PBS’ decision to broadcast a new adaptation of Les Misérables exactly opposite HBO’s final season of Game of Thrones smacks of fatalism. Who among us would willingly sacrifice being the first to witness CGI dragons, gory battles, palace intrigues, and salacious sex scenes in order to revisit Victor Hugo’s epic story, one we already know thanks to ridiculously popular adaptations from Broadway and Hollywood? Most of us wouldn’t dream this dream, to paraphrase Hugo’s Fantine.
Yet classics survive because they speak to new generations, and this retelling of the 1862 novel offers an oracle for our times. Beyond its impressive cast—including Dominic West, David Oyelowo, and recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman—Les Misérables painfully reminds of us of the pervasive penchant of the powerful and privileged to commit acts of injustice and exploitation against the least of these. The jury remains out as to whether the titillations of Game of Thrones will speak truth to the masses 157 years from now, but this much we know: Les Misérables continues to provide precious food for thought for hungry Christians in search of complicated and compelling art.
We don’t need to wade too far into this gritty adaptation, written by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Shankland, to discover contemporary relevance. The first episode carefully dramatizes the 19-year prison sentence of Jean Valjean (West), up through his ignominious release back into society with little assistance or hope of flourishing. In doing so, the story points a dirty finger at today’s systemic problems of mass incarceration and unequal justice. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 2.3 million people are incarcerated at any one time in the United States under a judicial system that disproportionately afflicts our most vulnerable citizens. West’s beaten-dog portrayal of Jean Valjean stands in for them.
In a Daily Show interview, Oyelowo, who plays the antagonist Javert, passionately directed his audience to the contemporary resonance of Les Misérables. Referencing Valjean’s imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, Oyelowo lamented, “Well, you only have to look at the prison-industrial complex here in America right now, people of color, people from deprived economic backgrounds given disproportionate sentences for crimes that do not warrant that level of sentence.” Further connecting Hugo’s story to our own, Oyelowo continued, “The gap between the have and have-nots is widening so much as we are seeing now, especially in the West.” If we have ears to hear, the Scriptural response—“to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners”—starts with the very first episode.
Les Misérables continues to provide precious food for thought.
Beyond parallels to mass incarceration, the wrenching portrayal of Fantine in the first three episodes invites viewers to check their privilege. This extended adaptation permits time to savor how this trusting, loving, beautiful young woman—played with delicate grace by Lily Collins—succumbs to the fleeting charms of Felix, a young Paris aristocrat slumming it in the provinces. When Felix (Johnny Flynn) cruelly abandons Fantine after a year-long courtship to return to his privileged life, he leaves her with a broken heart and the beautiful bastard baby, Cosette.
In order to find work, Fantine boards Cosette with an unscrupulous couple, the Thenardiers, who shamelessly bilk her of nearly all her money while treating Cosette like a slave. In her maternal quest to provide, Fantine eventually sells her hair, her teeth, and her body. Instead of protecting this victimized young woman when “land-owning citizens” mock and molest her on the street, Javert arrests Fantine for fighting back. When the disguised Jean Valjean finally intervenes, the graceless Javert goads, “A common whore. She is the lowest of the low. And you would risk your good name to help a creature like that?” At this point, Valjean responds—as we should, as Jesus would—with the line, “She’s one of God’s creatures.”
Indeed, if Les Misérables convicts us of our collective sinfulness, it also proclaims the grace of the gospel. As should be true today, the church of Hugo’s novel admirably rises to the challenge. Whether through the naively generous bishop who gratuitously gifts Valjean the candlesticks that lift him out of poverty or through the defiant abbess who provides sheltering sanctuary for him from an unjust legal system, Les Misérables models for us the biblical response to acts of injustice and exploitation. The best example of all may come from Jean Valjean himself, who, atoning for his sins, continually strives to live a redeemed life in accordance with Mathew 25:40.
In an age when we can watch what we want when we want, by all means enjoy the final episode of Game of Thrones this Sunday night. But also know that another magnificent adaptation of a popular novel, a story perhaps more suited for Sabbath reflection, awaits your bliss and prayerful consideration. You can find it through PBS.