Law and Grace in ‘Les Mis’

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was considered a literary powerhouse long before Alain Boubeil and Claude-Michel Schonberg wrote their musical based on the story in 1980. But that production, translated into English a few years later, has been a powerhouse on Broadway and London’s West End for the better part of three decades. On Christmas Day, it will come to theaters as a major motion picture starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and an all-star supporting cast.

I don’t say this sort of thing often, but here it is: go see it. Les Miserables lives up to the hype.

Or, it will. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen the movie, but I’ve seen the musical multiple times. And I say that as someone who doesn’t love musical theater.

The Story

Les Miserables is an intertwining story of characters living in the turmoil of 19th-century France. It’s a story of poverty and affluence, broken dreams, love, and redemption.

The story branches out into a variety of lives: a corrupt innkeeper and his family, a group of young would-be revolutionaries disgusted with the oppression of the poor, street kids, and young lovers. People who watch the musical say it’s like a “religious experience” and leave the theater emotionally exhausted. Early screenings of the film have enjoyed equally effusive praise, with one Hollywood veteran saying it might be the greatest movie he’s ever seen.

Here are a few things to watch for when you see Les Mis.

Broken Dreams

Every character in the story experiences the weight and tragedy of our fallen world. They all face inevitable disappointments. Jean Valjean leaves the work house hoping to start afresh, only to be haunted by his past at every turn. Fantine sings of a life of love and hope, even as her life spirals apart, sending her begging in the streets, selling her hair, and selling her body. She is sick and dying as she sings:

I dreamed a dream in time gone by,
When hope was high and life, worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die,
I dreamed that God would be forgiving . . .

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed . . .
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed . . .

Other characters feel it too. Young Cosette sings of a “castle on a cloud,” a dreamland where life is sweet, and she isn’t working like a slave for her foster parents. Eponine sings of lonesome, unrequited love in “On My Own.” A group of young students are disgusted by the oppression of the poor, and they dream of a revolution that sets the people free.

There’s a grinding, heartbreaking kind of tragedy that threads its way through Les Miserables. You can’t help but feel the sting of our fallen world. That feeling of relentless heartbreak sends the characters to God and to one another wondering if there’s any relief, any hope, any way out of the darkness.

Law Vs. Grace

The answer to those questions plays out most tellingly in the contrast between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.

As the story begins, Valjean is being released from 19 years on the chain gang, paroled back into the world but shackled with his conviction, which keeps him from being able to start over and make a new life. In despair, he returns to a life of petty crime.

He is caught by the police after stealing silver from a church, where a bishop had offered him shelter. But when the police bring him back to the church, everything changes. The bishop denies the charges, insists the silver was a gift, and gives Valjean the most valuable silver candlesticks in the church.

Valjean deserves judgment and condemnation, but instead, he receives grace. Not just forgiveness for his sins, but an abundant, over-the-top gift. This act is the heart of Les Mis. Grace transforms Valjean.

He sings:

My life was a war that could never be won . . .

Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me

I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

The priest responds:

. . . By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

Valjean disappears from the world, breaking his parole and creating a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, a factory owner and mayor. He’s resolved to live a better life, to make a difference in the world, and to help everyone he can, but he’s haunted by his past.

And he’s hunted.

Valjean’s nemesis is Inspector Javert, whose life is marked by a ruthless commitment to the law. Javert says:

Mine is the way of the Lord
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
The flame
The sword . . .

And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!

There is no mercy for Javert. There is no grace. He wants only to capture Valjean and bring him to justice—back to prison for breaking his parole.

The contrast of Javert and Valjean is deliberate and clear. Valjean is determined to live a life worthy of the grace he’s received, and his sense of calling leads him to radical sacrifice for the sake of others. Javert, on the other hand, lives with unflinching loyalty to the law. His confidence in the law makes him utterly certain of both his own righteousness and also Valjean’s sinfulness.

The story sets these two on a collision course, a head-on crash between law and grace. Just as grace saves Valjean in the beginning, it is ultimately grace that he must count on in the end. As Javert pursues him, we see the effects of grace on a sinner, we see the oppressive power of both the law and someone’s past, and we see the incomprehensibility of grace to a life ruled by the law.

Story That Resonates

This story resonates for two reasons. First, the audience can identify with a world of tragedy and disappointment. We all feel that sense of grinding sorrow, and wonder if there’s any hope for those who are sick, who suffer injustice, and who long to start anew. We’re all discouraged by the constant onslaught of bad news, and we dream dreams of places where hope is high, life is worth living, and God is merciful.

Second, Les Miserable answers those doubts with hope for redemption. There is a way to start afresh. There is a grace that surpasses, that sets us free from the burdens of our past, and that leads us home to God.

And while Les Miserables provides a vague answer, how beautiful that it’s releasing on Christmas Day, when that grace is announced to the world so clearly! Jesus endured the grinding struggles of the world, born in a stable, hunted by evil men, and suffering alongside (and ultimately for) us. He not only announced a hope for redemption, but he also single-handedly accomplished it for us.

In the light of the gospel, a story like Les Miserables isn’t simply uplifting; it’s a call to remember how great a salvation we have.

* * * * *

Editors’ note: This week Mike Cosper joined hosts Collin Hansen and Mark Mellinger for Going Deeper with TGC, the podcast of The Gospel Coalition. Cosper celebrates the creative genius behind the original author of Les Miserables and those who turned the work into a classical musical and now an acclaimed motion picture. He also explores how Christians appreciate good art as a gift from God.

As the podcast continues, The Gospel Project managing editor Trevin Wax talks with Eric Geiger, vice president of the church resources division at LifeWay and co-author of Creature of the Word, about how to foster gospel-centered culture in your church. Wax asks Geiger, “How do you know if your church is healthy?” Geiger offers an interesting response about the doctrinal divide between out pulpits and youth ministries. Finally, Hansen and Mellinger wrap up the podcast with a preview of top 10 lists that will be revealed on The Gospel Coalition website after Christmas.

You can stream the full podcast below, download the mp3, or subscribe to Going Deeper with TGC on iTunes or through your other mobile devices.

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Going Deeper with TGC, Mike Cosper, 12-20

  • Matthew Rushing

    Thank you for your review. I just saw this last night and my own review is very similar. I will be interested to see what you review of the film will be when you finally see it; especially in reference to the camera work.

  • Tracy Irvin

    I was originally drawn to the music. Then I got to know the story line through the lyrics and realized the theme of law and grace. Then I read the book and have been hooked ever since. Outside of the Bible, I believe it is the greatest story of redemption in literature.

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  • Jon

    Whenever I read Hugo’s description of grace upon the soul… the initial conflict and turmoil it causes inside of Valjean I am reminded how much I prefer law to grace. Grace is so “other worldly” that the goodness of it can’t be accepted easily. Grace at times feels ambiguous. I don’t know what to do with it. Law seems so clear, so unambiguous. Then to read of Valjean’s subsequent conversion is probably one of the high marks of literature (in my opinion). Thanks for the article! I, like man, are excite to see it!

    • Emily

      Seriously? That’s what you pick out of this movie. I’m sorry for my incredulity, but that’s LIFE. It’s a wonderful story that shows the reality of a broken world, and how grace and mercy can heal that.

      The only sex acts that were shown were not very graphic, and depicted a broken Fantine in the downward spiral of poverty as she attempts to provide for Cosette.

      Then, of course, you have “Master of the House,” but I can deal with that. At most, it shows crude people who leech off of others.

      I think the good of the movie overcomes those parts.

      • Aaron

        Emily i believe something should be said in response. I’m not trying to upset anyone; this just happens to be something i’ve been thinking through, and i think yours is a viewpoint that i needed articulated. So thank you.

        First, the “Master of the House” scene does not “at most” do what you say. It certainly “shows” more than that, but there is a bigger issue. The WAY that the movie presents the scene is clearly intended for the audience’s entertainment / enjoyment. It’s not to bring across the reality of a broken world. It was… funny, wasn’t it? We were SUPPOSED to laugh there. If you can get an audience laughing, you can get them accepting. I don’t know that it’s a proper reflection of the book, but it is a proper reflection of our current culture of viewers and what they want to see.

        Second, just because something is “life” (and by life, we’re talking about a fallen, corrupted world), doesn’t give impetus to our partaking of it. There are a lot of things that are realities in this fallen world, that we’re commanded not to involve ourselves in. I’m not saying watching Les Mis is one of them, but that brings me to the last thing.

        Whether or not you can “deal with” something as opposed to others is not the issue. Even if this is an area of liberty, our liberties are given to us so that we can serve others, not show them off.

        Again, my comment is not a “yes” or “no” as to if someone should watch Les Mis. There are bigger entertainment questions involved here–ones that i know i need to learn to address biblically. Thanks for your time.

  • Stephen

    I was looking forward to seeing Les Mis until I read a review.

    Disappointingly, there are a quite a sexual references, acts, etc. in the movie.

    • Michelle

      Not to mention the misuse of God and Jesus’ name several times! I was disappointed too. :(

    • Amy

      My husband and I read the plugged in review also and were prepared for far worse than was shown. Usually plugged in is spot on, but this time I think they exaggerated. There is no nudity whatsoever and only a few half seconds of sexual “movements.” The victory of grace in Fantine’s devastated life far outweighs in film minutes as well as in theme. The “Santa” scene in “Master of the House” was far worse, and completely unnecessary. But still, no nudity. Don’t let it stop you from seeing this beautiful movie.

  • John Dunn

    Many falsely revere and revert to the Law in attempting to accomplish those things that *only* the grace of God can do (Titus 2:11-14). Only the grace of God brings salvation, trains us to renounce ungodliness, trains us to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives, and trains us to wait for the glorious hope of His appearing. Law can never do these things. Only grace justifies and sanctifies.

    “You are not under Law but under grace” Rom 6:14-15

    “You also have died to the Law through the body of Christ . . . but now we are released from the Law, having died to that which held us captive.” Rom 7:4-6

    Have you praised God today for His glorious and liberating grace? Or does it still sound too good, too radical, too unbalanced, and too freeing to be true!

  • Laura

    I saw a preview of the movie last week. It’s okay. Having sobbed through a broadway production of Les Mis more than once because of it’s themes of grace and redemption and mercy, I was quite disappointed that the film version didn’t grip me emotionally. However, the themes are alive and well and I would venture to guess that if you haven’t seen a stage production of the musical the movie will be an amazing experience.

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  • David G.

    The story goes beyond law and grace to Valjean’s fulfillment in heaven. I don’t know if the movie goes that far but the book and play does.

    I do wonder, however, if Hugo’s main reason for writing the story was political. The movie throughout is a struggle between the bourgeois and rulers vs. the common people.

    • Katye Stone

      I heard a very political message in the movie as well that I think the producers picked up upon and emphasized.

      According to one website: “Hugo addressed three main political themes in Les Miserables: the need for social progress in France and improvement in her treatment of the poor, the abolishment of the death penalty, and the fight for prison reform.”

  • jay p.


    Great post on the overall theme of Les Mis on the concepts of law and grace. I would encourage you to a follow-up post if you saw the movie because I know of several people from my church (myself included) who won’t see the movie because of the graphic sexual content as described in several movie reviews. I know this doesn’t take away from your post, but I’m curious to see what you thought of the movie and if that would change your recommendation of seeing the movie.

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  • Katye


    I saw the powerful film yesterday and didn’t primarily notice the theme of law versus grace but rather of the radical mercy of God. I was astonished and deeply moved by the scene in which upon being returned by the authorities to the priest from whom he had stolen the silver, Jean Valjean encounters the merciful response of the priest, whom treated him all along as an honored guest and responded to the judgment of the authorities: “it is as he has spoken. and here, take more.” That radical love does not require punishment or suffering, but rather deep compassion and the judgment of love. Jean Valjean, upon receiving this mercy, could then see his own sin and through grace, choose the way of love, mercy, and kindness.

    The film was a testament to the endless mercy and radical love of God for all things, a love so powerful that it cannot be triumphed by our human desires for revenge and punishment.

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  • Daniel A. Siedell

    Nice review, Mike. Hugo’s sensitivity to the disruptive power of grace in the human heart is absolutely stunning. Keep up the insightful cultural criticism.

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  • Tony Whittaker

    Thanks so much for your insights. I believe that this film represents a major opportunity for us to start conversations with outsiders, and I’ve tried to draw together some helpful resources on the Digital Evangelism Issues blog:

  • Dana

    Small note: Valjean steals the silver from the Bishop’s house not church. But I can understand how you’d think that if you’ve only seen the musical. I would encourage you to read the book! It goes a lot more in depth, obviously, and it’s worth it!

    EDIT: Pardon, perhaps the musical is different from the book on that setting; I don’t know the musical well.

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  • John Dunn

    Just saw Les Miserables tonight. It was fantastic. But, the story-line was a tragic analogy of the damage that Law-wielding preaching does upon the Lord’s precious, grace-liberated saints.

    The hardened prisoner, Jean Valjean, is released from prison after many years of slave labour. Though free, his hardened heart becomes harder as he faces the cruel and loveless world alone. But one night his life is turned completely upside down by a singular act of self-less, love-filled, lavish grace and mercy. For once in Valjean’s life he realized that he had been undeservedly loved and forgiven, without debt or obligation, and now he had been truly set free with an abundance of riches. At that moment, his entire perspective on life was radically changed. Valjean was filled with joy and gladness at this new work of grace that had begun in his life. His new life increased rapidly with strength, and character, and blessing.

    But all too soon enters Javert, the strict Law-wielding constable (Puritan Reformed law-preacher). He spends all his life pursuing and hunting down Valjean with the ruthless and unbending Law, at one point accusing Valjean that he was still an unchanged man, still a sinner, worthy of justice. Near the end of the story Javert tragically takes his own life, because he couldn’t reconcile himself to free grace. But poor Valjean is left in brokenness and misery in his own dying days, doubting and struggling over the guilt that the Law’s pursuit caused him to feel his whole life long. In the final scene he wrestles with the record of his sins, longing and pleading to know if he will ever finally receive God’s forgiveness. Tragic.

    How sad it is that this story continues to play itself out in many churches across our land today. If only the story were different. If only the storyline had Javert’s Law firmly and finally nailed to the blessed Saviour’s cross at the moment of Valjean’s receipt of the free gift of God’s lavish grace. How radically different and joyous would his life have been.

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  • Caesar

    Watched it again today. Has it been noted that “Javert’s Suicide” is the exact music of “Valjean’s Soliloquy”.. the “who am I” song? This solidifys the idea that it is about law and grace. “Javiert” is the the law. Not a man (well, he’s played by a man) but he’s a picture of the law. It must come, and it will. But “the law is powerless to save, only condemn.” Grace was played by the Priest. Javiert has to struggle between the Law and Grace. And he does it imperfectly. However, when confronted with grace, a change is demanded. Valjean “died” in his “John Valjean is nothing now, another story must go on!”, but Javiert couldn’t change. The law cannot change. When given grace the law cannot compute (think: true or false, “This statement is false”). So, my takeaway was to remember to celebrate the law, but accept the grace I need because I fall, but to no sword nor flame..

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