BY CHRISTOPHER WEST
The movie version of the musical Les Miserables will be released on Christmas day. I’m taking that as a sign, not to mention a grand Christmas gift.
I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a movie to come out since Return of the Jedi in 1983. And I only had to wait a few years for that. Along with other Les Mis fans, I’ve been waiting for this movie for over two decades. Judging from the rave reviews it’s received, it promises to have been well worth it.
Based on Victor Hugo’s famous novel of the same title, Les Miserables – translated “the poor” or “the miserable ones” – has become, by many accounts, the most beloved musical of all time. It’s been translated into twenty-one languages and seen by over sixty million people.
I must admit: I wasn’t always a fan of musicals as a genre. I used to wonder what the point was. In fact, the first time I saw Les Mis in 1987, I didn’t get it, at all. Can’t you just tell the story instead of singing it? People just don’t break into song like that in real life. What a naïf! Of course, I was only 18. Time and life have since changed my tune. Hugo himself, long before his novel became a musical, said it best: “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and on which it is impossible to remain silent.”
What is it that simply had to be expressed in this musical, and could only be fully expressed in song? The deepest longings, sorrows, and sufferings of humanity – the unrelenting cry of the human heart for love, for mercy, for redemption, for everlasting justice and happiness. When we allow ourselves to give voice to these deepest cries of our hearts, speech is not enough. They spontaneously well up as song.
“Do you hear the people sing?” – the musical poignantly asks. Sadly, we’re often deaf to the collective cry of humanity because, well, we’re often deaf to what really goes on in our own hearts. Fear is usually the culprit. We’re afraid to feel because we don’t want to suffer. We’re afraid to yearn because we don’t want to be disappointed. We’re afraid of our own joy because it’s “safer” not to be so vulnerable.
Jesus called this kind of fear “hardness of heart” and lamented: “We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Mt 11:17).
Les Mis is an invitation to dance to the flute and mourn to the dirge. It’s an invitation to feel with humanity all that humanity feels: all the agony, sorrow, and injustice, and – more importantly – it’s an invitation to give ourselves permission in this vale of tears to hope … to hope that, despite the coldness we encounter and the darkness through which we must pass, “there is a flame that never dies / even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
Les Mis sings gloriously of the hope of the Gospel itself. And that’s one of the things I simply love about this musical: it’s a thoroughly sacred work of art that has been whole-heartedly embraced by the secular world. For the “miserable ones” of this story, redemption is real, heaven is real, and “to love another person is to see the face of God…” You “have to tell this story from the point of view that God exists,” says Tom Hooper, the film’s director. It simply doesn’t work otherwise.
So, how did a musical which portrays Catholic bishops as beacons of love, presents Christian virtue as lighting the way to heaven, and weaves divine mercy throughout ever come to be celebrated by the moguls of London, New York, and now Hollywood? Maybe because Les Mis is good art that simply unfolds a human story without an agenda. Honest, artful story telling moves, challenges, and transforms the heart in its own way, and in its own time: overt altar calls aren’t needed; nor desired. For when the deepest cries of the human heart are given voice and given hope, everyone with ears to “hear the people sing” listens and responds.
The New Book by Christopher West.
Fill These Hearts: God, Sex and the Universal Longing is a life-altering journey through classical art, pop music, and film by way of the Christian mystical tradition. Coming Jan. 8, 2013. Start the journey.