My first exposure to Les Miserables (Les Mis) was at a high school play a few years ago. It was Huntsville High’s production and was excellent. Their interpretation of “Master of the House” is still the best I’ve ever heard and, with their rotating stage, the best I’ve ever seen. It was a great show as a production but, being a high school play, was an abbreviated version that left out key elements of Victor Hugo’s story. When the current sensation was released on Christmas Day we rushed to see it. I was not disappointed.
The scale of the production was stupendous. And while French dreadnoughts were not as large as modern aircraft carriers, the spectacle of men pulling the enormous, listing ship into dry dock set the perfect tone for the rest of the film. Some viewers and critics panned the singing dialog but, as a huge fan of musicals, I found it splendid and highly relatable. In fact, it felt to me much like inner monologue, which film often lacks, but deepened the emotional connection to the characters – almost like reading a novel.
What really pulled me in to this Les Mis, however, and what did not come across in the high school version, was the spiritual element woven deeply throughout Victor Hugo’s story. And it wasn’t just spiritual, it was based firmly on God. There was no attempt to remove, replace, or weaken the themes of faith, forgiveness, and redemption as often happens with modern retellings of traditional stories that substitute the Christian God with some kind of vague, universal spirituality, thereby stripping out any grounding for the characters’ motivations. While some critics didn’t appreciate the spiritual thread, without it there really is no story worth telling, much less singing.
Faith, manifest in various ways, used to be prominent in fiction because it is a key element in the human condition. Many of the greatest writers included strong spiritual themes in their work; as opposed to religious themes. Nearly all large, manmade organizations become corrupt and politically driven, and religious institutions generally follow this path as well. Spirituality is much different, beginning with it’s strongly personal nature. Among other things, it is an awareness of one’s failings in relationship to one’s faith, that drives the decisions we make, or just as often, the repentance we seek.
Sadly, spirituality seems to have dropped out of mainstream fiction for the most part. There is Christian fiction in which spiritual themes are the story- not really my cup of tea- and there is fiction that at best has substituted God with universalism and at worst, portrays anyone of faith as conniving and perverted. Gone it seems, are the days when stories spoke of the failures of people and how their faith leads them back to the light. Stories that speak to what it means to have faith and hope, where the true reward is making a difficult but correct decision, is something the world is sorely lacking these days.
The popularity of Les Mis gives me hope, however. The film is doing extremely well. Box-office revenues have nearly tripled the budget already. And while it is a musical, I don’t think the film’s success is based solely on the singing. I know my own recommendations are based more on the themes of faith and redemption than on the spirited performances of the cast. Les Mis’ popularity also gives me hope because this is the way that I write. Not in sing-song, but my work includes spiritual themes. In fact, it’s so much a part of me that I can’t not write that way. When I leave faith out the actions and emotions of my characters make no sense. If Les Mis is any indication, despite the reluctance to publish such stories, there remains a strong market for such work. Not Christian fiction. Rather, stories that incorporate the spiritual nature of people, fiction with Christian characters. And what is a Christian? It is a person who tries to hold his life to a higher standard… and fails. The primary themes of The Silla Project, despite the subject of nuclear proliferation, are the same as those of Les Mis: redemption and forgiveness.
Will this production of Les Miserables kindle a resurgence of spiritual themes in popular fiction? That would be nice, but regardless of whether the industry listens or not, it does tell me one thing – we are a nation hungry for stories with spiritual themes. Now I just have to figure out how to reach this market!
John C. Brewer