: December 26, 2012

    So the only thing it did wrong was the end scene? Wasn’t it just following the play/novel?
    This was the first version I had seen, and it was cool seeing some of the songs I had heard and sang in college, in context.

  4. From: jheit   On: December 26, 2012

    My wife and I saw the stage production for the first time in 1996 and then saw it 5 more times. I enjoy the stage production even though it promotes a very ‘red’ Socialist set of concepts—but if you read the unabridged Hugo, he was actually heaping scorn on this group of ‘proto-communists’ in his book. Plus the stage production has to leave out so, so very much of the background stories of the characters—it’s a 1000 page book, so they have to leave a lot out be it on the stage or screen. But no, the show follows a few glamorized elements of the Hugo novel. Don’t forget, Hugo finished this story while living in exile as he had come down on the wrong side of Napoleon III. Makes the production enjoyable to watch, but does not and can not do the book justice.

  5. From: Martin Masten   On: December 27, 2012

    Saw last night. I think your view of the political is correct though it does show the futility of the revolution with the empty chairs and empty tables song. The message that was so moving to me personally was that it is the mini revolution that is the true revolution. The minister’s kind act changes Valjean’s life forever. It causes a domino effect. I get goose bumps when I think of the words “I have purchased your soul for God…..”

  6. From: Duane Booth   On: December 27, 2012

    I agree with this analysis though I found the movie, like the play, truly mesmerizing. I make one small correction. The song is not “When Tomorrow Comes.” It is actually “Do You Hear The People Sing?” It’s one of the more iconic pieces in the play.

  7. From: Troy Pacelli   On: December 28, 2012

    While I agree with the historical analysis, I think you are mistaken regarding the intended messages. Les Misérables is often mistaken for a story of revolution. The play and film depict the futilely of the uprising, lamented in a song of survivor’s guilt, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” where the romantic figure sings, “My friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for…”
    Also, you confuse some lyrics in a very misleading and confusing way. “Do You Hear The People Sing?” is a sung as the rallying cry before the uprising. The Finale reprises the melody and features similar themes, but the focus is no longer on the French student rebellion. The “back-from-the-dead characters” include Jean Valjean and Fantine, who did not die in any rebellion, but after brutal lives of struggle, pain and redemption. The better world these ghosts are singing of is not an earthly one, but a heavenly one. Indeed, the hero of the story is Jean Valjean, who only goes to the barricade to make sure Marius survives and ensures his adopted daughter’s potential future happiness.

    Les Misérables is by far a more spiritual than political story.

  8. From: Joe De Leon   On: December 28, 2012

    My wife and I have seen the show three times. Although my wife worked on Christmas day, I did see the movie with a bunch of friends from church and we all loved it. As a Christian, I always saw Les Miz as a story of redemption and the battle between grace and legalism. I did explain to my friends before the movie that many liberals will look to Les Miz and say that this story promotes their liberal causes. I never felt the book, stage show, or movie ever held the students up as heros. Also, Hugo, a liberal of his day, was not the same as a liberal of our days. Hugo believed in republicanism; much like what we have in America or what we use to have in America. My buddy and I, big Stallone amd Chuch Norris fans, wept through the movie with many others in the theater.

  9. From: Destiny   On: December 28, 2012

    Actually, the song is called “Do You Hear the People Sing?” And yes, the movie followed the play.

  10. From: Scott Arnold   On: December 28, 2012

    I agree with those who see the story as one of the redeeming power of mercy, rather than a call for social justice. The most telling (and saddest) part in the movie is when Javert commits suicide rather than continue to live under a debt of mercy he thinks he can never repay. It is an amazing use of allegory: Javert as The Law, Valjean as Mercy, Cosette as Hope, etc. I was exceedingly impressed by Hugh Jackman’s vocal abilities, not to mention being very pleasantly surprised by Russell Crowe’s. Pity the makers of Mamma Mia! opted for Pierce Brosnan when there were so many far better actors from which to choose!

  11. From: Robert K   On: December 28, 2012

    Thank you for more detail on the context of the 1832 uprising, Michael. I had a different reaction to the closing scene of the monstrous barricade and the thousands of people there – and honestly it was a similar reaction I had when I first saw the stage production. I believe the closing is metaphorical and outwardly directed to the audience precisely to have us think not about revolution, but about the nature of barricades we all face, most of our own making, that keep us from experiencing the joys of life. The movie excels at pointing out the central themes of divine justice, true love, brotherhood, and redemptive hope – these are what lie beyond the barricade for each of us, whether achieved by personal will or divine grace, and all of us are truly “miserable” until we join in that ultimate personal and human crusade. I hope there is room for my interpretation.

  12. From: Robert LaFleur   On: December 28, 2012

    Mr. Medved’s analysis is stunningly puerile on so many levels that it is almost not worth bothering with…except that one-dimensional flunkies take him seriously. It is bad literary analysis, worse historical analysis, and, more generally, ideological tripe. I am awed by the dumb-ness of it. I would have appreciated a review of the film. I know where to go (much better sources–conservative and liberal alike) for historical perspective. Give me anything from Carlyle to Dickens to Theda Skocpol…but please spare me your Medvedian whiggery (you might need to look that up, Michael).

    • From: A   On: December 30, 2012

      The mature debate of insult hurling. Still i should not be surprised coming from someone who spells the word dumbness with a hyphen. (to save you the time of looking it up Rob it’s the little dash thingy) ;)

  13. From: Joe   On: December 30, 2012

    I do not view ‘Les Miserables’ as telling the story of a failed communist (or even socialist) uprising. I see it as telling the story of some brave young students who’s only goal was to overthrow their monarchist government, and to install a republic. In fact, the movie’s main character Jean Valjean is a wealthy buisness owner who was given a second chance. If anything the movie seems to have sever right-winged themes, such as glorifying charity, and self help.

  14. From: muzjik   On: December 30, 2012

    If Mr. Medved was a bit more familiar with the story of Les Miserables or maybe had taken a few moments to look at the lyrics of the finale song, he would have realized that his thesis is completely wrong. As many others have pointed out, the story is not a political treatise, but is a story of redemption, justice, and grace which happens to be set against the failed 1832 uprising.

    How did Mr. Medved miss the lyrics which immediately preceded the ones he quoted?
    “do you hear the people sing
    Lost in the valley of the night?
    It is the music of a people
    who are climbing to the light.

    For the wretched of the earth
    there is a flame that never dies.
    Even the darkest night will end
    and the sun will rise.

    They will live again in freedom
    in the garden of the Lord.
    They will walk behind the ploughshare;
    they will put away the sword.
    The chain will be broken
    and all men will have their reward.”

    That kind of changes everything, doesn’t it?

    • From: Elizabeth   On: January 1, 2013

      Les Miserables is the story of redemption, and gives us an eternal perspective. Men may fail, but The Lord will not fail us.

    • From: Susan   On: January 2, 2013

      Bingo, muzjik! Valjean began as a product of his time and circumstance, but the story is his rise above the “valley of the night” to the “garden of the Lord.” Javert is the one who cannot rise, and though he struggles to understand right vs. wrong, he cannot get beyond his time and circumstance, believing the government equals right. Valjean actually sees God as right, not the laws of the government. I think Hugo used the instance of these 2 gory days of rebellion to tell a story of redemption because he was there and wrote about a time he knew. I believe it was less political and more spiritual than Medved thinks.

  15. From: Marylou Mawson   On: January 2, 2013

    I agree with many of the comments here. Perhaps the redemptive quality of the finale was more clear in the stage production, because the characters who were dead returned to the stage to join in the song. It is less clear why we see them at the end of the film, perhaps. Or maybe, no one ever questioned the significance of the historical context before because we never had so many disgruntled, angry citizens since the stage show debuted as we do today. Is the advent of the Occupy movement making Medved worry about this aspect of the show for the first time? I think it likely. But I also think it is misplaced. The uprising in the film was certainly depicted as a failure. All those who participated died, and the rebellion was squashed! The take-away lesson is that there are no simple solutions, but maybe if you can work within the system, (such as Valjean being a mayor, or Marius belonging to the ruling class) you can begin to effect a more egalitarian society. This was the triumph at which Valjean succeeds. His mercy in the face of Javert’s dogged pursuit of “justice” ultimately led Javert to question his own set of beliefs, which he found he could not live without.

  16. From: Suzie Miller   On: January 4, 2013

    We also were disturbed by the elevation of “bloody revolution” as the ultimate resolution to life’s struggles against the “bourgeoise.” Of course we must see that the “common people” of that era had obstacles to escaping their plight that we can barely imagine. We are thankfully so far removed from the abject poverty of earlier centuries. We sit comfortably in our theater stadium seats and then leave for a home that any “bourgeoise” would have stood in awe to behold. It is our good fortune to have been born into a country that was forged on the backs of honest patriots who fought the hard battles. They established a new order where “all men are created equal” and where “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are lived out without most people even thinking twice about it. I am just thankful that today we have not had to consider the terrible choices of the past. God’s call to mercy extended freely as depicted in Les Mis is what caused lives to change then and so it does now. We’ll see what the next century brings.

  17. From: Cathy Cunningham   On: January 4, 2013

    Oh Michael! The history you cite is interesting and in light of the politics of today, I can understand your desire to put a damper on any young revolutionists. However, it sounds like you really missed the beautiful message of the play (I saw Le Mis on Broadway, I have not yet seen the film.) The revolution is only a supporting character in the play, but not the star. It is about the suffering and wrong in this world, the striving and failing, being surpassed by the human spirit. The beauty of love, the grace of forgiveness, and the transcendence of hope. Whatever the physical circumstances, the human spirit can transcend. Papillion and The Hiding Place come to mind..We work today, striving for a better tomorrow. Put the politics aside and enjoy the beauty of this old story.

  18. From: Kelly G.   On: January 5, 2013

    It’s actually a shockingly religious play and something that I’m surprised is as popular as it is. The 1832 revolt is part of the backdrop, but it has little to do with the overall message. Jean Valjean has every reason to despise the authorities and become a revolutionary because of his unjust imprisonment. Instead because of the ultimate Good Samaritan, Valjean becomes a good and just man who strives to give the mercy he received to others tenfold. He is ultimately able to help provide peace to one dying mother and raise her child. It isn’t the profound change that the students were looking for, but their revolt ended in failure and Valjean ended up succeeding. He who saves one life saves the world entire.

    As for the ending song, it is a death scene and is actually incredibly profound on screen. Fontaine comes back to thank Valjean for his care for Cosette. The Bishop of Digne appears to praise Valjean for a life well lived and welcome him to Heaven. All the dead characters sing “Can You Hear The People Sing” from Heaven where they are at peace. It has nothing to do with the revolution itself which is futile.

  19. From: Tyler   On: January 8, 2013

    No sorry though Victor Hugo is probably the kind of middle class liberal that hard core revolutionaries who make barricades roll their eyes at he was supportive of the failed revolution of 1832 and of 1851 and was a very politically active and left wing guy. He was also a Christian,he thought it was sad that the church and revolutionaries had become enemies during the original French revolution. The book was supposed to reconcile the two. He sees religion as a path to personal salvation but revolutionary acts as an act of national salvation. The youthful dead revolutionaries are martyrs a Jesus metaphor even. Victor Hugo is definitely not a Marxist he believes that idealism more than class struggle is what will drive the revolution but he is something of a fellow traveler. In his view the real people who died in 1832 did not die in vain and inspire future generations. This movie adaption is some totally conservative drivel, also too much damn singing, and half these singers are like tone deaf. If only if only everyone in history was old boring white selfish and middle class, and yet alas the young the downtrodden the oppressed and a smattering of rebellious rich kids actually change history. We know who your favorite character was, the stupid parole officer,” you didn’t “earn” that piece of bread”. Some rich fat cat deserves it. Of course the liberals you despise are Jean Valjean and the priest, hes a liberal too. Yeah he is,he isn’t some fat bloated pundit type of Repubian who tells everyone to eat at Chick Fil a and donate money to his megachurch. He is all about love forgiveness redemption and sharing, as opposed to hating on gay people. The revolutionaries, they are almost nonexistent in this day and age in America. The Occupy thing kind of, thats a bit like the kids in Les Mis except they just get tear gassed.

  20. From: Dale Netherton (@Tuner38)   On: January 24, 2013

    Art is not created to depict historical accuracy. The uplifting crescendo could well be for any rebellion of the spirit against tyranny in any form.

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