Mormon Culture and Les Miserables

Everywhere I go, people are talking about this.

Yep, that’s right. Les Miserables! The Movie! This Christmas!

Oh!  My!  Heck!

But here’s a confession: I don’t care. Not even a bit. Apparently, I’m the only Mormon on the planet who doesn’t, because a few months ago, I read this article in The Salt Lake Tribune.

It points out that in Utah, Les Miserables is an institution. A phenomenon.  A juggernaut. A few facts from the article:

  • The Pioneer Theatre Company produced Les Miserables in 2007 and originally planned to run the show for two weeks. Ticket sales boomed, and the musical’s run was expanded to ten weeks. Vast ticket sales for Les Miserables allowed the company to completely wipe out its debts.
  • Les Miserables has had nine separate runs at the Capital Theatre, and each of those nine runs has sold out.
  • Tuachan produced Les Miserables in 2008. To date, it’s still Tuachan’s biggest grossing production.

Also, according to the article, ticket sales for Les Miserables are huge in Utah—bigger than for other comparable markets.


I think Mormonism might have something to do with it.

But first, a rant:

But before that rant, a caveat:

THE CAVEAT: I’ve been told by many, many people that the way I look at musicals is deeply flawed. For example, I can’t stomach Oklahoma! When Curly turns Jud’s imagined suicide into a game, I decide Curly is the villain, and I start rooting for Jud. Also, I’m not able to suspend disbelief and buy into most romances in musicals. Love at first sight really bugs me. Basically, I’m a grump and a curmudgeon. Consider the following words with that in mind.

THE RANT: I last saw Les Miserable in August at the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. I’ve also seen it in London a few times. (I served a mission in London, and going to Les Miserables was an approved p-day activity).

In my opinion, it is one of the poorest plays I’ve ever seen. (You may cast stones in the comments.) I’ll concede that the music is, at times, enjoyable, and I’ll acknowledge that the staging is pretty clever (especially if you see it where they use that rotating turntable stage thingy).

But, oh, the story.

The remarkably ho-hum story.

It’s so wildly sentimental. And the characters are all so one-dimensional. I’ve heard Les Miserables called a story of redemption, but the protagonist, Jean Val Jean, decides within the first ten minutes of the play to stop being a thief and give his life to God. Which he then does. For the next three hours. Without a doubt or moral hiccup along the way.

Sure, there’s political upheaval. And juvenile love. And poverty. And trouble. And spectacle. But after those first ten minutes, the development of our main character is done. He remains completely devoted to mercy and service and love and all sorts of other abstract concepts I both believe in and admire. But we, the viewers, spend the next three hours watching Jean Val Jean follow through on his promises.

Which, for me, is the problem.

Jan Val Jean is a one-dimensional spiritual superhero masquerading as a round, interesting character. And I can’t help feeling like the play’s character climax comes early and easily.

Which brings me back to Mormonism.

Could it be that we love Les Miserables in Mormon culture because of these failings? Think of our own spiritual superheroes. Don’t many of them follow a similar trajectory? Don’t many of them earn conversion early in their storylines and spend the rest of their lives making wise choices and doing the right things. I’m thinking of Alma the Younger or Paul.

Jan Val Jean’s story is familiar within Mormonism. It seems to follow the sinner-to-saint model we get in scripture again and again. These thoughts are, admittedly, pretty darn rough and undeveloped. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I accept all of my premises in this post, but maybe—just maybe—Mormons interact with stories in ways that are somewhat unique. And maybe this is one of the reasons why all of us seem to love Les Miserables so gosh darn much.

Well, almost all of us.

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15 Responses to Mormon Culture and Les Miserables

  1. BarefootMike says:

    You’re not alone, Josh–I almost thought I was reading my own words (though I wouldn’t have said it so eloquently).

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    All I can suggest is to read the book. It’s better. Much better. And read the unabridged version. The digressions are the story.

    I haven’t seen any musical adaptation; I’m just not interested (though I was recently mistaken for one of the principal actors at an IHOP in Cedar City). I have little interest in a happy, simplified version of a very difficult, very powerful novel. Even if the songs are catchy.

    I understand that makes me a troll. I’m content with that.

    On the rest…I’m not sure simplification is a particularly Mormon trait so much as human one. Yes, we like our easy labels, but so does everyone else. Where the label is a trigger to a reservoir of individual experience, I have no problems with it. So long as we fill the reservoir from more relevant sources (like the original Victor Hugo novel).

    Both are useful, so long as both exist.

  3. Scott Hales says:

    Yeah…I personally think this post is overlooking what I think makes Les Miserables shine. Yes, Valjean isn’t much of a round character and he certainly doesn’t undergo any significant change throughout the musical–but I think that’s kind of the point. In fiction, we get character who experience trials, undergo great changes based on how they respond to those trials, and arrive at a spot different from the one where they began. But we also get characters–often highly moral characters, like Valjean–who undergo trials, but do not change despite the hardship. The point of their story is to prove their commitment to their moral convictions. This, I believe, is the classic quest scenario. We see it in moral fiction, like Les Miserables, but also in classic adventure story lines of the Indiana Jones, James Bond, Luke Skywalker ilk.

    In a sense, this kind of trials-as-a-test storyline is one of the paradigms we like to use to describe the plan of salvation, which may be why Valjean resonates with Mormons. But we need to make sure we don’t fall prey to the fallacy that characters who change are better or more interesting than character who do–even when it proves to be the case. Often, the story is not just about its characters–and may succeed independent of them.

    For me, Les Miserables works because I like Javert, who I think is one of the more interesting characters in the play. He’s the classic villain who is deeply convinced of his own righteousness–and I think the play fully fleshes him out. From his beginnings as a prison baby, to his conviction that he is God’s servant, to his narrow dualistic morality, to his hypocrisy: I think he makes up for Valjean’s dullness.

    I’m also a sucker for the indictment of poverty via the sentimentalized story of Fantine who is reduced to prostitution in order to care for her daughter. Maybe all of that gets washed out with all the catchy music, romantic bathos, unrequited love, and revolutionary fist-pumping, but I think it’s still a meaningful part of the musical…which I’ve only seen once.

    • Jen Nielsen says:

      I find Javert to be the most interesting and tragic characters of Les Miz. As much as I triumph in the new man Val Jean chooses to become after accepting the Mercy and grace extended him. I am frustrated by Javerts obhorance for mercy and obsession for justice. His thinking is so twisted. Sadly I think that many of us fall into the same trap. Even after being taught the saving power of Christs Atonment/grace, we still fail to accept it or disbelieve its ability to transform us right where we are. Instead we feel we have to prove ourselves first. To me that is the beauty of the story, the balance of justice and mercy. You can see clearly why God needs us to need him(humility), he then works through us to affect many for good throughout our transformation. While the proud and justice-driven are unchangable, although good is intended they frustrate Gods work and mans progression.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    So Josh, would you say that the stories of Alma the Younger and Paul are overly sentimental and unrealistic? If not, what is it that makes these stories different from Les Miserables? If so, then what does that say about the standards of realism that you’re using to judge stories?

    It sounds like the chief failing (in your view) about Les Miz (the musical) is that the character doesn’t really change for most of the story. I can’t really argue about that, because I haven’t seen the play or read the book (though I did try once — either I had a bad translation, or I was too young for it at the time). But let me challenge what seems to be your basic assumption — that is, that in order to be good, a story has to feature ongoing change. Sure, that’s one of the criteria by which we judge novels. But not every story is a novel (speaking according to that criterion). And perhaps not every story needs to be.

    Novels, I remember reading in a literature class long ago, are about how character changes over time, while romances (the medieval literary genre, not the modern love story) are about how character is revealed over time. In that respect, a lot of modern stories (especially genre stories) probably are closer to romances than novels. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps, if it undermines our belief that people can and do change over time. From a purely literary standpoint, however, it’s demonstrably possible to craft a good story that doesn’t hinge on the evolution of the main character — unless you’re willing to impose a narrow and anachronistic definition of what good literature must be.

    I think it’s an interesting question just why Mormon audiences seem to go for certain types of stories (though like Scott I think you need to be careful about assuming that certain things are true about Mormon audiences that may simply be true about American audiences). I’m inclined, however, to think that this has less to do with simplistic narrative models in scriptures, and more to do with the Mormon meta-narrative: that is, seeing ourselves as increasingly beleaguered actors in a larger conflict between good and evil.

    Or maybe it’s because it fits the pattern of our own lives. Many of us go through a profound spiritual transformation and decision-making process at the start of adulthood, sealed with decisions such as going on a mission and getting married in the temple — and then seek to live the rest of our lives in a way that lives up to those commitments. Are you honestly saying that good literature can’t be made from a story like that?

  5. Jeanna says:

    I do, by and large, like Les Mis (including the book, but I only ever read the abridged version; the unabridged scared me off with its sheer immensity). But my favorite characters are Eponine and Javert. And honestly, I kind of can’t stand Marius and Cosette. I have the same love-at-first-sight beef, among other issues with their characters.

    Javert, I think, is interesting for the reasons Scott mentioned above. Although I think he’s far more sympathetic than people tend to see him. After all, generally speaking, his job is a meaningful one–he puts away the bad guys and keeps them there. Yes, okay, in the system at the time, lots of people who weren’t particularly bad guys (who were just desperate for food, etc.) also got put in jail. But he honestly believes he’s doing something good, and I think he’s probably not altogether wrong in most cases. But he’s also interesting because he’s so stiff in his beliefs that when he is proven wrong, he can’t take it and he kills himself. How tragic! And how often do people butt up against things that they can’t handle and that they therefore reject completely (is it appropriate that I mention this on an election day?)? Do we? I think there’s a lot more meat to Javert than people give him credit for.

    And Eponine, I guess I just find her more sympathetic than Cosette. Sure, she’s kind of idiotic for falling for Marius, but she dies to save him. You gotta give her credit for that sacrifice (as opposed to, I might add, Romeo and Juliet–who kill themselves because they think they can’t live without each other–Eponine saves Marius so he can live to have his own happiness). (Of course, I confess that now I’m wondering if I remembered that wrong from the book. Anyone know?)

    So, sadly, the best characters in the story get sidelined. Oh well. At least I can rant about it occasionally in places like this.

    • Like you, I never really cared much for Cosette, and found it weird that she somehow became the symbol for the musical. Eponine is probably my favorite character, and she gets two of the best songs in the entire musical, “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain.”

  6. Josh Allen says:

    Well, I knew this would generate some interesting discussion when I posted it this morning. In the interest of continuing the conversation, let me address a few points:

    1. Scott, you write: “In fiction, we get character who experience trials, undergo great changes based on how they respond to those trials, and arrive at a spot different from the one where they began. But we also get characters–often highly moral characters, like Valjean–who undergo trials, but do not change despite the hardship. The point of their story is to prove their commitment to their moral convictions. ” You’re absolutely right. But not all stories about characters who “prove their commitment to their moral convictions” are equal. Take To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. Atticus is certainly a static character. His story is one of his proving his moral convictions in the face of persecution. But, in my opinion, it’s much better than Les Miserables (the musical). Why? Because Atticus really isn’t the main character of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout and Jem are the main characters. Atticus’s moral convictions aid their transformation, their coming of age. Valjean doesn’t have the same impact on other characters. While his actions certainly shape the lives of Cosette and Marius, these two characters are (as Jeanna has pointed out) the two least interesting characters in the play. Jem and Scout, however, are anything but uninteresting. We love Atticus not only for his moral convictions, but because those convictions aid in the development of main characters we like. (Similarly, in Star Wars, which you referenced, Luke Skywalker’s devotion to his convictions eventually transforms a character we also like—Darth Vader.) In Les Mis, there’s no similar parallel. No one we care about is made more mature because of Valjean’s actions.

    2. Johnathan, you’ve asked good questions. I have solid answers to . . . well . . . none of them. Why am I okay with Paul and Alma the Younger’s narratives while I’m not okay with Le Mis? Truthfully, I’m not sure why one strikes me as fine and one doesn’t. Maybe it’s because I sense a distinction between what scripture is supposed to do for us and what literature is supposed to do for us (and that could be a failing on my part). And yes, I recognize that I’m probably conflating American culture or Christian culture with Mormon culture. I do, however, want to explore why Les Mis and other stories seem to get embraced en masse by Mormon culture while other stories don’t. But I don’t really have any good answers yet. Maybe scripture informs that. Maybe it doesn’t. This post is really just my first stab at exploring the idea. Your larger question, though, about my key assumption—that literature must feature change—is one I’d like to address. Simply put, I do believe literature should feature some kind of change. I tend to prefer a change in character, but I acknowledge that other changes make for good stories too—changes in power, position, influence, whatever. A story about stasis would be completely and utterly bland. (Unless that story tells the truth about stasis. Hamlet, for example, is a story about stasis, but it tells us this: If we don’t adapt, don’t act, don’t change, we die. That feels truthful to me.) I want my characters to either change the world or to be changed by it (or, I guess, die because they refused to change).

    I’d also question what you describe as “the pattern of our own lives.” Do we really experience one “transformation” at the start of adulthood and then seek to live the rest of our lives “in a way that lives up to those commitments” or is the pattern of our lives more complex than that? Does conviction ebb and flow? Are we just converted and transformed once? Or is transformation something that happens to us again and again? How many times can we be re-born? How many times should we be re-born? Honestly, I wouldn’t be interested in literature about the “pattern of our lives” if that pattern involved one major transformation and steadily growing conviction thereafter. That pattern seems simplistic to me—and false. It’s the tidy model we’d all like to follow, but how many of us actually do? It’s the model that sees repentance as a “if you mess up” thing, as opposed to a “way of life” thing. I would, however, be very interested in literature that more accurately addresses the pattern of our lives, the day-to-day transformations and re-births we experience, the nagging doubts and personal failings, the ever constant need to let an old self die and a new self emerge.

  7. Valjean actually STARTS the play righteous. Remember how he’s in jail because he stole a loaf of bread to save a starving child? That’s hardly Saul (who basically starts out as a Javert) or Alma the Rebel (who wanted to tear the church apart and undermine the commandments).

    No, Valjean is no Saul or Alma. He’s good to the core from the beginning. And he’s never, ever attracted to the allure of evil or tempted to do something just for his own pleasure or to harm someone.

    BUT he is tried in other ways. After his release, he’s pushed toward theft not because he wants it but because the demands of the world seem to close down around him. His turn to wrong is out of desperation, not desire. And so the bishop’s intervention isn’t really a conversion so much as a comfort and a covenant that his struggles haven’t left him forsaken and that he can live a good life.

    And after that covenant, we have a gloss over a long period of prosperity. He’s stuck to goodness, and he’s been blessed–with wealth! with power! And so there’s no need to elaborate.

    Until his righteousness fails again–because of his relative absence. He’s comfortable, but all around him people are still poor. Still trapped just as he was. And at his factory, under his watch, a terrible thing happens to a woman who is trying her very best to be good. Through well-intention inattention, he is to blame for what happens to Fantine.

    He’s still good, sure. But his second crisis is to carry the weight of what he allowed to happen to her. To realize he deserves her hatred. And to go out of his way to help her.

    And then, right at the time when he needs his wealth and power as a mayor to set things right, there’s another challenge. They say they’ve caught Jean Valjean.

    And he could just let it go. He could leave one man to an undeserved punishment while helping a woman he wrong. But he’s learned. And this time he can’t let it go. So he trades his position as mayor and factory owner to save one man and focuses his life on helping Fantine’s daughter.

    And so on. He stays good, he stays committed, but the challenges keep coming. He can’t keep the girl safe from pain. He can’t save the suffering poor and the doomed young idealists–and he can’t escape nagging reminders of his own past.

    And then there’s Javert. Who insists (correctly) that good and evil aren’t just weighed against each other on a cosmic scale. Who reminds him not just of his youthful crime, but of the burden of justice which hangs over all of us.

    And ultimately, Jean Valjean wants to save even Javert. But he can’t do that either, because Jean Valjean is a good Christian, but he isn’t Jesus Christ.

    So he protects his daughter and that boy she loves, but he knows he’s also failed. So many people have suffered. So many people are dead. So many, like Javert, are dead without the taste of redemption.

    So Valjean is tired. He made a covenant, and he’s stood by it, carried the growing weight the covenant placed on him.

    And it’s this tired old man who is received into the arms of the dead, who are now also the healed and glorified. And it’s this tired man who rises to join them, to take his place at last among the people in holiness.

    • Wow! Thanks, James!

      I saw the production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and was impressed with the music, and with J. Michael Bailey’s and Brian Vaughn’s (Jean ValJean and Javert, respectively) singing, but not so much with the story.

      Your take on it has added immensely to my appreciation of the work. Thanks, again!

    • Jen Nielsen says:

      Perfectly stated! He stays faithful and humble to the end because he accepted mercy and embraced hope.

  8. No hard feelings.

    But I have to say, it completely baffles me that you find the characters one-dimensional.

    …anyway… funny coincidence, I just showed this to my kids for the first time (our in-concert DVD). I’m sorry, I guess I’m part of the institution, but I love this story, and the play based around this story, and the characters and themes in the story. And being able to show it to my 10, 9,8,6 year old daughter and talk to them about what it means to be good, and how peoples’ choices affect them, and redemption… you know, I don’t cry easy and I cry every time I hear the Bishop’s soliloquoy. I’m actually kind of a cynical person when it comes to cheez, too. So I have to think….

    you’ve got a bit of a chip on your shoulder :) But like I said, that’s OK. No hard feelings.

  9. Mark Penny says:

    Careful, Josh. Not even America is the entire planet, let alone Utah. And Utah Mormons are not the touchstone of Mormonism anymore.

    I haven’t seen the musical play, though I may watch the musical movie when it comes out on HBO. I have, however, read the book (in French, I think) and seen at least one non-musical cinematization. I loved them both. And I thought Valjean and Javert were far more interesting than the younger characters. I had a similar experience with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which the two young leads seemed to me to be self-centered bumblers who never really clued in to the grief they were reeking on the seasoned, pure mature leads–didn’t even have the grace to get their acts together and benefit from their elders’ sacrifices. Mind you, I didn’t consider this a flaw in the story, because it seemed to reflect a condition in, and therefore be a comment on, the society that produced it.

    One issue may be that in the book, Valjean and Javert are both representative characters. Though more than adequately fleshed out as individuals, they are really incarnations of opposing aspects of the society they inhabit, a society which desperately needs both mercy and justice but can attain neither without sacrificing the other. In the end, each of the mature leads sacrifices himself in order to make room for a world in which their respective attributes can coexist.

  10. Andrew Hall says:

    Les Miz is the only novel I have ripped into pieces. I had a paperback, and would rip out a “book” section of 100 pages or so, and carry that around to read until I needed to get to the next section. I remember finishing the first section, about the life of the priest. It felt like I had read a full book, but I had not even gotten up to the part where the play started! I love the book and the play. There are some funny parts to modern readers, like the incredible concidences (I seem to remember one about a character climbing over a wall to escape a monastary, and running into another key character). But I love it.

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