Passion and Les Misérables


The novel Les Misérables has inspired a long running musical, which has in turn been transformed into a film which incorporated many of the details which were understandably omitted in the stage production.

The narrative was also the basis of a DVD starring Liam Neesom, which again including details that had been missing from the other recounting, such as the telling of the story of Valjean’s original crime and how he repeatedly tried to escape from prison.

More recently, there was a TV adaption on the BBC by the screenwriter Andrew Davies. There were shortcomings such as the overemphasis on the romance experienced by Fantine and the understanding of the role of the bishop, in contrast to the priorities made by Victor Hugo. There have also been scenes added that do not move the story on and did not chime with essence of the novel (such as the supposed robbing of a young boy after Valjean is redeemed after the encounter with the bishop). The portrayal of Monsieur Thénardier on the screen (for which the musical is also at fault) is to treat him as a petty crook at worst and a comic character at best, whereas he is far more villainous in the book, being more like menacing and dangerous Bill Sykes in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist who will stop at nothing to achieve his aims even to stripping the assets of grievously injured people, (Dickens being a contemporary of Hugo and had a similar heart for social justice.)

However, I tried hard to pinpoint the problem I had with the production, until I realised what it was – it had no passion. I have read the book on numerous occasions and, in addition to the adaptation’s departure from the novel’s plotline at certain junctions, the main problem was that the invoked emotions by Victor Hugo were completely absent, seeming to be the recounting of the story without the beating heart. It is though you could not care about any of the characters, so insipid they were portrayed. It was demonstrated that Fantine, who is one of the most tragic personalities who descends rapidly into the abyss, evoked no sympathy or even any interest.

The television adaptation was completely in contrast to the works of Victor Hugo which are completely run through with the engagement of the heart, as also evidenced by The Last Day of a Condemned Man or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (or more properly Notre Dame of Paris) as well as his poetic compositions. It was the essence of the author that his life, full of lust for life, women and politics, that were translated to the words on the page (as evidenced in the excellent biography by Graham Robb).

In not conveying this passion that Hugo felt for political change, the screenplay does a disservice to the atmosphere penned by the French author. There is no desire provoked as to the injustice experienced by the poor, or the enthusiasm for social justice and the active mobilisation to eradicate the impoverishment of society and individuals, or the motivation to assist others on their path to redemption.

It is contrast with the description of the film, which is described as ‘exploring the great universal themes of passion, sacrifice, love, justice and redemption.’ (www/damaris.org/lesmis)

The theme of passion was explored in an episode in the popular TV series The Big Bang Theory where Penny expressed her concern to Leonard, her boyfriend who became her husband, that she did not have anything to be passionate about. Whereas the others in the cast were devoted to science primarily as well as other projects, she felt left out because she did not have an all-embracing and consuming focus in her life. In the end, she came to the conclusion that her love for Leonard fitted this criteria.

There may be times when we retreat, mentally and possibly physically, to reassess what we think and where our priorities are to be. It is often because we refuse or refrain from these times of re-assessment, what can almost be termed introspections, that we find that our passions are not ignited. We can be motivated by money, material success and superficiality, ignoring the great issues that really matter, without actually having a passion that is the bedrock of whole that we should be and are. It could be that that we crave the kudos that comes with climbing up the corporate ladder, but it is worthless unless we seek to make something good out of it such as alleviating the suffering of others.

Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist, states that we have develop and nurture passion, equating it to grit equals passion plus persistence. Passion is not something that you stumble across, ‘it’s not like a set of lost keys.’ In contrast, she stated that: ‘Passions tend to be developed. It’s not just about being intense about what you’re doing but waking up week after week, month after month, year after year, wanting to think about the same thing.’ The motivation is that the objective is fulfilling and enjoyable, without it being necessarily easy, what Duckworth terms ‘hard fun.’

It is easy to be side-tracked by other things, such as social media, pressures from friends and family, indeed life in general. Duckworth reminded us in her TED article that: ‘Whether it’s watching frivolous videos or scrolling through social media, there’s enough that you could do those things forever. But it’s time that doesn’t really add up to anything.’ The rub of the issue is, as she asks: ‘How committed are you to not doing that anymore? Reflect on how you’re using your time, and whether or not you want to be distracted by these temptations.’

The exciting thing is that, as the passion increases, it will be nurtured and will turn into something that more wonderous. Angela Lee Duckworth encourages us: ‘You never get bored; in fact, you get more and more interested.’

It is illustrated by emotions felt by Hugo, who used his writing skills (as did others) to highlight the unjust social conditions of the age in which he lived. In the introduction to Les Misérables, he commented: ‘…while ignorance and poverty persist on the earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value.’

We need to be aware that there may be times of misunderstanding and times of deliberate misstating of our values. As Daniel Darling stated: ‘But if we are to be faithful to what God has called us to do, there will be times when our advocacy will have the media and the opinion makers singing our praises. And there will be other moments when our faithful positions will bring us derision.’ When we give advice to others, sometimes we’re counselling ourselves in the process. It can draw your own attention to things that you can do. In research, we’ve found that it can boost your confidence and give you the sense that progress is possible.’

Paul had this urgency, this passion in wanting people in the churches he planted to have the same zeal that he had for God’s words and works: ‘To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.’ (Colossians 1: 29)

The centrality of God is of the utmost importance is generating the passion within us. Paul reminded the readers in Rome: ‘Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.’ (Romans 12: 11) It is the evidence of God’s grace in our lives that we are to be ‘eager to do what is good.’ (Titus 2: 14) 

We need to show passion for people, their stories, the hardships they face and, above all, how God sees people.

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