In the PBS adaption of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, LES MISERABLES, France is in the throes of unrest during the post-Napoleonic era and injustice and disparity between the upper and lower classes are horrendous. A criminal by the name of Jean Valjean serves a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to help his sister. After his release, his yellow passport, which identifies him as an ex-convict, leads everyone but a kindly priest to turn him away. When Valjean is caught trying to steal from the priest, the bishop gives Valjean the items he was stealing, telling him that in so doing, the bishop had bought Valjean’s soul for God.
While Valjean initially continues to nurse his bitterness and anger and lashes out by stealing a coin from a young child, he is soon brought to repentance, overcome by the grace and mercy of the bishop. Valjean becomes a new man, reforming his ways and becoming Monsieur Madeleine, the mayor of the city of Montreuil.
After his own experience with desperation leading to his initial crime of stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean provides honest employment at a factory for all who are willing to work. It is to this factory that Fantine comes, a young single mother looking for work so that she can care for her daughter, Cosette. Afraid that being a single mother will keep employers from being willing to hire her, Fantine reluctantly leaves her young daughter with the Thenardiers, an innkeeper and his wife. Upon arriving at Valjean’s factory in Montreuil, Fantine lies to Valjean that she’s alone in the world. She sends her money to the Thenardiers, who pocket it all and abuse Cosette. When Fantine’s secret is discovered, she’s dismissed from the factory. To care for Cosette, Fantine becomes a prostitute. When Valjean realizes what his dismissal has cost Fantine, he rescues her and promises to bring Cosette to her.
Sadly, Valjean’s past catches up with him. Javert, a police officer from the prison hulks where Valjean served his prison sentence, seeks to find Valjean after his theft from the young child is reported. When Javert’s work leads him to Montreuil, he begins to look for a way to prove that “Monsieur Madeleine” is really the ex-convict Jean Valjean.
Valjean avoids capture until he learns an innocent man has been mistaken for him and is about to pay for his crimes. Rather than take the opportunity to be free of his past at the expense of another, Valjean turns himself into Javert.
Before Valjean is sent back to prison, he promises Fantine he will honor his word and care for her child. Overcome with illness and sorrow, Fantine dies. Valjean escapes prison and finds an abused Cosette living with the Thenardiers. He pays them off and rescues her, taking her to Paris.
As Cosette grows into a young woman, she chafes against Valjean’s attempts to hide them both to avoid detection by Javert. Cosette meets and falls in love with a young political radical named Marius. In an attempt to protest the gross class disparities, Marius and his compatriots join a revolt, rioting in the streets, erecting barricades, and crying out for revolution. Javert goes undercover, hoping to catch Valjean as one of the revolutionaries and is himself caught. Desperate to protect Cosette, Valjean makes plans to escape Paris, but before they can leave, he uncovers the relationship between Cosette and Marius. Realizing his daughter’s in love, Valjean sets out to rescue Marius, risking his own life to join the fight behind the barricade.
Valjean succeeds at finding Marius at the barricade. When Valjean discovers that Marius’ compatriots have caught Javert and are preparing to kill him, Valjean requests to be Javert’s executioner. Once they are left alone, however, Valjean refuses to take revenge on Javert and lets him go. When Marius is wounded, and the fighting at the barricade takes a desperate turn, Valjean escapes into the sewers and carries an unconscious Marius to freedom. Javert, unable to reconcile his concept of justice and the mercy Valjean has shown him, takes his own life. Marius is reunited with Cosette and the two are married. When Valjean’s role as Marius’ rescuer is discovered by the young couple, they go to thank him, only to discover he’s deathly ill.
The story of LES MISERABLES is intended to be one of redemption. In his novel, Hugo purposefully juxtaposes the selfless, merciful actions of Valjean against the single-minded driven purpose of Javert to pursue Justice at the expense of Grace. Thus, the original story is heavily steeped in Christian theology and ideas about Law versus Grace.
This version of Hugo’s classic does an excellent job at engaging the viewer, especially in the first episode. Also, the acting on the part of Lily Collins and Dominic West is especially poignant. However, the miniseries falls short, especially in the second half, because the Producer/Writer, Andrew Davies, largely leaves out the story’s Christian meaning and makes several plot changes that unbalance the spiritual, theological dynamic between Jean Valjean and Javert. Instead of being an unwavering proponent of law and justice, Javert often comes across as just vindictive and vengeful. As a result, the power of Valjean’s self-sacrifice is truncated due to the ultimate lack of Christian context, leading to a sense of hollowness rather than hopefulness.
While the show is mostly devoid of foul language, there’s enough violence and sexuality to warrant caution for older children for LES MISERABLES. Two of the six episodes, however, No. 4 and 6, deserve an extreme caution (see below).
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