It’s very appropriate that the film adaptation of the musical Les Miserables is debuting on Christmas Day. Not that anyone in Les Mis mentions Christmas: Enjolras doesn’t deck any halls, nor do the Thenadiers change their wicked ways after visits from three ghosts. But Christmas and the story of Les Mis share a common theme: the transformative power of gifts.
In any incarnation of Les Miserables (including Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, the 1987 Broadway play, or the 1996 non-musical movie starring Liam Neeson), an act of selfless gift-giving sets things in motion. Jean Valjean, a convict who spent nineteen years in prison (for stealing a loaf of bread, no less), is caught robbing from a bishop– the very bishop who provided the desperate Valjean with food and shelter. And yet, instead of handing this thief over to the authorities, the noble bishop (whom Hugo describes as an “upright man”) not only lets Valjean keep the stolen items, he actually gives him an additional gift: two silver candlesticks.
Of course, this gift does come with one substantial string attached: Valjean must make the most of this second chance by turning his life around. “Jean Valjean, my brother,” says the bishop in Hugo’s novel, “you belong no longer to evil but to good”; as a result, Valjean needs to use the bishop’s gift to become “an honest man.” Or, as the bishop succinctly tells Valjean in the musical version: “I have bought your soul for God.”
Incidentally, it’s no accident that Hugo has the bishop give Valjean candlesticks. A few pages earlier, when describing Valjean’s act of thievery, Hugo stressed how Valjean was moving around in the dark chamber; however, when he passed by the sleeping bishop’s bed, he saw that the holy man’s face was illuminted by a “ray of moonlight”– a “relfection of heaven,” says Hugo. But the moonbeam wasn’t the only light in the room: Hugo insists that because “heaven was within” the bishop, the external moonlight merely augmented his “inner radiance.” By giving Jean Valjean the candlesticks, the bishop is symbolically sharing his “radiance,” his own heavenly light, to a man who has only known darkness.
Armed with the bishop’s dual gifts (the silver and the light), Jean Valjean does indeed keep the promise he didn’t even realize he made: he becomes a new man. Literally: he takes on a new identity, Monseiur Madeleine. Under this guise, he eventually becomes a prosperous businessman man and the mayor of his town. But he becomes something else as well: a hero. The bishop saved his life, and Valjean “pays it forward” by saving the lives, both literally and figuratively, of at least six characters:
Fauchelevent: an old man whose leg was crushed by a runaway cart. Valjean (as the mayor) used his great strength to lift the cart and save his life.
Champmathieu: a confused petty thief who is accused of being Jean Valjean. This puts JVJ in quite a pickle: as long as the authorities think this other poor slob is Valjean, they’ll stop pursuing him; on the other hand, how could Valjean live with himself if he let another man suffer for his sins? (“If I speak, I am condemned,” Valjean sings in the musical, “If I stay silent, I am damned.”) Valjean ends up revealing his true identity– thus saving not only Champmathieu but his own soul (the one the bishop bought for him). In the process, though, he puts himself at great risk.
Fantine: an unwed mother who so loves her daughter Cosette that she sells her teeth, her hair, and her body (she turns to prostitution) in order to care for her. Technically, Valjean does not “save her life”– despite her big “I Dreamed a Dream” number in the musical, she dies surprisingly early on– but he does make her life better. Plus, he gives the dying Fantine the ultimate gift: he promises to take care of her daughter.
Cosette: Fantine’s daughter, who is rescued and raised by Jean Valjean. His dedication to Cosette defines the remainder of Valjean’s life and gives it meaning.
Marius: the love of Cosette’s life. A righteous revolutionary, Marius is saved by Valjean, who pulls him from battle and carries his wounded body through the sewers.
Javert: the heartless, severe inspector who has hunted Valjean for decades. Valjean saves his life by not taking it; although Valjean has the chance to kill Javert, he instead lets him go free.
Juxtapopsing Valjean and Javert reinforces how gifts can transform a person– as long as the person is willing to be transformed. Consider: the bishop shared his light to JVJ and gave him a second chance; Valjean then used this as an opportunity to change. Javert, on the other hand, didn’t know what to do with his gift of mercy. While Valjean started a new life, Javert decided to end his, by jumping off a bridge.
Plenty of big movies have opened on Christmas Day– from Sherlock Holmes to Dreamgirls to Patch Adams to Alien vs. Predator. But Les Miserables may be one of the best non-Christmas Christmas movies, precisely because it’s about how giving and receiving gifts can change us. It reminds us that when you give those you love a gift, you’re not just giving them a Furbie or an iPad or Epic Mickey 2; you’re giving your light, showing your love. And in that respect, Les Miserables reminds us of something else too: that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”