Thursday, December 27, 2012

Film Theology: Les Miserables

The most recent film version of Les Miserables is a retelling of a retelling of an epic story. In it's original form, Les Miserables is told over the course of 1,400 pages in what is considered one of the longest novels ever written. In the 1980s it was adapted into a Broadway/West End style musical--- a musical that would become the longest-running musical of all time with over 11,000 performances. Outside it's musical form, the story has been brought to film before, perhaps most notably in a fantastic 1999 adaption starring Liam Niessen, Uma Thurman, Geoffry Rush and Claire Danes.

Nevertheless, this most recent adaptation brings something new to both the film and broadway mediums--- namely the decision to have the actors live sing their performance, rather than lip-syncing that has been traditionally used to make musical films. The results are striking: emotionally connecting renditions of the shows powerful songs. (including an incredible performance by Anne Hathaway on I Dreamed a Dream). No matter the medium, Les Miserables is a character-driven story: a story where characters struggle with their identities, are challenged in their deepest convictions, long for redemption and salvation and lament at the cost of it. In short, it's a story that explores with honesty all the realities of Christian faith--- and the film's emotional performances bring this realities to life in a new and fresh way.

The religious views of story's original author, Victor Hugo, were complicated to say the least. His faith convictions shifted throughout his life, and might best be described as lapsed-Catholic. For the most part, his works express conflicted feelings about the church institution--- never the less, the soul of Les Miserables is a sweeping, heart-wrenching tension between the pursuit of grace and and demand for justice. There's no glazing over the spiritual realities Les Miserables confronts us with; there's no such thing as the easy answers we modern, privileged Americans sometimes enjoy and often expect. That shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, Les Miserables has been variously translated as The Miserable, The Wretched, or even The Poor Ones. Upton Sinclair said of the Hugo's book:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; 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.

When the English-language version of Les Miserables first opened in London in 1985, critics questioned the value of shaping a classic work of literature into a West End/Broadway style musical. But if there's anything the all-time-longest-running-musical-production has proven it's that such concerns were unfounded. Theologians have often argued the narrative is the primary medium through which the Christian faith is brought to life, but perhaps Les Miserables also makes a case for music. There's a reason hymns and psalms abide as the most endearing forms of theological expression: music and song have an ability to say things in ways stories themselves cannot. At the very least, we can be assured that when we bring story and music together, we stand to see the realities of faith in fresh perspective.

Like any faithful story or hymn, Les Miserables leaves us with a note of hope. Good old fashioned, biblical-liberation-theology-style hope. In the film's finale we watch as the Miserable all gather and sing:

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 nights 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!

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 people sing?
Say do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

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