Barnett recently penned an op-ed piece for the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper in which she recalled her recent conversation with actor Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean Valjean in the new “Les Miserables” movie. Jackman told Barnett that he read the novel twice before filming began, and then on the set he reviewed relevant excerpts from the book every day depending on what scenes he was acting. Ultimately Barnett concluded there is no substitute for Hugo’s original words, and exhorted her audience to read the book in addition to seeing the new movie.
“With philosophical insights and poetic language,” Barnett wrote, “Hugo keeps us beside Valjean and thus inspires us to continue our struggle: Anyone can lead a better life, feel more love, move toward God, as does Valjean. We can work our own transfigurations if we truly work at them. Even if we feel as downtrodden as Valjean, we have hope.”
Redemption and social justice
After the merciful priest inspires Jean Valjean with the notion of God’s redemption, the protagonist’s odyssey essentially amounts to a series of redemptive acts. For example, Valjean singlehandedly raises Cosette after the death of her mother, Fantine; spares the life of his nemesis, Javert; and rescues young Marius from the barricades.
But the ever-present redemption of Jean Valjean is more than just a means for advancing plot; it’s also symbolic of Hugo’s hope that his beloved France could be redeemed from the French coup d’état of 1851 that ended the Second Republic and re-established a ruling emperor in the form of Napoleon III.
“The (world) will identify with jean Valjean as we watch his moral progress, from moral failure to redemption,” Grossman told the Deseret News. “That’s really important in the book as a parallel between individual and collective progress. Hugo is hoping for the redemption of his country. His country has taken a huge step backward: A lot of people are miserable, and the country is a dictatorship.”
Barnett explained, “The redemption (of Valjean) would be connected to Hugo’s belief that people were progressing, that people could get better, that civilization could get better. That’s taking the idea of redemption up to the whole idea of society or culture or civilization.”
In making the case that France’s redemption is not just possible but actually necessary, Hugo steadfastly shines a light throughout “Les Miserables” on the social ills that, by the 1860s, had come to permeate French society. Fantine, for instance, epitomizes the plight of the desperate women who turned to prostitution in order to survive.
The fact that decent, honest people are still being exploited today is surely an integral part of why “Les Miserables” never stopped resonating with audiences.
“Certainly Hugo is looking at the whole question of the exploitation of men, women and children, which continues to this day all around the world,” Grossman said. “He lays it out very clearly in the book, just by enacting the lives of the famous characters. It’s a very strong push for this human dignity and faith — you know, caring about your fellow man, woman and child.”
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.
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