April 21, 2013

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Les Misérables as Fantasy…

Like many people, I’ve watched Les Misérables more than once on DVD.

Like many others, the pastor of the church I attend has expounded on the connection between Les Misérables and the American Church today (comparing “us” to Jean Valjean and the institutional (i.e., Mainline) Church to Javert).

My interest today however, was sparked when I saw that Les Misérables had been nominated for (among a zillion others!) a Saturn Award. The Saturn is given by The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films and I found that strange. On closer examination of course, you can find that among others, it is up for an award for the best Action/Adventure film (http://www.saturnawards.org/nominations.html). But I didn’t seen that until much later. It made me wonder what aspects of Les Misérables were fantasy.

Lo, and Behold! In the very final scene, shortly after the death of Jean Valjean, Fantine, the June Rebellion youngsters, they and several other dead people sing:

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of the people
who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
and the sun will rise.

We will live again in freedom
in the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the ploughshare;
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
and all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that we bring
when tomorrow comes...
Tomorrow comes!

They stand on a Barricade that has been both a visible and invisible symbol through the entire movie; below them, a throng of thousands join to sing this final number, soprano voices soaring to the ceiling as the camera pans back then lifts to the sky.

On the Other Side of the barricade (or is Jean Valjean et al on the Other Side? Paranormal phenomenon like this always give me a headache), where those still alive eke out their pathetic lives, there are only cannons and litter – and confetti from the barricaded Dead drifts a bit over from the Other Side to reality.

It’s strange that the movie would end this way. The rest of it while fictionalized, is an historic account of the years following the French Revolution.

I have, unsurprisingly, an opinion about that.

While it is clear that “Les Misérables (1862)...[is]…focused on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption...Examining the nature of law and grace...” , Twentieth Century French playwrights and the Twenty-first Century media monster can’t handle overtly Christian thoughts of law or of grace, faith and forgiveness. So they changed the meditation of Victor Hugo into a fantasy instead, adding the scene where Fantine escorts him to “heaven” (aka “the barricade”). The novel has no fantasy sequence and Jean Valjean dies at home, forgiven his life-long deception by his daughter and new son-in-law. This is real forgiveness, and moderns like Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Trevor Nunn and John Caird (adaptation); Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (French lyrics), Herbert Kretzmer (English adaptation) as well as those who took the French musical and created another, grander altered musical in English, “...with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and additional material by James Fenton...a literal translation by Siobhan Bracke of the original Paris version...[to which they added] A third of the English lyrics were a "rough" translation...third were adapted from the French lyrics...the final third consisted of new material...”, were both unable to accept the fact of Christ’s sacrifice – and unable to tamper any more with the message of Les Misérables.

The critics of Victor Hugo’s time tried to pan the Gospel message of Christ’s forgiveness in 1862 by trashing the novel: “...the subject matter immoral...excessive sentimentality...apparent sympathy with the revolutionaries...unconquerable disgust...artificial and disappointing…neither truth nor greatness in it...characters were crude stereotypes...an infantile effort...tasteless and inept...”, but they were unable to stem the tide of popular acclaim and the novel lived on and on, translated into twenty-one languages that has been read for 150 years.

Despite the efforts of critics then and playwrights today, the novel became “...one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century...”, and the musical, in its various incarnations has been performed in at least ten languages, won the Tony and fourteen other awards on stage, and garnered another thirty in its current film version, including Oscars and Golden Globes for various cast members.

The book and its message of Christ’s forgiveness appeal to Humanity in a way no amount of fantasy-creation, criticism and play re-writing can shed – even after attempts spanning 150 years.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews in chapter thirteen, verse eight iterates that as well and extends it by saying, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

So – how many of you have I irritated?

Image: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/feature_promo_tout_421x237/2013/01/les_miserable_hugh_jackman_anne_hathaway_a_l.jpg

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