For: sexual scenes, strong language, anarchism, humanism, moral confusion, a warped depiction of death and the afterlife, and a false gospel
Les Misérables, the musical, is an interesting but ultimately twisted look at themes of justice, law, mercy and goodness. Its ethically muddy portrayal of the historical and fictional dilemmas, culminating in a solely humanistic view of redemption, renders any of the movie’s finer points completely profitless for the Christian.
Note: This review contains content from and comments on the film version of the musical, not the book series by Victor Hugo. Hugo’s own purposes for the story and its themes were not necessarily consulted by the writers of the musical or movie, and it would therefore be unwise to review the film (based on a musical that was based only loosely on the book) as if it were Hugo’s creation.
Les Misérables features an entire song about prostitution, containing numerous vulgarities about sexual positions, intercourse, and anatomy.
One of the main characters turns to prostitution and is seen among other whores at the pier. She leads a man to a private place, where he pulls her dress off her shoulder, and they engage in sexual intercourse, their movements visible from the waist up.
A giddy prostitute is seen later, clothed, engaged in a sexual position with a client dressed as Santa.
The political tensions in the movie are between a vaguely oppressive monarchy and an angry anarchist party committed to taking over France by violent means. Because anarchism is diametrically opposed to God’s institution of human authority, the main characters’ (positively portrayed) active involvement in the anarchist rebellion means that they are resisting God’s authority.
Because the movie never gives a specific reason why the king is in the wrong, other than that the poor continue to be poor under his regime, the labeling of the anarchists as the heroes and good guys of the story requires the viewer to approve of treason and killing without being given sufficient reason for them.1
In Les Misérables, the movie, the political and personal aims of the various protagonists are not to bring about actual justice, but to elevate the poor to a higher level of society, comfort and sense of purpose. The humanitarianism is turned into humanism by being raised to a religious goal separated, by all but a few of the characters, from God and his definition of justice, and by being presented as a cause worth dying, and worth killing for. In the movie, humanity is said to be lost in darkness, but climbing toward the light.
Apart from the protagonist, positively-portrayed characters deny any meaning in life without the material goods, the political influence, or the personal relationships they desire. The movie’s usual view of life is strongly self-centered and secular, but is depicted as being compatible with the main character’s religious devotion.
Throughout the story, characters’ immoral and criminal acts are minimized, excused, or even applauded. Justice is misconstrued to mean letting the guilty party’s financial status define sin and crime. Good and evil are defined by a character’s personality, rather than their morality or their standing before God.
The main character, Valjean, is portrayed as having been forced to steal bread to save another person’s life. Another character, Fantine, is portrayed as being forced to take up prostitution for the same reason. These and the other situations in the various characters’ lives, where they are forced to choose between two sins—no other options—are fictional, and are false. God is faithful, and he will not let us be tempted beyond our ability, but he has promised that with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape2. In real life, there is always a way to escape sin. Les Misérables, in excusing the characters’ sins simply because the movie makers gave them no alternatives, calls God a liar and a promise-breaker.
The villain of the story is actually the most moral character in the movie. As a policeman, Javert is portrayed as ruthless and merciless, but while his understanding of justice is founded on the wrong idea of the unforgivability of sin, the only external fault the movie has against him is that he is not corrupt—that he does not pick and choose which criminals to bring before the court. The stated complaint against Javert is that he does not show mercy to wrongdoers, but the movie does not hold the anarchists to the same standard.
Fantine, the prostitute, is portrayed as an “innocent soul” across the board, despite being guilty of fornication both in years past and during the movie. Fornication is portrayed as a good thing only gone bad when the woman is abandoned by her lover. Voluntary prostitution is portrayed as humiliating, but not morally wrong.
Frequently, the references to Valjean’s theft tend to minimize the unjustness of the act and imply that Valjean had a right to someone else’s personal property. The disproportionate prison sentence and the fact that the other man had bread while Valjean didn’t, do not lessen the criminality of his act. Fantine’s prostitution is clearly blamed on the man who fired her, leaving her jobless—implying that Fantine had an inalienable right to that particular job, and that her employer had no right to choose his employees.
Various positively-portrayed characters justify their sin and crime by pointing to the moral failings of other people.
The bishop, who is the main character’s first view of kindness in a religious man, twists his representation of goodness by lying multiple times.
As an aside, when God instituted the “eye for an eye” policy, it was as a principle requiring that the punishment fit the crime, that it not be too lax or too harsh. It was also laid out as a policy for the civil authorities, not for individuals. Valjean’s reference to the passage as a pattern for personal vengeance is a common mistake, but a mistake that should be mentioned.
A Warped Depiction of Death and the Afterlife
When Valjean, the main character, dies, he finds himself surrounded by characters who had died earlier in the movie. These souls include a Roman Catholic bishop, Fantine, and every single one of the anarchist revolutionaries who were killed in the revolution (which would be all but one). Les Misérables’ heaven looks exactly like Paris in 1832, and the dead revolutionaries are still literally waving their anarchist flags, singing about the barricades.
God is conspicuously absent from the afterlife. Valjean’s heaven (or Paris) portrays eternal blessedness as everlasting optimism in the triumph, not of Christ, but of humanity over darkness, strife and oppression.
A False Gospel
All of the religious characters in Les Misérables are Roman Catholics, and hold to the Roman Catholic errors on salvation. Valjean sings that if he does not do the right thing, he is damned. The bishop sings with a smile that he has saved Valjean’s soul, but never gives him the gospel, or tells him anything of God, except to declare that God has already raised an unrepentant, faithless Valjean out of darkness.
When Valjean dies and goes to meet all of those other characters, it is worth noting that Javert is not present, and no French soldiers are present. Javert professed Christ in a very erroneous way, and was not a true believer. But he did profess Christ, and did not get to heaven, while the anarchists swarm over Les Misérables’ version of heaven, none of whom professed Christ at all. Salvation in Les Misérables is by kind thoughts and actions toward the poor, or by being poor oneself.
1The historical setting of Les Misérables is Paris, 1832. The real-life situation was much more complex, but no less ethically muddled. All factions involved were committed to un- or anti-Christian worldviews.
21 Corinthians 10:13