This was originally publised on September 18, 2012. The movie version of Les Miz opened in the U.S. on Christmas Day.
I was almost forty when I first managed to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for the first time (It’s pronounced “Lay Me-zur-AHB”— but if you just want to make it through a conversation, say “Lay MIZ.“). Frankly, just looking at a book that was almost 1,400 pages long was daunting, and so I never got around to it until later in life. As it turned out, it was a good thing. It takes some living to appreciate the intensity and the many themes that are represented in this novel. Also, the incentive for reading this was the appearance on Broadway of a musical based on the novel, the soundtrack for which I had purchased (on casette tapes), the beauty of which made me curious about the story.
So, I opened the novel and started reading. It took me two weeks to finish it, reading just in the evenings; but when I was done I realized that I had just experienced something special.
Hugo was no stranger to me, as I had read an abridged version of Notre Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in high school, and as a kid I had read the Classics Illustrated version. I was also familiar with the movie version starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, the misshapen and abandoned orphan whose love fo the gypsy Esmeralda ended with both of them lying side by side for eternity. While that was a fascinating story, Les Miserables touched me in a very different way. The way Hugo intended it to. He wanted to pluck our heartstrings and make us come face to face with the way human beings live beneath the facade of civilization. And that way is filled with poverty, pain, and death. Hugo may have been the first bleeding heart liberal, but sometimes our hearts need to bleed for our fellow man, or woman.
A few years after reading the novel, I finally saw the musical when I was in New York on business. I attended with several friends, one of whom was a former cop whose physical presence and no-nonsense approach to business was intimidating (no doubt why the insurance company he worked for hired him!). Early in the play, a young woman named Fantine–beaten down by cruel fate and even crueler humans, desperate, and rapidly approaching the end of her sad life–sings that song that most people have heard by now, “I Dreamed a Dream.” As she sang, I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks; and, when I turned to look at the tough, burly ex-cop sitting next to me, I saw his tears glistening in the soft stage light. I looked at him very differently after that.
A few years later, my wife and I saw a production at Springfield’s Sangamon Auditorium. As it happened, we attended on the very night that our troops were deployed in the first war against Iraq under George H. W. Bush.
There is a scene in which Jean Valjean kneels over a wounded boy named Marius (a boy who was in love with Valjean’s “daughter” Cosette) and sings a prayer to God begging for the boy’s life:
He is young
He is only a boy
You can take
You can give
Let him be
Let him live.
That very night the twenty-something son of one of our closest friends was in an airplane bound for Iraq. You can’t imagine the impact those words had on us at that moment in time.
That is the power of Les Miserables.
It is said that this novel was in the backpack of soldiers during the Civil War. The Confederates particularly enjoyed it, and towards the end of the war when all hope was vanishing many of them referred to themselves as “Lee’s Miserables.” No doubt, those Southern boys could identify with the men who fought a losing battle from behind the barricades for a cause they believed in. By the end of the war, they knew that they were about to be overcome.
This Christmas, a long awaited film version of the musical is coming out. This is one I am not going to miss.
If you haven’t seen the musical (it has been to Springfield, St. Louis, Champaign, Chicago, and St. Louis on numerous occasions), I urge you to see the movie. However, read the book first. Not an abridged version! I know, it’s tough to do, it’s tough to find the time. But if you do, you will find that the musical version thoroughly captures the power and you will understand how, and why. You may even cry. I did.
If you start reading now, you can be done before the movie hits the theaters. I promise you, it will make the experience that much more meaningful!
Watch the official trailer to the movie, due out at Christmas.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris