Thursday, October 31, 2013

Do You Hear the People Sing?

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

I almost never write movie reviews on this blog but I'm going to make an exception. It's not actually a movie review so much as a review of the original story by Victor Hugo. I'm talking about Les Miserables. The movie adaptation was simply amazing. I've watched it three times. The solo performance by Ann Hathaway alone was worth the ticket. Add to the that the superb cinematography and the awesome special effects and it was nothing short of a masterpiece. There were some weak spots, such as the singing ability of some of the actors, particularly Russell Crowe, but that's just my knitpicking.

Recently, I got to see the stage adaptation at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis. The venue was too small for such an epic tale, but the performances were superior despite the small stage. Some of the singers, were by and large, as talented as any I've seen on Broadway.

But now to the story itself. It is set in early 19th-century France. Normally I don't care much for period pieces. I also really tend not to like opera-style musicals where they sing every line. But once I put that behind me, I regard Les Miserables, the show I was dragged to by my daughter and was sure I was going to hate, as probably my favorite movie/musical of all time. And part of that is because of the story itself and how it relates very well to the politics of today's world.

It's hard to imagine but the economic conditions of the period were even more polarized than they are today. The vast majority of the population were peasants. There were a handful of well-to-do citizens and probably no actual middle class as we would recognize them today. At the beginning of the story, Jean Valjean was a prisoner, having been part of the peasant class. His crime was stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving child. Apparently, that earned him five years of hard labor, onto which was tacked another 15 years for trying to run from the law. At the time of his parole, he was a jaded and desperate man who trusted no one and who thought the world was against him.

Although he had been released from prison, he couldn't find a job because no one would hire an ex-convict. He was what he had been - a criminal, and nobody wanted anything to do with him, that is until he happened upon a remarkable bishop. The bishop took him in, fed him, and gave him a place to sleep for the night. But Valjean, far from having learned to trust anyone again, took advantage. He stole some silver and tried to run. He was immediately found out by the authorities while trying to sell his booty and brought back before the bishop. The bishop thanked the officers but told them that they had made a mistake, that he in fact had given the silver to Valjean. He even brought him two more silver candlesticks to put in his bag, saying he had forgotten to take them. When the officers left, the bishop told Valjean that he had bought his soul for God and that he must now use this silver to make an honest man of himself.

This was the turning point in Valjean's life, and a turning point in the story. The whole scene with the bishop represents what it is truly like to be Christian in the best sense of the word. In 19th-century France, everybody was a Catholic Christian, but in today's world a Christ-like man does not have to believe at all. It's not a prerequisite for doing what is good and right. But I digress.

The rest of the story basically pits good against evil, but with both sides claiming that God is on his side. Valjean tears up his parole papers and uses the silver to establish himself as a respected factory owner. But the prison guard, Javert, who had given Valjean his parole papers and told him to remember his name, had taken it upon himself to hunt down and arrest the parole-jumping Valjean. It had been 10 years when the two met again at Valjean's factory. A scuffle had broken out among the women who were laborers there. The factory barely paid a living wage but if you didn't do menial labor then you were out on the streets and homeless. Fantine, one of the workers, was very pretty and was given favors by the foreman, that is until he found out through another worker that she had a child and, by implication, a man. The foreman didn't want anything else to do with her so he fired her. Valjean, being pre-occupied with Javert (who didn't recognize his old nemesis), allowed it to happen.

Fantine's daughter, Cosette, was living with a crooked innkeeper and his wife while Fantine worked to pay her keep. But now how was she supposed to pay without a job? She was distraught and homeless, having to sell her beautiful hair, her teeth, and her body to help pay for Cosette's keep. She was wrongfully arrested by Javert after she struck a well-off man who had tried to take advantage of her. But Valjean stepped in to rescue her, taking her to the hospital. Both Valjean and Javert said graceful prayers to God: Javert for justice and Valjean for the safety of well-being of Fantine and her daughter.

It was how this society is reflective of today. At Fantine's arrest, Javert said that a hard day's work for a fair wage is what looks right in the eyes of God. He had absolutely no pity whatsoever on Fantine and said that the story of her starving child had been told to him again and again for 20 years. I can hear the same words spewing forth from the mouths of modern-day conservative Republicans. And yet, as is painfully obvious in this story, a day's wages barely allow one to subsist, and that's assuming one was lucky enough to acquire a job.

Valjean, on the other hand, was praying for the well being of others and did all he could to help those who needed it, by giving hundreds of people a job, and by helping poor Fantine. Although he was a "job creator" he understood, by referencing his own life from an earlier time, that there were those who, through no fault of their own, were not making it in the cruel world of the 19th century in Europe. Not only did he take Fantine to the hospital, though he was too late to save her, he promised her he would find her daughter and take care of her. And he did just that, despite being hounded by Javert for decades.

Javert was not really an evil man, he was simply doing his duty. He looked at the world from his own sheltered perspective and didn't understand why so many others couldn't also make it on their own without resorting to thievery and without having to rely so heavily on the good will of their fellow humans. He thought God was surely on his side and his prayers reflected that bent. Valjean wondered why God would turn his back on so many people who had done "nothing wrong." And his prayers reflected that personal plea. Of course, when God does not exist, it is very easy for anyone of any socioeconomic persuasion to believe that God is looking out for them, even though he may not show it in an expected manner.

The story ends, after a failed uprising by the people of France to overthrow their unfair government. Javert plays a double agent, telling the revolutionaries the plans of the military, but he is ratted out by Gavroch, a young boy who stands with the rebellion. They hand him over to Valjean to dispose of, but Valjean allows him to leave. This action perplexes Javert, who can't live with himself owing a debt to the man he has chased all these years. He is so conflicted that he commits suicide by jumping from a bridge. Cosette marries a young man of high society who, after being severely wounded in the battle, was saved by Valjean, unbeknownst to her at the time. Valjean tells the young man his life's story but begs him not to reveal the truth of his life to Cosette. He promises but when they find Valjean near death he breaks the news to her of how Valjean had saved him. They both plead with Valjean to come live with them but it is at that point that Valjean dies. The story ends with his posthumus reunion with Fantine and all the dead soldiers with whom he had stood during the failed uprising.

But the story's lessons live on for today's society to take to heart. If financial rewards were always commensurate with the amount of hard work and effort put in, then there would be a lot more people in what is today the top two percent, the ones who hold 90 percent of the wealth. Those who make it often owe their station in life to more than effort, but also to good fortune and knowing the right people. Those who are among the poor are not always those who are lazy, trifling, or have no ambition. It is up to society to be equitable and to help balance out the randomness of life by making sure that all those who desire to earn their keep can do so. If private enterprise can't or won't do it, the government has the obligation.

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