Les Miserables is widely considered one of the best films of the year, and has been a favorite this awards season — Anne Hathaway took home the Best Supporting Actress award on Sunday. The film has been praised for the actors' raw, emotional performances and the detailed, historically accurate production design. It is true that Hathaway delivered a heartbreaking rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," and that the sweeping cinematography is sometimes breathtaking. But Les Miserables does not deserve an Oscar — in fact, the movie shouldn't have been made in the first place.
Frankly speaking, it is grotesque to me that we continue to use this story for entertainment. Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables as a social/political commentary, literally about how miserable people's lives were. In his preface, he wrote,
So long as the three great problems of the century — the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light — are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world — in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.
This book was not meant to be entertaining — it was meant to advocate against social injustice. It is still "of use" today — much of the injustice he describes still exists, some of it still in France.
And yet, I doubt that watching Les Miserables inspired people to fight against ignorance and poverty after they left the theatre. We are so far removed from the people who are depicted, and feel in no way culpable for their suffering. This is not our history of failed revolutions and wretched poverty, after all (what if Django Unchained were a musical with catchy songs?).
However, it is not hard to understand why Les Miserables is enduringly popular: it is a tale of unjust suffering and redemption, of sacrifices made for the sake of love and liberty. Americans tend to idealize — even fetishize — the French revolutionaries, given the influence they had on our Founding Fathers. We sing along to the catchy songs, we memorize them; we even have our favorite renditions. Have you ever sung "I Dreamed a Dream" and cried to yourself, as though your suffering were somehow on par with Fantine's?
A man is condemned to 20 years of forced labor for stealing a piece of bread, and spends the rest of his life running away from the law. A young unwed mother is abandoned by the child's father and forced to leave the child in the care of horrible people. She is eventually fired from her job for refusing to sleep with her boss, must sell her hair and teeth to send money to her child, and ultimately becomes a prostitute and dies of tuberculosis. How is any of this remotely entertaining? Can you even conceive of what 20 years of hard labor is like? Of what it is like to have to sell your body to provide for your child? Of what it is like to watch your friends die in a bloody battle that achieved absolutely nothing? I'll bet that if you can, you probably didn't buy a ticket to watch this bourgeois fetishization of suffering for the sake of love and country.
The young revolutionaries are perhaps the most maddening of all. Why are we glorifying their ignorance and youthful naiveté? What an incredibly stupid waste of lives, and how irresponsible to romanticize their foolishness. The 'battle' has been lost; not even your neighbors will support you, and not just because you stole all of their furniture. Do you really think you are dying for something? Do you think it will make a difference? Do you really think this is how revolutions are won? They are ultimately won by pragmatism, not romanticism.
I found myself similarly repulsed by the Hunger Games — a novel about a horrifying post-apocalyptic gladiatorial contest is turned into a blockbuster entertainment vehicle. Is it entertaining to watch children kill other children? Does it serve some sort of purpose? Did it draw attention to the terrible fate of contemporary child soldiers? (no).
Is there sometimes a purpose to telling these stories of suffering? Certainly. Sometimes it is to inform and to drive action (e.g. Hotel Rwanda). Sometimes it is to reaffirm our belief in humanity and our ability to overcome. Indeed, the only redeeming part of this story is the happy ending — that in the end, thanks to a lifetime of sacrifices from Fantine and Jean Valjean, Cosette and Marius can live happily ever after (even though he chose to die with his friends rather than live with her). But just as we criticize movies and video games for desensitizing us to violence, how can a musical (and now a film) this widely beloved not have desensitized us to the wretched existence it depicts?
Finally, I find it particularly offensive (as usual) to see the actors praised for the sacrifices they made as part of their commitment to the role — losing unhealthy amounts of weight, in this case, and cutting off all of their hair. We're supposed to see it as a hardship that you had to diet to be able to look like someone dying of consumption? Your suffering doesn't even come close to theirs, and we when we say things like this we are losing sight of true hardship.
The bottom line, for me, is that no matter how heartwarming the sacrifices that Fantine and Valjean make for Marius and Cosette, no matter how powerful their strength, resilience, and hope, I cannot watch the movie or the musical without feeling like I am trivializing their suffering through my enjoyment. By turning so many of the characters (Valjean, Fantine, Enjolras, Eponine, Gavroche) into martyrs, by allowing ourselves to be carried away by the emotionally powerful music, by feeling uplifted by the redeeming ending, are we missing the point entirely? I think so. I know there are millions of Les Mis fans that would disagree, but I would challenge them to think about why exactly they enjoy the story so much.