A helpful local billboard has informed me that Les Miserables, the touring stage production, will be in town soon (or has already been in town – I forget).
My first thought: “Ugh, didn’t I just see that?”
I did. And whatever hopes I had that the new movie version would salvage the stage production for me were curiously moot, because the things I hate most about Boublil and Natel’s adaptation of Les Miserables are endemic to their adaptation. (Some, but not all, are mitigated in the novel, or at least in its English translation.)
The Top Five Things I Hate About the “Musical Phenomenon” Les Miserables:
1. Jean Valjean.
This is a man who spends his entire non-bread-stealing-or-hard-laboring life trying desperately to atone for…what, exactly?
His “sins,” mortal and venial, can be counted on one hand:
- Stole a loaf of bread. To feed a starving child, which is generally considered justifiable – but if it isn’t, he also spent five years at hard labor to repay said theft. Sin, if it is a sin, absolved.
- Tried to escape from prison. Because prison is brutal, and so trying to escape brutality is generally considered justifiable – but if it isn’t, he also spent fourteen years at hard labor to repay said jailbreak. Sin, if it is a sin, absolved.
- Pinched some silver. For which he was forgiven – officially, by a member of the clergy – and the silver delivered unto him as a gift. Sin absolved.
- Despaired of the existence of God. Which, granted, is a “grave matter” if one is Catholic. But even a grave matter only becomes a mortal sin if one persists in it in the full knowledge that one is persisting in a mortal sin – which Valjean doesn’t. He repents of it and refrains from doing it again. Sin absolved.
- Broke parole.
Valjean’s parole violation is the one sin (or crime, anyway) for which he never atones, even when he is given the direct and specific chance to do so. But all his other good-doing in the story isn’t done in order to atone for breaking his parole. It’s the other way round. His breaking parole is done in order to facilitate all his other good-doing. Huh?
It’s not merely that Russell Crowe fell woefully short on the vocals, or that the movie adaptation’s subtle rewriting of the lyrics of “Stars” shoved the story’s entire theology off the rails. It’s that we’re asked to believe Javert is the “bad guy” when in fact he never does anything bad. On the contrary – Javert’s dedication to the rule of law, rather than the rule of men with their individual exceptions based on personal whims, is itself a deeply American, and French Revolution-ian, ideal.
Because Javert is a law enforcement officer, we might expect him to abuse his power; “bad guy is a cop abusing his power” is a recognizable trope. We’d expect this especially if Javert had a particular grudge against Valjean – although there’s no evidence of such a grudge.
But Javert never abuses his power. His pursuit of Valjean isn’t a rogue project by a cop gone bad; it’s Javert’s job to catch parole violators, among others. Javert thinks people who break the law deserve whatever the law prescribes for transgressions; that the law in play in Les Miserables seems to us unduly harsh is not Javert’s doing. Javert is a guy whose job is to ensure that those who do the crime do the time, and he’s committed to doing his job. He’s a law-enforcement hardass. That’s it.
There’s a sense in the stage production that we’re supposed to hate Javert because he’s a hypocrite. But where, exactly, is his hypocrisy? When Javert and Valjean face off in the hospital immediately after Fantine’s death (Valjean having just announced that he did in fact break parole, but not having just turned himself in to pay the piper for it), we learn that Javert “was born inside a jail.” The implication is that he’s hypocritical for having been born “with scum like [Valjean]” but seeing himself as an upright law-abiding dude nonetheless.
But this isn’t how it works. Being born in a jail is not, itself, a crime. Javert has nothing for which to atone, because he personally has done nothing wrong – the circumstances of his birth are neither criminal nor within his control. You know what is a crime within someone’s control? Breaking parole. The thing for which Javert is trying to hold Valjean accountable, which is Javert’s role and responsibility. Sure, Javert is relentless about it, but there’s nothing inherently evil about being obsessed with doing your job and doing it right.
We’re not asked to hate Javert because he’s in the wrong; we’re asked to hate him because he’s got a stick up his arse. Sorry, but if a dude’s actions are upright, I can’t hate him just because he’s not the kind of guy I’d invite to a dinner party.
This giant pile of moist self-pity drags down the entire middle of the show. GO AWAY.
4. Marius and Cosette’s romance.
There is no possible interpretation of this “romance” that can save it – it’s the single most incomprehensible event in a show full of incomprehensible events.
Boy sees girl across a crowded street. Boy sings a duet with girl through the barrier of a
balcony garden gate. Boy and girl sing a duet about the agony of being cruelly separated, despite not actually knowing anything about one another except their names. Boy miraculously fails to die of sepsis after being hauled through the Paris sewers with open wounds. Boy and girl get married, despite still not actually knowing anything about one another except their names and that boy apparently has a magical immune system. And this is the happy part of the ending.
Seriously? If Romeo and Juliet taught us anything, it’s that shotgun teenage marriages never end well.
5. “The Man.”
The events of Les Miserables take place during the Paris Uprising of 1832, also known as the “June Rebellion” – but you wouldn’t know it from the stage and screen adaptations, which are fatally vague when it comes to identifying who the hell these kids are playing war against. Stirring popular anthems aside, it’s hard to identify with “the people” when you have no idea who’s got them all hot under the cholera.
One Thing I Do Not Hate About Les Miserables: Cow Farts
Despite these things, Les Miserables isn’t all bad, and neither is the film version. I was particularly pleased that the film managed to include my personal favorite character, Vachelevent. He’s the elderly gentlemen whom Valjean saves from a squishing under the loaded cart and who later conceals Valjean and Cosette within the local nunnery, where he’s the gardener. I just can’t help but love a man whose last name is basically “Cowfarts.”
I love this analysis. I read the book, unabridged mind you, about 15 years ago. I never saw the musical because I could not imagine that it could even come close to the complex plot and character developments in the book. That said, I did see the movie with Liam Neeson and I thought it was OK, if not a bit shallow. I have not seen the musical/movie yet. I’m still on the fence.
Here’s my take on Javert’s hypocrisy: I always felt that he became so rigidly law-is-law because he was born in a jail and came from “the gutter.” He came from a segment of society that was considered lower than dirt, so he felt he had to atone for his origins and rise above. I don’t think he ever stopped and thought, “Hey, I can’t control my origin story,” because he was too busy battling a major inferiority complex and trying to prove he was better than where he came from.
Not that any of that mitigates the awful personality.
Not at all. In fact, I think it might even explain the awful personality. People with giant chips on their shoulders aren’t generally the uplifting sort.
In this context, I find it particularly interesting that Javert commits suicide – a mortal sin and one for which he can neither atone nor be absolved of, seeing as how he’s dead. His response to facing Valjean’s mercy head-on is to commit a major transgression – perhaps relying on the mercy/grace of God for the first time in his life?
I feel like there’s a whole conversation to be had about Christian notions of martyrdom and salvation and penance in this show. I’m just not equipped to do it at the moment.
Also about the difference between malum in se (things that are illegal because they’re wrong) and malum prohibitum (things that are illegal because the law says so).
I feel like Javert’s brain just broke into tiny pieces when Valjean turned out not to fit Javert’s preconceived notions, and he couldn’t stay in the world because he suddenly had no idea how the pieces all fit together anymore. He was too rigid, so he couldn’t bend. He just shattered. I bet even his faith in God was broken. Some people are wound waaaaaay too tightly.
I think the entire book invites a discussion about morality vs. legality. I haven’t seen the movie yet, although I’ve heard the soundtrack from the musical.
I saw Javert as someone who has put every shred of his being into the belief that the world is a meritocracy. He supports this belief with his own life: he was born under dreadful circumstances but somehow managed to rise above his original station in life. He believes this is due purely to his own actions; he pulled him up by his bootstraps, played by the rules and therefore earned everything the world gave him. He tells Fantine: “Honest work, just reward, That’s the way to please the Lord.”
So, if he could do it, anyone could, right? People get what they deserve. The system worked for him, so when he sees people in desperate situations, he figures that they deviated from a just system, they put themselves there willfully. Thus his utter lack of empathy: if they would only be righteous, upstanding, and godly, God would find them worthy of a better life.
Javert was not atoning for anything because his esteemed position in society proved to him that he was guiltless. Disgust at his origins, yes, but that was not his own fault but due to the evils of his parents, whom I’m sure he felt got what they deserved. It’s not an inferiority complex, in my opinion, quite the opposite!
It’s a very long time since I read the book, and I did so long before seeing the musical, but I never thought I was supposed to hate Javert. In fact, he’s my favorite character (even onstage, provided he’s played by someone talented, *cough*notrussellcrowe*cough*). He’s so tragic: he’s a man who devotes his entire life to the service of the law as the highest good, and when he encounters an act of grace – an act of incomprehensible goodness from a man who is legally a criminal – it shatters his entire worldview. Learning that his entire concept of the world, of morality, and of God has been wrong breaks him, and he can’t go on.
Valjean, OTOH, is crushed by the law, which punishes him for what should be a venial sin (stealing bread for a hungry child); his initial response to being declared a criminal in the law’s eyes is to live up to that, by stealing from the bishop who gives him shelter. The bishop’s gift to him is such a monumental act of grace that it changes Valjean’s entire conception of the world and of himself: goodness is not inextricably tied to one’s status before the law.
“There is nothing in life that we share:
It is either Valjean or Javert,”
sings Javert in the musical, desperate to convince himself, but the parallels between the characters are striking. Both come from humble backgrounds, both spent a good portion of their adult lives believing that their status in the eyes of the law directly reflected their inherent character, both are faced with a stunning act of grace that shatters this misconception. The difference is, Valjean is transformed by grace and moved to seek the good, while Javert cannot bear to face the cognitive adjustment demanded by transformation.
tl;dr – I have a lot of sympathy for Javert, but the musical definitely oversimplifies everything and Russell Crowe was awful in the movie.
I always saw Valjean as a Bill Clinton (someone who’s done many good things, then did one bad thing which was punished wildly out of proportion to the offense) and Javert as Kenneth Starr; someone who sees himself as so totally good, so morally superior to everyone else that he can break faith (like misrepresenting himself and spying on the revolutionaries) because he’s seeking out the “evil” (ie Valjean, Clinton). By pursuing an imaginary monster, he becomes a real monster. By painting the world in black and white, he’s unable to reconcile himself to any shades of grey; that confusion ultimately leads him to take the final way out.
I don’t know about *one* bad thing…
You DO know though that your “favourite” character’s name isn’t Vachelevant but Fauchelevant, don’t you?
Congrats! You missed the point!