Misery Loves Company: The Success of Les Miserables
With a Christmas opening of $18.1 million and potential earnings projected to top $200 million, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is undeniably touching a nerve with moviegoers. In a way, it’s surprising. A movie filled with desperate ex-cons, dying prostitutes, cruel policemen, pitiable orphans, misogyny, greed, corruption, and untimely death opens on Christmas day, temporarily surpasses The Hobbit in earnings, and continues to pull in crowds evidently weary enough of joy and cheer to enter into the sorrows of Jean Valjean.
Watching the years-long struggle of the eminently decent Valjean to create a better life for himself after a conviction for a minor crime, anyone alert to mythic underpinnings might think of Sisyphus, pushing his eternal rock uphill (although Sisyphus deserved his misfortune in a way Valjean does not). A better prototype for Valjean, pursued beyond reason by the implacable Javert, might be Prometheus, who bore his chains and a rapacious eagle with admirable patience.
The central struggle in the film is between two men, but it’s played out against a backdrop of intolerance of which Javert’s cold insistence on the letter of the law is only one example. The persecution of Fantine by her coworkers and foreman, which leads to her ruin, the callous treatment of the orphan Cosette, the shooting of a young boy by a military officer—all echo a larger indifference to the plight of the poor by French society. Javert himself reveals the secret of his hatred for Valjean, which is rooted in his own lower-class origins and inability to accept them.
The impression of grinding poverty, heartbreak, and calamity is softened but not erased by Les Miserables’ soaring score, the comic villainy of the greedily industrious Thénardiers, the valor of the young revolutionaries, and the appeal of two beautiful young lovers. The film benefits from intelligent casting and great performances and proves that an old-fashioned musical can still appeal to a modern audience.Continued on the next page