Well I finished it. I finished Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The book. Not the play. Not the movie. The book. One thousand two hundred and eighty-five pages. I kept telling myself there were probably lots of end notes so the thing would end maybe a hundred pages before page 1285. Not so. There were three pages devoted to a letter from Hugo to his Italian translator. The rest was all story.
It’s amazing how well the book has held up. Some books this old are hard to get in to but I found it easy to kind of fall into it. It probably helped that I knew the basic story from the play. There are some diversions that could have been left out. Mr. Hugo spends some time explaining why novelists should be permitted to use slang. There are some details about the battle of Waterloo. And then there’s the history and architecture of the sewers of Paris. Maybe I could have done without that. But all in all it was a good experience. I’m glad I read it.
It’s been years since I saw the play. As I read I thought there were a lot of details in the book that the play left out. I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago (more about that shortly). I can see now that the play is surprisingly complete. They got all the story related details in there. And what a story it is.
Now as for the movie…
They hit a home run. You couldn’t ask for better. From beginning to end you’re hit with the full emotional impact of this novel. Much has been made of the quality of the singing but you have to remember that this is storytelling. The songs tell the story. Most of them don’t even work as stand alone performance. The actors are not so much singing as they are acting in the key of whatever. At least in this case I would rather hear actors sing than watch singers trying to act. Bottom line is it works.
So what’s the thing about this story? Why is it so universally loved? Why has it lasted so long? Well let’s see. It’s a love story. It’s about people struggling against poverty, against misery. It’s about people rebelling against oppression. But above all it’s about… Well, it’s like my son says about Star Wars. It’s about redemption.
Think about it. How many of the songs are prayers to God? The Bishop says, “I have bought your soul for God.’ Jean Vanjean sings about God taking him to His glory. ‘To love another person is to see the face of God.’ The finale says ‘They shall walk behind the plowshare. They shall put away the sword.’ Les Miserables is Bible. It is gospel writ large for all nations to see and hear. And people have seen and heard who would never set foot in a Church or listen to a preacher.