The movie adaptation of “Les Miserables” hit the theaters on Christmas Day. Based on Victor Hugo’s classic, it tells the quest of Inspector Javert to capture escaped convict Jean Valjean, originally an honest man who served 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family.
Upon parole, he gets a fresh start under a new name, rising to mayor of a village where he owns a factory. Fantine, an unwed mother at his factory, loses her job because she refuses the advances of the foreman.
The starving Fantine turns to prostitution, is arrested and becomes ill. As she dies, Valjean promises to raise her daughter after persuading Javert to let him free to help the child. The lives of Valjean and Javert cross again years later in Paris during the Paris Uprising of 1832. On the banks of the Seine, the two have their final confrontation.
As I watched the movie trailer, I realized Victor Hugo, if he were alive, could write the same story today.
Fatherless, failed by the school system and living hungry and moving constantly, today’s Valjeans are teenage boys trying to be the men of the house. Instead of stealing bread, they become runners for the drug dealers in the neighborhood.
The money puts food on the table, buys decent clothes for his siblings, and pays the rent. After a while, Valjean buys a handgun and toughens up so the older kids won’t beat him and take his money.
School has nothing for him. Valjean starts dealing and gets arrested. Maybe he gets parole, more likely he gets jail time. Once the 2012 Valjean gets a criminal record, gainful employment becomes as difficult as it was for Hugo’s 19th century protagonist.
Fantines exist today, too. Unwed teenage mothers with two or more kids before they reach age 20. Living in poverty and high school dropouts, these Fantines cling to drug dealers as the easy out. If they are lucky, the dealers will be nice and take care of their children. If not, prostitution, drug dealing and violence are their lot.
And there are plenty of Javerts, quick to blame bad parenting and the breakdown of society for the Valjeans and Fantines. More arrests, stricter sentences and more prisons are seen by them as the only solutions.
Hugo wrote “Les Miserables” to examine the nature of law, duty, grace and redemption. All four still need to be explored today, especially grace and redemption.
Maybe now more than ever.