This blog was occasioned by a review I just read basically trashing the film, insisting not only that the music was trite but the story and characters were no longer relevant.
Certainly, the nineteenth century is long past. There are few women who are innocents like Fantine and few men who are as bigoted as Javert. Characters who struggle to live a heroic life like Valjean have always been rare. But boys with their head in the clouds like Marius have always been around.
The critic also seems to think that injustice, lack of education, naivete, seduction, prostitution, and self-sacrifice are all things of the past. Maybe in whatever posh urban or suburban world he inhabits.
Perhaps what he needs is a version of Les Mis in a contemporary US setting for him to appreciate its continued relevance.
It can work out quite well in an inner city neighborhood. Valjean can be Juan, an illegal immigrant unable to get work, so he has to hide out in his sister's apartment and look after her kids while she is out at work. An evil-minded neighbor sees him horsing around with his nephews and reports him to an overzealous social worker as sexually abusive. Juan gets jailed with the maximum sentence which is extended without parole when he manages to escape and is recaptured.
When he finally is given parole after a long time (doesn't have to be nineteen years, even a year of undeserved detainement can feel long), he goes back to his old neighborhood where everyone is still suspicious of him and treats him like a pariah. His sister moved ages ago and didn't tell him where. Nobody will give him a job or a place to stay except a kind priest who lets him sleep in the church. He is grateful but in the night he reflects on his chances of getting livelihood and restoring his reputation and concludes bitterly he doesn't have much hope. So he steals the antique candlesticks in the church and is caught by a policeman who recognizes the candlesticks and doesn't believe his story that they were a gift. They go to the priest, who assures the policeman they were a gift. And when they are alone he does give them to Juan, telling him he can sell them and use them for a new start.
In a conservative small town, Fanny gets knocked up by a smooth-talking traveling salesman, who also robbed her. Nobody in the town will give a job to a girl who has loose morals and is too easily fooled at that. When her mother who's been supporting her dies, Fanny decides to go to the city to look for work. There is a new daycare center in town run by a husband and wife with daughters of their own, and it seems like a nice place, so she asks if she can leave her daughter there first. The owners consent. She finds work in the city in a factory run by Juan, so she stays and sends money to her daughter's keepers, who eventually change their line of business to an inn and they make the little girl work in the kitchen, behind the scenes.
Eventually, Juan fires Fanny because of rumors about her. When he finds these to be gross exaggerations, he feels remorseful and seeks her out. But it is too late. In order to survive, she sells her kidney and her body, and is dying of some horrible infection she caught. So he promises to bring her child to her. Unfortunately, by then the overzealous social worker has seen him and reported him, so he has to escape from the police who won't accept his excuse that he has to get her daughter. Fanny is so weak she dies from misery when the social worker insists that Juan won't be able to bring her daughter to her. But Juan is still determined to keep his promise, especially since he has read the messages from the innkeeper and his wife and, more shrewd than Fanny, feels certain they have been lying to her about her daughter's needs in order to get money from her.
When he finds the inn, he peeks into the kitchen and sees the girl who is poorly dressed and pitifully thin and ragged. He threatens to report them but they recognize him as a wanted man so he pays them off quickly, which makes them suspect he has a lot of money.
He brings the girl to another town where he runs into a man he has helped who works in a Catholic boarding school. He helps him get a job there and his daughter goes to school there. When she reaches her teens, he decides she needs to experience life in the real world, so they go to the city. There she exchanges glances with a charming student in the park, who follows her and wants to meet her. His neighbor seems to know a lot about following people, so he asks her to help him.
All this time, his fellow students are lobbying for the passing of some bill.
This is where it gets tricky. The political side won't work out too well in the US, but it will other countries with more restrictive governments. But then that reviewer was too narrowminded in demanding that the film be completely relevant to Americans of today. Sure the movie was made by Americans. But the book wasn't. And why should a story be specifically aimed at one group? Hugo was focused on the troubles of the human heart, on analyzing human nature. His observations continue to be true taken in a broad sense.
There will always be people who suffer like Valjean, Fantine, and even Javert because nobody seems them for who they really are. Valjean suffered from the taint on his reputation caused by being a convict, and nobody would look past this label to see his nobility. Fantine suffered the same as an unwed mother, which may not be so great a crime in many places today, but is still questionable in some parts of the world. In any case, her trouble boils down into people labeling her an unredeemable slut for one mistake. And Javert? Everyone saw him as a harsh, cold upholder of the law and nobody was aware of his need to maintain the law because he feared becoming like his criminal parents. Then there's Eponine, who was forever tainted by her association with her crude, wicked parents.
This is the misery at the heart of Les Miserables and even after we have eliminated the other unhappy elements, this will remain, people being what they are. Hugo's masterpeice shows just how much we do not see and understand about people which leads us to judge them, often to their detriment. This human flaw and the troubles caused by it are timeless.