First of all, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t throw popcorn. I didn’t fall asleep. And I don’t think it was a horrible movie. But I didn’t cry, wasn’t even tempted to, and I didn’t think it was a great movie. It was OK. It had some fun/interesting things and some serious problems. My criticisms and concerns that follow are actually raised primarily for the “born again-ers” — the people whose lives have been forever changed by this movie, who sobbed through scene after scene and are planning their fourth trip back to the theaters. And yes, I realize they are probably the least likely to actually hear me out, but my job includes lots of talking that falls on deaf ears, so no worries on that count.
So first the pros:
1. I actually like the idea of musicals. In fact, I think in a more Christian world, there will be more of them. I’m not sure they will look and feel the same as the few offerings we get here and there in modern cinema, but in principle, I have nothing against musicals. And it seems to me that the genre provides a certain kind of playful, poetic, folksy medium not offered elsewhere. And besides, Christians love singing. We love singing because God loves singing. That’s not an endorsement of anything with the title “music” slapped on it, but I’m just saying that Christians should be the kinds of people who love to tell stories, sing stories, and create stories with singing and lots music. So if Les Mis is a step in that direction, count me appreciative. One star.
2. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have a soft spot in my heart (or head, can’t tell which) for theater. I enjoy watching good stage productions, I enjoy acting, and I’ve even directed a community theater play once. All that to say, I think there’s something beautiful, compelling, and magical about the stage medium that isn’t captured in the epic scenes and sequences of most movies. I enjoyed the fact that Les Mis sought to preserve much of the original Broadway theater feel. Of course it was still a movie, but the extreme close up shots of the actors gave us front row seats to some great acting. So where many movies can air brush poor acting with CGI and another explosion or cheap joke, Les Mis reminded us that the best movies/stories are told by people who believe in them. Another star here.
3. Finally, somewhere in the Twitterverse somebody chided Christian snobs who only want to throw popcorn in scorn and don’t see a fabulous opportunity for evangelism when the whole world might actually be interested in watching a movie with strong themes of sin, forgiveness, justice, grace, God, heaven, etc. And so let me add my voice to that thought: I actually agree that this movie could make for piles of great gospel conversations. And if your neighbors would go watch it with you, or you can plan a neighborhood showing when it comes out on video with follow up dinner/coffee conversations about Jesus, consider me your biggest fan. My only concern would be to make sure that you actually talk about Jesus and you catch and understand where the movie is actually wrong so that you aren’t unwittingly offering up a heretical version of the gospel. Remember Mormons talk a lot about forgiveness, grace, God, heaven, too. Those are great gospel opportunities too. But they can also be some of the most frustrating conversations because in the end you realize you were using the same words but you didn’t mean the same things by them at all. Half a star here.
And this leads me to the Cons:
1. As is the temptation with theater and musicals in general, Les Mis is jam packed full of emotion. As I told my wife coming out of the theater, I felt like the time she took me to our local Jamms, a frozen yogurt bar. I think I must have been crazy hungry or something, but I put almost all of the available toppings on my frozen yogurt. And man it was good for the first few bites. And then it just got thick and sweet and more sweet, and then I was full and overloaded. I thought the opening scenes of Les Mis were intriguing and caught my interest. The scene where Jean Valjean is caught stealing the priest’s silver and is forgiven was very well done. I was moved. That was grace in your face. Likewise, the portrayal of Anne Hathaway’s character, Fantine’s brutal mistreatment and demise was also stunning, sickening, and haunting (if somewhat over-the-top). But the problem was that was only the beginning. It was like an emotional Twister game in which the director was only getting started. Next it was right hand to blue square and then left foot to green, and by about half way through the movie, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to care, it was that I couldn’t. All my cares were used up. So I trundled right along with the rest of the theater through the rest of the story, but the highs and lows were so high and so low and so extreme and so constant, I just couldn’t keep up with it. It basically amounted to emotional inflation. As our country is in the process of learning, when you keep printing emotion, and the numbers on the bills get bigger, you don’t actually end up with more. You end up with less. So by the time the little kid got shot by the soldiers I knew it was awful, meant to grab my heart strings and play a rousing diddy, but I couldn’t muster much more than a shoulder shrug. And as my wife said, by the end of the movie, she was so ready for Jean Valjean to die. Just die already, poor man.
2. And this is related to my second criticism, and gets closer to the heart of the story. While the story is meant to weave together great hardships with an enduring grace somehow holding strong to the end, the emotional inflation made the evil actually less evil and the grace actually less powerful. While in the Christian story, evil is real, awful, horrible, Les Mis slowly downgraded evil. After Fantine’s tragedy, when it comes to the debauchery of Madame Thenardier and her crass and cruel husband, the director knows his only hope is to go for over-the-top sleeze and obscenity and try to pick up a few laughs along the way. And again, as I noted above, when the little kid soldier is gunned down, and the rest of the political revolutionaries are all lined up on the ground, I didn’t really have much pity for them, even though the movie was trying to make me feel pity for them. Was it really evil? Was it awful? Evil like the Thenardiers? Evil like what happened to Fantine? Really? Measured by what? By what standard? Measured by the intensity of your singing? Measured by the next chord progression? Measured by how I feel? And there we are. And related to this is the fact that after the awesome scene where Jean Valjean is forgiven by the priest, all the other scenes where he returns that grace, even at great risk to himself and even shows kindness to his own worst enemy, Javert, those scenes of grace just seemed rather ho-hum. It’s not that those weren’t great story telling opportunities, I just think the way the director (and Hugo?) told the story failed. I hit the emotional climax in the first thirty minutes of the film and all the other “turning points” just came as a rather belabored and sensational denouement.
3. Finally, and probably my biggest concern is the Mormon concern noted above. I’m honestly not at all convinced that a bunch of Mormons couldn’t celebrate this film just as much as all the evangelical hype I’m hearing. Granted, there are Christian Churches and crosses and Bible words throughout the story. But I’m not convinced that this is really a Christian gospel story we’ve got. At the very least it’s highly ambiguous. Please note that I haven’t read the book, and for all I know, the gospel is much more explicit in Hugo’s actual novel. And three cheers for that, if it is. But I doubt it. RC Sproul Jr. shares this from a friend:
“Victor Hugo did not believe the gospel. For the majority of his life, he is best described as a Catholic humanist. Sometime around the writing of Les Misérables (1862) he began to identify himself as a Free Thinker, a humanist who believes that the Supreme is Man’s own rationalism. Accordingly, in Les Misérables we see Hugo demonstrating his belief that human beings are not totally depraved. Instead, they have the capacity for moral goodness in and of themselves. It is only through forces outside of them that this innate innocence can be lost.”
Millions of Mormons, evangelical Christians, and Roman Catholics can go into their churches have orgasmic emotional experiences and they will end up in Hell because they haven’t really met Jesus, and they don’t really know grace, for all the Bible words, all the tears, and all the “good deeds” they did. Christians don’t go to heaven for being good. Christians don’t go to heaven for having an emotional experience in a church. And this is the point: to my recollection, there was nothing uniquely Christian about Jean Valjean’s heroism. Some old priest did him a great kindness, and Valjean filled his life with returning the favor despite the omnipresent justice-hounding of one Javert. Makes for an interesting story, but there’s nothing uniquely Christian about that. Mormons and JWs and Buddhists all believe in do-gooding. Christians don’t obey and do good to others solely because some good has been done to them. The gospel isn’t “one good turn deserves another” or some kind of “pay it forward” gimmick. Certainly, we obey out of gratitude. Certainly, the kindness of God is one of our great motivators. But the gospel is that God meets us and forgives us because of what Jesus has done for us, and that He walks with us, carries us, and upholds us miraculously. In the movie, Valjean and Fantine and Cosette are all, by and large, innocent victims of their circumstances, but the gospel of Jesus proclaims our guilt, that we deserve to die, that we deserve Hell — and Jesus, the only innocent one, takes our penalty for us. In the movie, Jean Valjean is a hero because he stubbornly keeps being nice and good to people despite his circumstances, even though he once stole bread (but he was really hungry) and skipped his parole (but he was going to be sooo good) and ran from the law (but Javert was really grumpy and unreasonable) and let an innocent, abused single mom get fired from his factory (but he was distracted by Javert suddenly showing up). Fantine is a heroine because she meant well, tried to do her best, and died suffering brutal mistreatment — even though she had started a fight in the factory (but she was provoked) and did let that man have her for money (but she was desperate). The young revolutionaries were heroes because they loved liberty, but why do we not call them what we would call them today — terrorists? Because they were young and handsome and had nice singing voices? O, I see. The good outweighs the muddled, romantic evil. No matter that they were murderers. No one cares about the French soldiers. What about their mothers crying at home? Stop asking pesky questions, just focus on the little boy they shot. At any rate, none of the victims in the movie were actually sinners in need of a Savior. Maybe Javert, but he was just too grumpy. Valjean and Fantine and Cosette and the revolutionaries are all innocent victims of their circumstances, and they meant well and did their best and died trying to be good and since their good deeds and good intentions and good attitudes outweigh the few (unavoidable) sins, they get to go to heaven at the end. But Javert was grumpy, and grumpy people don’t get to go to heaven.
Apart from the highly ambiguous “conversion” scene in the church at the beginning, there’s no indication that it’s God’s grace upholding and preserving and forgiving Valjean through the rest of his life. In fact, when he leaves Cosette and Marius at the end of the movie, insisting to Marius that Cosette must not know his true past, this is the dead giveaway that this movie is not really about Jesus’ grace. Why doesn’t he want her to know? Why is he ashamed of his past? The Christian gospel is that Jesus is good, Jesus is faithful, Jesus is the hero. And His faithfulness becomes our faithfulness, and by His wounds we are healed. But Les Mis is actually about a Mormon grace, a cheap humanistic knockoff of the real thing. When Jesus conquers somebody with His grace, He turns all the scars into glory. He turns the story of pain and suffering into a story about the wisdom and goodness of God. Sin is forgiven. Light shines in the darkness. He makes our lives cruciform by the power of the Spirit. But Valjean didn’t meet Jesus in that chapel on the hill. He decided to turn over a new leaf and tried to forget his past. He had an emotional experience in front of some icons and burned his papers. He decided to be nice to people and forgiving because it felt so nice, so amazing, so right to him.
But this is the subtle poison: We can pack out theaters where millions of people get a vicarious experience of forgiveness and cheap grace, and the songs soar high enough and the emotions burn hard enough, and it can feel like we’ve actually come into grace, actually come close to God. But I suspect that it’s mostly the sound system and the big screen and the hole in our collective souls. And just as the “grace” never really touches down, never really heals the broken world, but only ascends to some weird “revolutionary heaven” in the end, we leave the movie theaters and go back to snapping at our husbands and sleeping with our girlfriends and aborting our babies, but we all feel a little better about ourselves because we’ve felt an emotion that feels to us a lot like forgiveness. But you didn’t really need Jesus for that.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any problem with people liking the movie, enjoying the movie, etc. I don’t think you’re a loser or subChristian. There are piles of enjoyable movies that don’t talk about Jesus and present morality in various ambiguous ways. I just want to point out that a highly emotionally charged story with Bible words and symbols sprinkled throughout and a “heaven” scene at the end doesn’t automatically make a Christian movie or a gospel presentation. I can grant that some people have brought true Christian definitions and imported them into the story, filling in the gaps, and in that way, I can imagine turning the story in a more explicitly Christian direction. But it’s a seriously flawed presentation of the gospel short of a serious infusion of Jesus into the story. Of course you might recognize the flaws and just enjoy the rousing choruses and bracing story for what their worth, and more power to you. Or you might see the movie as a great introduction for explaining the real gospel to unbelieving neighbors or friends — and God bless you. But on its own, this isn’t a movie about the grace of Jesus. It’s a story about highly emotional do-gooding and humanistic heroism.