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 • Movies

soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. soonguy

    Thanks so much for your insights. I believe that this film represents a major opportunity for us to start conversations with outsiders, and I've tried to draw together some helpful resources on the Digital Evangelism Issues blog: http://ieday.net/blog/archives/9802

    January 2, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  2. jomaeri eirea

    Got watched it online here http://bit.ly/12OMvDJ
    This is remarkable movie that can defitnely move a person to tears. I was not expecting much but this really blew me away but their incredible acting singing and shows great morals such like persevearance leadership and standing up to their own rights even though it may lead to death. But to me, it also had its dragging moments where made me think 'get on with it' even so an absolutely wonderful show and i recommend everyone to watch it. 🙂

    January 2, 2013 at 5:10 am |
  3. Grundig Glasswerks

    Chad, do your homies give you a shasta blasta each time you post?

    December 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  4. My Take

    This woman should not have access to CNN so she can no longer torture us with her insufferably inane tripe.

    December 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  5. kevobx

    God is the I, as in I am he. Satan is the apple of his eye, written on green legal tender in God we trust. (*Deuteronomy 32:10*) God is one, why is the world is so hopeful now? *Jeremiah 18:12 And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart. *2nd Corinthians 2:11 Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.

    December 28, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • sbp

      The Bible was written by Satan to deceive us. God allows the deception to test our gullibility.

      You have NO way to disprove this.

      December 28, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  6. kevobx

    Why is the world celebrating life and mourning death with the candlestick in hand? *Revelation 22:5 And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever. *Matthew 25:30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. *Isaiah 8:22 And they shall look unto the earth; and behold trouble and darkness, dimness of anguish; and they shall be driven to darkness.

    December 28, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  7. kevobx

    Where is the holy place? (*Matthew 24:15*) *Exodus 26:33 and the vail shall divide unto you between the holy place and the most holy. *John 5:46-47 For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words? *2nd Corinthians 3:14-15 But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. (Remember, time does not heal all wounds, but grace and truth sets one free) *Exodus 15:26 for I am the Lord that healeth thee.

    December 28, 2012 at 6:29 am |
  8. kevobx

    Does lying affect a persons mental health? Always tell the truth, and the world will hate the grace of God. If mankind was born with birthrights, why is the world fighting so hard for human rights?

    December 28, 2012 at 5:41 am |
  9. Apple Bush

    Fake AB, is it your intention to ruin my fun and sever my friendships with the likes of Akira, MAD, sam, Tom Tom, GOPer, and many others? Why? What sadness do you harbor that creates suck a prick as you?

    December 27, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  10. Apple Bush

    For the record, I have not posted anything on this blog in two days and it looks like I need to change my name

    December 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  11. On the contrary

    Having read the book more than once, I found it to be a story of how societies treat the poorest and most defenseless in horrible ways, including churches, for that silly priest had all that money yet the village was chronically poor and ignorant, things that often go together in human society = rich scammers vs poor people.
    And that Jean ValJean fought against this in his own way, never really supporting the churches around him but giving help directly instead of letting his money fall into the hands of some sleazy priest.
    It was also a statement of how a society could hate HATE on criminals so bad, that they would sentence a man for 5 years in a nightmare of a prison for stealing a loaf of bread.
    And that five years turned into a longer and longer sentence as he kept trying to escape, when escape is the natural inclination of anyone guilty or innocent when imprisoned, especially when imprisoned unjustly.

    This theme stretches throughout Hugo's book. Javert the obsessive crazy prosecutor's spy, always intent on hunting down criminals regardless of whether it was truly the right thing to do or not, makes appearances throughout the novel trying to make a big deal out of what never really was a big deal, like so many people love to do.

    Les Miserables is not a story about the damn candlesticks and that stupid priest who never quite realizes that he is part of the problem, as is clear in the book, it is a story about the injustices to be found in an ignorant and intolerant society that anyone seeking justice or mercy must fend for themselves and violate whatever law they need to procure real justice and not the farce found in courtrooms.

    The priest shocks Jean by being a helpful person in a world without help, not because of his religion, but because he was willing to lie to the police to protect a desperate man from a stupid mistake. His religion played very little part in the book, I assure you.

    December 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • 2357

      Legalism is a bone-crushing oppression, one of many types of suffering that humans uniquely inflict upon one another.

      December 27, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • O'Noonan

      And the sound of bones being crushed can be heard on most Sunday mornings in each house of worship...an even greater source of human suffering.

      December 27, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      Thanks On the contrary!! good job on opposing view points!

      December 27, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • 2357

      Legalism comes in many flavors. Yes Catholic, but also Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Southern Baptist and even Secular Humanist. At the core of human nature is the inexplicable impulse to create ethical standards which we cannot keep, only to cover up the hypocrisy with excuses and denial. Yet, to abolish all such standards presents the risk of nihilistic self-destruction. The futility of this struggle represents the essence of our spiritual frustration. What truth therein can set us free?

      December 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  12. NoSlack2327

    The movie is fiction, isn't it? So while I would like to think all persons would embrace, adopt and replicate the Bishops's charity the real world is quite different. At our Parish our computer was stolen. How's that workin' for ya'?

    Les Mis has many themes, one is of unrepentant greed and theft, as comically evidenced by the Cohen and Bonham-Carter (Sp?) characters.

    I am reminded of George Bailey in "It;s a Wonderful Life", without whom the world was, as depicted by Capra, a very bad place indeed. The world is filled with the likes of the Cohen, Bonham-Carter and Lionel Barrymore characters. Best to be wary of them and do the bast we can.

    December 27, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  13. Paul Willson

    The entire Les Miserables has several themes that strike me as an beliver. The bishop forgiving and supporting Valjean,
    Valjean acting as a man of mercy, to Cossette and to the man he carries from the barricades. As an adoptee myself I feel a connection to Cossette and her mother. And as someone on my own a connection to Epone.
    No I won't go to see the movioe listening to the sound track is painful enough . But if they diod half as good a job as the stage prooductions well it should be worth a viewing,

    December 27, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  14. Francofille

    I've noticed in many reviews and comments that people are treating this story as if it were written today. Hugo wrote this in France (a strongly Cathloic country at the time) in the 1800's. It was a reflection of society as he saw it then. Hugo was part of the Romantic school of writing. Love and God were important themes among the Romantics so the references to God are not unnexpected. It must also be remembered that Hugo had strong political beliefs and often villified the Catholic Church for its insensitivity to to the plight of the suffering poor. I see the Bishop in Les Miz as acting more as a devout individual - inspired by God - than as an offical agent of the Church. Hugo's anti-Cathlic sentiment led his works to be included the Church's list of 'forbidden" books. Ironic since - for beleivers - there can be found in Les Miz a truly religious message about the dignity of man as a creature of God.

    December 27, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  15. New Alias

    FTA "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?"

    I just lost all faith in the author. Danielle? Really?
    If you knew it would save another how could you not?!?!?
    Please find a new day job, and shut up.

    December 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Anne

      What if, in giving all to save one life, that endangers the lives of everyone else? Don't be so quick to condemn, unless you have moved out of your home and are paying for poor and otherwise homeless people to live there.

      December 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • ny51

      Please look up the word "rhetorical".

      December 27, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • On the contrary

      I agree, Danielle should find another job where her GREED does not overcome so easily her willingness to help others.

      December 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  16. Major

    ... I'm a little bit shocked by what you wrote there... The movie was the "movie version" of the "musical"...
    These songs and the script aren't new. They've existed for decades...

    December 27, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  17. Major

    The movie would have been good if they had cut out all the damn singing. How about an actual adaption of the novel instead of a campy musical BASED on the novel? That's just cheesy.

    December 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Bert0529

      There are several movie adaptations of the book. You won't have to look hard to find them. This was specifically a film treatment of the stage production.

      December 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • MCR

      "The movie would have been good if they had cut out all the damn singing." Hello? Major? It's a MUSICAL!


      December 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Because the songs were the point. The movie could have been better entertainment with some changes to the script, but that would have required serious cuts or adaptations not appropriate for an adaptation of the stage/musical version. Actually, I'd really like to see this version expanded into two or three separate movies with enough action and dialogue not in song to allow novices to follow the plot better.

      December 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • J the Agnostic

      quite possibly the dumbest comment ever

      December 27, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Francofille

      Those seeking the story without song may be interested in the 1935 version with Charles Laughton and Frederic March. The non-musical version has been around for a very long time.

      December 27, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • LIsaM

      There is nothing "campy" about the musical. As a fan of both the book and the musical, I can say I've seen several "no music" versions of Les Mis, and they were almost all 1. Boring, 2. Edited to make the story fit whoever was in charge.

      The musical has all the essential characters and plot points, something few spoken versions have. It's also easier for many people to follow the story and the points that story makes. Why not stop being so bigoted towards it just because it has singing and look at how well it tells the story?

      December 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • yazston

      the funniest part of this idiot's comment is that this version, musical or not, is the most faithful to the book aside from the 1958 version with Jean Gabin, which, though very complete, is a 3.5 hour mess of a film...not to mention hard to find and in french.

      December 27, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • OTOH

      I enjoy (some) musicals, but it is an art form that just doesn't appeal to some people. Having folks break into song in the middle of a conversation (or battle, or whatever) is dissonant and distracting to them. I understand. Otoh, many of those same people have no problem with fantasy movies, where incredible creatures interact with real humans and such.

      December 27, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Kari

      I had to laugh. My husband, when told about how I cried thruout the movie, said that he'd cry too if he had to listen to three hours of singing!

      December 28, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
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