Writing in Foreign Affairs, Yale history professor Charles Walton charges that the new film version of Victor Hugo’s novel inaccurately neglects politics in favor of the religious message:
Hooper’s cinematic rendering is stunningly staged and brilliantly performed, but it cuts the author in half: it gives us the religious Hugo, not the revolutionary one. It tells the story of individual redemption through an odyssey of Catholic conscience, not of France’s collective redemption through political violence.
Religion runs throughout the film, from an early scene in which a priest saves the ex-convict Jean Valjean from being arrested for having stolen his silverware (the priest lies, telling the police that it had been a gift) to Valjean’s lifelong commitment to paying off this moral debt through acts of charity and self-sacrifice (he saves his one-time employee, Fantine, from a life of prostitution and offers to raise her daughter, Cosette, as his own when she dies). Toward the end of the film, when Valjean confesses his past as a convict to his future son-in-law, Marius, whom he rescued at the barricade, we see Valjean backgrounded by a conspicuous crucifix. When Valjean dies — in a convent, no less — the ghost of Fantine descends like an angel to take him “somewhere beyond the barricade,” to “the garden of the Lord,” as the chorus assures us.
To be sure, religion is a central theme in Hugo’s original novel — but so, too, is revolution.
A valid point: Hugo “aimed to reconcile France’s revolutionary and Catholic traditions,” and wrote the novel partially against the regime of Napoleon III that emerged out of the chaos of the brief Second Republic. He was no Marxist, but rather:
Wanted to stir the comfortable classes from their shameful complacency [. . .] “A desired peace without [democratic] principles is more onerous than war,” the narrator of the novel insists. But Hooper’s film, like the staged version before it, conveys a different view: it presents revolutionary idealism as misguided and futile. Viewers are led to believe, for example, that Marius’s insurrectionary friends die in vain, because their deaths do not lead to any clear progress. Wandering around the empty chairs and tables where the insurgents had held their “last communion” the evening before the fight, Marius sings, “Here they talked of revolution / Here it was they lit the flame / Here they sang about tomorrow / And tomorrow never came.”
Walton goes on to contrast Hugo with Alexis de Tocqueville, noting their somewhat-similar biographies while explaining their divergence of views over the ultimate effects of revolutionary fervor. No doubt an even longer discussion could be had on this point: Tocqueville isn’t exactly Burkean in his analysis of the Revolution of 1789 (on balance, he believes it to have been a necessary development, and one that was most deeply marked not by rupture but by continuity, though he deplores the excesses of the Terror). While he certainly doesn’t agree with Hugo’s theory of human advancement through revolution, his skepticism arises partially because he believes the effects of democracy simply drain people of their passion and ability to initiate such events; that our growing attachment to a “circle of small domestic interests” and pleasures narrows our focus, not necessarily because we get smarter and learn to attenuate our temptation to abstraction. On that point, he and Hugo would both commend the kind of concrete works of charity chronicled in the film as a way of overcoming our inbuilt selfishness.
Still, this is a rather funny place to be in: a mass-market film generating complaints for being too religious and insufficiently political. And revealing: the Christian narrative of suffering and redemption still proves to be more enticing and affecting (not to mention lucrative) than all the other quite worthy elements of the story.