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In Defense of "Les Miserables"

January 10th, 2013 | 6 min read

By Brett McCracken

Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Miserables has received much praise in recent weeks, including multiple Oscar nominations. It topped the list of the “most redeeming films of 2012” (a nebulous distinction, to be sure) that my film critic colleagues and I voted on over at Christianity Today. But the film has also had its naysayers and outspoken haters, most notably David Denby’s amusingly snooty takedown for The New Yorker, in which he employs a prodigious array of negative adjectives (“terrible,” “dreadful,” “overbearing,” “pretentious,” “maudlin,” to name a few) to underscore his scorn for the popular movie.

Among Denby’s critiques (they are legion) is his disapproval of the prevalence of extreme closeups in the film’s depictions of the actors singing their big solos--a device which is, indeed, the film’s most noticeable and polarizing stylistic feature. Writes Denby: “How strange to have actors singing right into the camera, a normally benign recording instrument, which seems, in scene after scene, bent on performing a tonsillectomy?”

lesI actually quite appreciated the camera’s tendency to go to extreme close-up. In adapting a beloved stage musical like Les Miserables, Hooper wisely opted to keep much the same (the songs, the period costumes, the overall showmanship). But he also wisely recognizes the inherent differences between the medium of the stage and the screen, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of those forms. The ability of a camera to direct an audience’s attention to specific images at specific times, and to get close enough to faces to capture the slightest nuance of emotion, is one advantage film has over the theater, for example. Watching something like Les Mis in a theater, one gets the experience of the music and the broad scene of a stage full of sets, props, and actors, but one misses out on the intimate expressions of the actor’s faces (unless you are sitting in the front row, perhaps). Film, paradoxically, perhaps, can bring the viewer closer to the action and allow them to be more intimately engaged with a particular actor’s embodiment, gesture, presence. In adapting the musical to the screen, then, Hooper is simply using the medium to his advantage by bringing to the story some elements the stage cannot.

Does the result come across as heavy-handed and emotionally “overbearing,” as Denby suggests? Perhaps. But the almost confrontational emotion and physical directness of Les Miserables seems to me to be less narrative laziness as an earnest attempt to create a visceral experience that conveys universalities through resonant tableaus of image, sound and action.

All films (all narratives, really) are, in the end, curators of moments and consolidators of emotions that help us to see more clearly things that are true about existence. Andrei Tarkovsky, who described filmmaking as “sculpting in time” (“pick[ing] out and join[ing] up facts taken from a ‘lump of time’ of any width or length”) once wrote that art is “a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it in the course of man’s journey towards what is called ‘absolute truth.’”

As such, art is an editorial process: One shot is chosen over a host of others because it most clearly conveys a specific idea. One brushstroke better captures a real-life gesture than another. One sentence is omitted because the idea can be expressed without it. Language itself is a system of ordering symbols we call words in just the right manner, and usually in the most economic fashion possible, so as to focus one’s attention on exactly the thing that is meant to be understood.

All of this to say: I think one of the problems people have with a work like Les Miserables is that its mode of narration (“sculpting in time” to use Tarkovsky’s expression) is perhaps too ambitious and comprehensive, while at the same time too concise. It attempts to consolidate too much, to assemble a massive array of moments that are each so loaded, so full of emotion and existential plight. To some, the cumulative effect feels too forceful, too dramatic, too sentimental. It may make some viewers (like David Denby) simply exhausted.

But it also makes many, many other viewers incredibly emotional. It moves people. Why is that?

Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post this week, eloquently reflected on why Les Mis made him cry to the point that he had to explain to his sons why he was “weeping for the imaginary suffering of fictional characters played by highly paid actors”:

People have been attracted to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for more than 150 years precisely because it is a comprehensive rejection of skepticism. At 1,400 pages of suffering, vulgarity, pity, fury, revolution, worship and self-sacrifice, comprehensive is the right adjective. Other great romantics reveled in nihilism. Hugo gave the brief for life... [Hugo’s] great book is a vivid description of the workings of grace. Valjean begins as a hardened prisoner. He is shown mercy and learns to show it. He is hunted through a series of resurrections — emerging from a live burial, from the sewers of Paris. His nemesis is broken by his moral certitude. Valjean is saved by his sacrifices. He learns love by raising a daughter, and then the far reaches of love by giving her away. The ending is not particularly happy. Handing over his child to the future also leaves the protagonist broken. In the end, he has surrendered everything he possessed except God. But that is enough. … So perhaps my sons will someday understand there is much to learn about being human from imagined lives. From Hugo and others, they may gain some skepticism about skepticism. They may even eventually discover why it is difficult for a father to contemplate giving up his children to the future, in the long, natural sacrifice of the best things about us. And I hope they will find, as Valjean does in the end, that “there is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.” Which is worth a few tears.

Some may be (understandably) skeptical of any movie that can bring so many people--even grown men like Gerson--to tears. Surely a movie like that must be manipulative, saccharine, simplistic, right?

I think we should consider the possibility that it may simply be because that’s what art does. In its quest to reflect our world back to us, or perhaps to show us a fantasy world or eschatological vision that is foreign to us, art can strike us in the deepest places of our soul--those pining places beyond day-to-day emotions; the reservoirs of existential longings so often only stirred up by beauty and art.

Movies especially are a form of art prone to elicit such emotional, existential responses. Movies can capture, probe, explore the tangible world in ways no other medium can. We feel the texture of a silk dress in Anna Karenina. We smell the blood-splattered cotton in Django Unchained. We languish at the sight of Anne Hathaway’s tormented face -- every line and wrinkle of which the camera so painfully exploits. Movies are visceral.

In a movie, the raw materiality and physical geography on which the story plays out (i.e. nature, sets, bodies, props) can resonate with us as much as the story itself. This is reality, shooting out at us in flickering light. Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer believed that the primary function of cinema was to open up reality and re-focus the spectator on the mundane and everyday elements of life that are typically taken for granted. It is through this encounter with the “texture of everyday life” that cinema serves to reconnect humanity with its estranged material habitat, urging us to look closer and see the world for the concrete thing that it is.

This re-connective power of cinema--which among other things fosters a potent, immersive empathy between audience and whatever action transpires among the flickering pixel players--is so striking that it leads some viewers to build up defense mechanisms so as to resist its affective force. This is one (but not the only) reason why some respond to Les Mis with such skepticism. It’s a movie that embraces, unapologetically, the power of cinema to consolidate the extremes of human experience in such a way that audiences can’t help but be moved.

That is, if the audience is willing to suspend disbelief and accept that yes, a movie is movie. People don’t really sing every emotion and monologue that runs through their mind. Our experience of the world doesn’t jet back and forth in time and space, covering decades in the span of a few hours. Movies are artifice, symbols of truth. But so is all art. So is all language. Without these methods of “assimilating the world,” how could we live?

Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity (2010) and Gray Matters (2013), and has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post,, the Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Relevant, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas, and A graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA, Brett currently works as managing editor for Biola Magazine and teaches at Biola University. Follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken.