As the world's longest-running musical comes to cinema screens, it's time to pause and question why Les Misérables is loved by so many. It's the vivid characters, of course, and the rousing songs. But what else does the story have to offer?
When we meet our hero Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), he's far from heroic. Finishing a nineteen-year stretch in prison, sentenced just for stealing a loaf of bread, he's a bitter and broken man. He seems to have turned his back on everyone – and when he's finally released on parole and invited in for the night by a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson), he repays the man's kindness by stealing his silver.
But someone seems to be watching over Valjean, and this desperate crime will become a turning point in his life. When the police – under instructions from harsh Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) - try to take him back to prison, the bishop intervenes. He sends the police away, claiming to have given Valjean the silver as a gift. The convict is astonished: but the bishop knows what he's doing.
Valjean rips up his parole ticket, takes on a new identity, and commits himself to serving God. The mercy he's experienced then touches the lives of those he meets: including single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried). As years pass, the forgiveness which Valjean received from the bishop ripples out in unexpected directions. It even reaches the self-righteous Javert, whose response shows up the real state of his soul.
The contrast between Les Misérables' hero and its villain reveals the heart of the story. The policeman lives by the inflexible belief that 'Those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.' He is certain that because he's always stayed on the straight and narrow, God will uphold his cause, and his right to judge others. Meanwhile the convict, who has both faltered and fallen in his life, discovers that God loves and cares for him anyway. One man lives by law, and the other by grace.
In one of his own stories, Jesus spoke about two contrasting men: a younger brother who threw away his father's money before returning disgraced and humbled, and an older brother who believed he'd lived well enough to earn his father's favour. Jesus surprised his original hearers by suggesting that the younger son was in a far better position. Does Les Misérables echo this message – and could it be the real reason for its amazing popularity and power?
It's not often that we go to the cinema and are confronted with the message of God's grace. The new film offers the chance to reflect again on some amazing truths – and perhaps to share them with others.
Les Misérables is released on 11th January
For free resources see www.damaris.org/lesmis