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My Take: The challenge of hope in 'Les Misérables'
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean and Isabelle Allen is the young Cosette in the film version of the musical "Les Misérables."
December 27th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

My Take: The challenge of hope in 'Les Misérables'

Editor's note: Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is an ordained Episcopal Church priest and author of "God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom."

By Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Will you be strong and stand with me? That’s the question the cast of "Les Misérables" asks viewers at the end of the film as they stand along a barricade. But it’s also the question one particular character, a bishop, asks early in the movie.

And that question has radical implications for all of us who want to see our world transformed by hope.

That bishop meets the main character, Jean Valjean, after he’s released from serving nearly two decades in prison. With no job prospects and lifelong parole haunting his name, Valjean cannot find employment, a home, financial stability.

Then he stumbles upon the bishop, who invites him into his home, feeds him dinner, offers him a bed.

That night, a desperate Valjean flouts the bishop’s kindness by stealing his silver, but the next morning, when he’s caught and returned to the bishop’s home for condemnation, the bishop says something quite curious:

“But my friend, you left so early, surely something slipped your mind.” He hands Valjean two silver candlesticks.

“You forgot I gave these also. Would you leave the best behind?”

The bishop’s act is a radical exercise of the Christian command to turn the other cheek, and it has a profound effect on Valjean. Stunned by the bishop’s forgiveness and the faith placed in him, Valjean sings, “One word from him, and I’d be back beneath the lash, upon the rack. Instead he offers me my freedom.

“I feel shame inside me like a knife. He told me that I have a soul. How does he know? What spirit came to move my life? Is there another way to go?”

A few moments later, Valjean answers his own question: Yes, there is another way. He commits to complete change in that moment, to change his name, his values, to become someone whose soul is God’s.

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And he follows through in an epic way: During the course of the movie, Valjean adopts a dying woman’s child, raises that child and saves the life of the man she loves by putting his own at risk.

It would seem that the bishop had extraordinary wisdom (or at least extraordinary faith): Valjean was a man who would accept the offer of redemption. He just needed to be asked.

As a priest, I am inspired by this bishop. But I’m also intimidated: Would I donate all my church’s wealth if I knew it would change a life? Would I give all I had if I knew it would save another? It’s what I’m called to do, but could I do it?

I wonder this not only for myself but also for our national community: Are we doing enough to imagine hope for those for whom it is possible, though it seems beyond their reach?

It’s a reasonable question to ask at a time like this: Many Americans’ faith in humanity has sunk to a low in the past two weeks.  We have witnessed unthinkable violence made more devastating because these unthinkable occurrences seem increasingly commonplace.

In response, we have asked what we could have done to prevent such violence: Would gun control have helped? What about monitoring violent video games? Do we as a nation have appropriate mental health care? Are parents equipped to raise troubled children? Do schools need more security?

We as a nation have not answered these questions, and it would be arrogant of me to claim I could solve any of them here. And yet, as a Christian, I wonder if the first step toward answering them is to remember that Jesus calls us to radical acts of hope, like those exercised by the bishop. These radical acts can manifest themselves in many different ways: in the exercise of justice, in granting mercy, in forgiveness, in love.

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So I believe strongly that if we are to inch slowly toward a healthier, more peaceful world, then we cannot forget that hope is not always easy or convenient and that exercising it can be challenging, heartbreaking even. But it is necessary.

At the end of "Les Misérables," members of the cast sing this line: “Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.”

The bishop in "Les Misérables" offered Valjean a set of candlesticks, and in so doing, he offered him a message that would change his life I see God in your soul, and I claim that soul for God, for goodness, for love, for hope.

I believe that we can live like this bishop. We can be beacons candlesticks, if you will of hope. But this will only happen if we try. And so I now ask you what the cast of "Les Misérables"asks viewers:

Will you be that beacon? Will you be strong and stand with me?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Faith Now • Movies • My Take

soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. KidIndigo

    I haven't seen this movie yet, but I've seen the opera twice (I agree with one of the previous posters, it IS a modern opera, a point I tried to make in 1988 to one of my music professors, who shot it down). What a WONDERFUL work. I'm sad to say the only portion of Victor Hugo's book I've read is the chapter "The Bishop's Candlesticks," but it was truly moving for me. My view is that people can quibble about whether to call it "Christian," "secular humanist," or whatever other label they want to place. The bottom line is that what the Bishop did, for whatever reason, and for whatever faith or purpose, is a sublime human moment of trust, faith, and hope. Again, just my opinion, but it is that reason alone that this moment, in a work FULL of moments, is so poignant and puissant. I marveled as I read it in high school, and it penetrated my soul (and still does) when I saw it reproduced onstage (and soon, onscreen). Simply, brilliantly, moving.

    December 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  2. Christian spin or just plain ethical?

    Talmud: One who saves a life has repaired the world. One who takes a life has destroyed the world.

    How is this any different than your "Christian" message? That is plain ethics. Didn't see Les Mis and won't because it frankly bored me on the stage and I hate the music, but let's not Christianize everything.

    December 27, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Haven't you realized yet? If everything isn't christianized then that means that they are being persecuted.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • God is great!

      I agree that there are a lot of teachings in other religions or cultures that would be very beneficial to the World if put into practice. I do believe that most Christians would agree with that, but the message in Les Mis concerning the Bishop happens to be Christian based. If there were another positive uplifiting message in message in a movie and it wasn't Christian based I don't believe most Christians would be offended by it.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • momato

      The play, now movie, gives its message in Christian terms, so it seems entirely appropriate to speak of it in Christian terms. I'm not Christian, myself, but I see only good in emboldening people to have the strength to hope and to love. Doesn't matter what religious perspective the message is coming from.

      December 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  3. kaylumus

    When we take a leap of faith in another person, we are assuming that person has free will and hope that he or she will choose the right path. And as someone who likes to believe in the best in people, I think that someone who is shown the kind of dignity that the bishop shows Valjean would indeed be moved to become a better person. But what of drug addicts and others who may recognize and even appreciate someone's faith in them but are not mentally or physically capable of true change? As a relative of an addict, I spent years offering my faith and support to a drug addict only to be repeatedly robbed and taken advantage of (he eventually died as a result of his addictions). Are we morally obligated to keep having faith in someone indefinitely? And if not, at what point should we stop?

    December 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • chris

      Agree! see my comment below

      December 27, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Juanita

      You bring up a very good point. I work with at-risk and incarcerated youths. I'd like to say we have a whopping rehabilitation rate in this country but we do not. The reasons why people choose to live lives of dishonesty is seemingly very complex. I guess the best we can do is not give up ourselves.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • God is great!

      I truly respect you for you faith and support of this family member. I definitely understand your disappointment having dealt with the same situation in my family. Yes at some point you have to cut them off financially and in other ways, but you never have to cut them off from your prayers and faith. Always have hope that the faith you shared with this individual may have not healed their sickness it may have healed their heart.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  4. bencoates57

    Why did they make this film? The one with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush was too good. Hollywood obviously knows something I don't. But it can't be that Americans are stupid. That's no secret.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Schmedley

      It's making loads of money so I'd be happy to be that stupid...

      December 27, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • sbp

      Um, maybe because the 1998 film was not a musical and changed enormous elements of the story from the novel?

      December 27, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • valerie hutton

      I too, saw the Neeson version, which was excellent but not a musical. This musical version was very similar to the Broadway version (which I saw twice) I love them all.

      December 27, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • Brian

      You don't understand or haven't read enough. This is the first movie that adapts the stage musical of the book, an enormously popular and artistically lauded work. Fans have been clamoring for the musical for a long time. It's not meant to replace the non-musical version or supersede it.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  5. RG1

    Les-miserables is a great story but warning about the movie, all dialogue is sung except for a few lines. If you can sit through 2.5 hours of singing then this movie is for you.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • remarque

      The trailer, in which the characters are shown singing, and the fact that it's been a famed musical for 30 years should be warning enough.

      December 27, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Bert0529

      I'm actually glad to hear that. While the stage production is most often referred to as a musical, it is actually an opera. This is an important distinction for me because I've always found that in a production where actors are playing a scene, delivering dialog, and then suddenly break into song there is an inherent corniness that has to be overcome- and with the exception of Grease (sentimental value) and the sublime West Side Story it hasn't really hasn't happened for me.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  6. 2357

    Children have us figured out by the time they can dress themselves. They learn from examples by modeling. It's almost irrelevant what themes you expose to them in the classroom. They will judge the truth for themselves by watching your failures and successes as humans, not by some tallied value of the ideas you put forth. And it's a good thing that teachers should have to live up to the righteousness that they preach.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • dorkdoodle

      You are so CORRECT! And we have such shytt for teachers in todays' schools! That coupled with the crappy parenting that these kids have at home, they will undoubtedly most of them grow up to be no less than shytt!

      December 27, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Mrs. Pepperpot

      Children are the best bs detectors in the world.

      December 27, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  7. Bert0529

    I've never read Hugo's novel so I can't speak to its use of religion, but I know the Les Miserables libretto very well. I think it does a wondeful job of including religion while keeping the the bare-bones themes independent of it. The notion that having blind faith in another person's goodness can inspire them to deserve it, the idea that a kindness can be paid forward, and the moral and ethical imperative that one mustn't allow another to suffer consequences intended for himself are all very powerful concepts even with the religion extracted- so much so that painting those themes on a canvas of Christianity is not offensive or off putting to those of different faiths or non-believers. I believe that, at least in part, it is that inclusive spirit that makes Les Miserables the blockbuster it is. Plus, the score is both simple and grand- the emotion is thick, but not contrived. I am not a religious person and am much more comfortable with Led Zeppelin than musicals/opera, but The Complete Symphonic Recording of Les Mis never leaves my phone.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • God is great!

      Great comment. If you ever get a chance to read the story I highly recommend it. Victor Hugo was a religious person, but he wrote stories that appealed to all religious or not.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Jim

      Great point. Both the book and its various adaptations reflect the deeply personal matter of religion, which frees the reader to draw their own conclusions. The book/movie/play doesn't preach but it does show the impact of religion on the lives of the characters.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  8. Reality

    All this from an Anglican/Episcopalean priest whose religion was founded by a killer-king!!!! Strange very strange.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  9. huh

    Doing good is an act that can be accomplished without the need for organized religion or seeing the horrific life events protrayed in the movie. Hope is incredibly important to have but giving for the sake of helping each other out has always been the point. It's not because someone else gave thanklessly or because others have held on to hope in the harshest times. Giving because we can and want to is all that matters. I feel that throwing out a comparison of acts in a story or acts of another individual is introducing guilt to what should be a gracious act based on love.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • God is great!

      Do you believe that the way the Bishop did his act of kindness had nothing to do with his religion? Why would he invoke God while forgiving him?

      December 27, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  10. chris

    Great essay – but she missed a crucial point. The bishop did not know that his act would change a life. It was a leap of faith to give him the candlesticks. The essayist asks " Would I give all I had if I knew it would save another?" Therein lies the clincher.....we don't know if it will change anything! It would be so much easier to give if we KNEW it would save another. Great faith abides in doing it anyway. There is a fine balancing act between these kinds of acts and holding people accountable for their own actions – also a biblical principle. Struggle with this everyday.

    December 27, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  11. God is great!

    Thanks for writing this article. I have long been a fan of Les Mis. I am glad to hear that they kept such an important part of Victgor Hugo's story in the movie. I was worried that the filmmakers might worry about offending someone with religious overtones and cut the scene of the Bishop which would be a huge travesty to the story. I feel that there is a strong spiritual message from the Bishop if it was just human kindness or such, the Bishop wouldn't have mentioned buying his soul for God.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  12. NL

    Just as Valjean's response inspires, Javert's demonstrates what we see so often when a person's rigid worldview is shaken. Sadly, Javert chooses to end his life rather than open his heart to the possibility that someone his religion tells him is an infidel could demonstrate such Godlike kindness and forgiveness.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • John

      Well, yes. But Jean Val Jean represents the New Testament, Javert the Old Testament. Thus Victor Hugo had no choice but to kill off Javert/ the old order to allow Val Jean/the New Order to survive.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • heywaitaminit

      In that case, why is the Old Testament still included and often quoted by Christians?

      December 27, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Tina

      heywaitaminute, just FYI, Christians quoting the Old Testament has nothing to do with Hugo Victor and his marvelous story.

      December 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  13. JLS639

    The reason the bishop's kindness could work is he lived in a society with no social welfare safety net that ensured that so many convicts had simply fallen on hard times and would steal rather than watch their families go hungry (also, it is a work of fiction). I am happy to live in a society with a better safety net than that. Ours is a society built on human wisdom and compassion and ultimately far superior to the societies that thought Christian charity (or Islamic, Hindu, etc.) would take care of the poorest.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • joand

      I am assuming you live in America, the same place where half of the electorate would like to shrink that social safety net, indeed, pays lip service to giving it back to churches to do so the money does not come out of their pocket. Highly uncharitable. Not like Jesus taught. That is the society you live in, as do I.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  14. Jim

    Valjean's character is motivated by his Christianity, as was the Bishop. The line, "By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, I have raised you out of darkness, and have bought your soul for God." Although Valjean's tale of redemption and forgiveness is a motivating story, this doesn't mean that Les Mis is a morality tale or claims that Christianity is without faults. If you claim a "silly little book" had nothing to do with it, I believe you're mistaken.

    However, neither is the book/play/movie a ringing endorsement of all tings religious. You see the empty verbage being used by the Tenardiers, "It's no more than we Christians must do." And you see the darker side of religious devotion in uncompromising, judgmental Javert, "He knows his way in the dark, mine is the way of the Lord."

    Many people seem to try to sterilize or over-simplify complex messages contained in books/plays/movies. (i.e. – "It has nothing to do with religion" or "the whole book is about accepting Jesus." Religion can motivate to forgiveness, mercy and kindness – and yes dogma has something to do with that. However, it can call people to be judgemental, harsh or fanatic – and dogma can have something to do with that too. Masters of literature such as Hugo were not afraid of such complexity in the human experience. We should not be either.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  15. Fred Garvin

    Should be asking why that bishop has any richly possessions in the first place.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • amy

      I've read the book a few times – V. Hugo does explain how the bishop came to have those things. The bishop is portrayed as kind, humble, and with a different paradigm, which serves his religious office well – but he is also human, and enjoys some 'pretty' things – hence the flowers that please him so – and the silver, brought out for visiting priests (I think!) only.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Ross Morgan

      @Amy, I think you are correct. From what I remember when I read the book, while the Priest was humble, to the point that even his sisters thought he should enjoy life a little more like other priests, he gave away all his worldly possessions, EXCEPT the candle sticks. Those meant a great deal to him, and he was very proud of them. The act of giving them to Val Jean was the ultimate sacrifice for the priest. This author was able to get a very important point that the book spends a long time developing, out of a musical that spends all of 3.5 minutes on. Impressive :)

      December 27, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  16. Robert

    There is a good book called TO LOVE ANOTHER PERSON: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY THROUGH LES MISERABLES – - – it's author is an Episcopla priest who taught literature at a prep school on Long Island, Each year for over 20 years he would teach the book in class and then take his students to the Broadway musical. He has many insights of the book and musical. It's available in paper or Kindle for $2.99 on Amazon.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  17. dale

    I love Les Mis also, I've memorized it and I love it's message of love. But the bible has nothing to do with love an teaching dogma in schools is not even part of this conversation. The bible teaches guilt over things you should not feel guilty about it brainwashes children and is full of violence an hatred towards others. Teach the love and compassion, it has nothing to do with that silly book.

    December 27, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • SC in Mpls

      Yep, that's kind of what I was trying to say below... if the label of "religion" is on a lesson, there are going to be people who are turned off. The things the Bishop teaches have more to do with having faith in yourself as a human being, not so much "fear God or else".

      December 27, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • joand

      If you take religion completely out of it, how then do you determine what is good? I'm not talking the kind of good that is usually opposed by evil. Since I don't believe in evil I wonder sometimes if I should even believe in good. But without the direction of any particular religion, how do you do good? What is good, if not defined by a religion?

      Trust me, I'm an atheist. Even so, I believe in the innate ability and desire of man to work together for some sort of common purpose. I think most human beings realize that the more they help each other and work as a team, the greater the achievements of everyone across the spectrum. It's just hard to define WHY...as an atheist....I believe that way. What is the science, if not religion, behind it?

      December 27, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  18. SC in Mpls

    I really enjoyed this essay. I think hope is the key to life. Without hope, it is so easy to give up, and the negativity just grows from there. I DO think we can teach hope in the Bishop's way, but the reality is, religion turns a lot of modern Americans off. That's just the way it is. If the message of hope can be encouraged without what feels like a lecture, I think it helps.
    We don't have to belong to an organized religion to recognize the divine in us. Humanity is good. We all have good in us. We all have evil in us, too. If we feed the good, the good grows.
    Thanks for this essay. I have always loved that message of Les Miserables.

    December 27, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • myweightinwords

      It isn't religion, per se, that changes his life. It is a radical act of kindness, or forgiveness, for which there is no need of religion. The bishop does not teach him religion. He teaches him human kindness, human dignity, a chance to decide for himself whether his life is worth the work to change himself.

      It is an amazing gift.

      December 27, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Which God?

      @ Myweight. Nicely said, Lady.

      December 27, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • James

      @Myweight. It is an amazing gift. One we all received from Him; which should be opened and worn all the time.

      December 27, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  19. Charlotte

    Yes, it can be taught in the public schools, but it cannot be branded solely a Christian teaching. Humanitarian, goodness, ethics, morality are not solely a "Christian" thing. There is no law, no court decision, that forbids the teaching of kindness and love and optimism. To couch it in the narrow terms of "God" and "Christian" beliefs is, @Happy is correct, properly done in the home or in the church. But @Happy's nasty cynicism aside, this was a spectacular movie.

    December 27, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  20. Happy

    Well it can't be taught in public schools ok accourding to the courts. Dover trial 2005.
    Hope the world wakes up to the reality.

    December 27, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Which God?

      @happy. Please take your happy azz and go pound sand.

      December 27, 2012 at 9:54 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.