Title: Les Misérables (2019, BBC TV Miniseries; TV-14*)
Director: Tom Shankland
Major Themes: France, Battle of Waterloo, Justice, Classics
Synopsis: The striking classical tale of injustice set in post-Napoleon France, of a man who tried to better himself in life and protect a young girl he adopted.
I’ve been intrigued by the Les Misérables story for many years. We got a dramatized audio version of the story at one point, and “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” portion especially stuck with me through the years. I’ve heard other people talk about their favorite “Les Miz” musicals, and was always curious to get to know the story as a whole. One that has lasted this long must have some sort of appeal to it still…surely. I never took the initiative to look the book up, but when this TV miniseries came up, I decided to try it out. And though it was extraordinarily well-done, I can’t fully recommend it—but more on that later.
Jean Valjean has been a prisoner on the prison hulks for 20 years, but now he has finally secured his freedom. Though he’s his own man again, he has a yellow passport—branding him as a man people should watch out for. Despite serving such a long prison sentence, his old instincts are still intact, and when he is taken in by a caring bishop, he leaves early the next morning—stealing the bishop’s silver in the process. He doesn’t go far before being caught and dragged back to the bishop’s place—but the bishop protests his thievery, saying he had given the silver to him. “By this, I buy your soul,” the bishop tells him, and adds to the stash that Valjean already has. Though he still struggles with his old ways after that incident, Valjean determines to become a respectable man. Meanwhile, his old prison guard, Javert, carries a grudge against him and is determined to bring him to justice and lock him up forever. Then when Jean Valjean comes across a broken woman and her abused daughter, he knows he must do something to make the situation right for them…but how can he, while he is still running from the past and trying to hide from Javert?
I understand now why Les Misérables is such a well-known, well-loved tale. I don’t believe Victor Hugo was particularly religious, but this is the kind of story that has a quality of allegory to it, because even if not overtly, it shows the truth that God has put into our hearts. It’s a striking portrait of human nature—both the good, as we follow God’s directions, and the bad, as we follow our sinful desires. The depth surprised me; even though this was a secular production, there was a lot I was left to mull over from this story. The man who suffered the most ended up the happiest…another, driven by greed and unforgiveness, had a terrible end. In the end, this is a timeless story, one that could easily play out anywhere, at any time. Just as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol still resonates with us today, I think Les Misérables has the same appeal.
The part I was disappointed with in this production was the amount of content that I wasn’t comfortable with. I’m sure what was shown here was likely in the original book—but I would have preferred to not have to see so much on screen. Hence the note below* about category sorting. If that part hadn’t been there, I would be able to recommend this series wholeheartedly; since it was, I have a lot of reservations about my recommendation.
As I said before, it was very well done, and I feel like it was probably pretty close to the original. I loved being able to finally understand the story I’d heard as a young teen, and appreciated the portrait of France this gave me. This was set in a very volatile time in French history, and I’ve never been very clear about what that looked like—this series gave me some of that historical perspective. But was it worth the parts that weren’t so nice? I don’t know. See the warnings below, and decide for yourself. For myself, I’m not sorry I watched it, but because of the sin portrayed here, I likely wouldn’t ever watch it again—at the very least, I’d try to skip some scenes. It’s an excellent story; I loved the way truth shone through no matter what, but not everything was portrayed in a way that glorified God.
*Even though this is labeled as appropriate for 14 and up, I’d consider it to have enough adult content that I’ve put it in the same category as “R-rated” films on this website.
WARNING: The following warnings speak of some adult themes; reader discretion is advised. I was not able to get specific times for these warnings because I watched this through a TV on-demand app.
Episode 1 starts with a man on the fields of the Battle of Waterloo, with dead and sometimes mutilated soldiers all over the place. A prison hulk is shown, with less-than-ideal conditions, and some of the harsh labor the prisoners had to do is also shown. A man is nearly crushed to death at one point, and at another, a man who disobeyed rules, is killed by a firing squad without mercy. A young girl is used as a mistress by a young man for quite some time—at least one scene shows them mostly undressed, talking to each other. They apparently had a child together. A man is treated unfairly and later steals several things from different people.
Episode 2 has people lying in it at times. Several times, girls say they wouldn’t mind if a particular man took them to his bed. A horrific tooth removal procedure is shown, as someone tried to raise money by selling their teeth. A girl is forced into prostitution and in one scene you see soldiers abusing her on a street corner; another time, a rich man taunts her about her “business.”
Episode 3 has a woman dying, and a man is in custody and has guns aimed at him. A girl is treated very poorly, whipped and slapped, and a man offers her to someone for the night (which is refused). A man tries to steal some money and ends up in a tussle. “Nosey old bitch” and “by God” are used, and there is lying several times.
Episode 4 has someone use “God” wrongly, and a girl pulls up some of her clothing to tempt a man. A man goes to a nightclub, a girl starts pulling her blouse down, and later a man slaps a girl. “Oh my God” is used, a man burns himself, and there is a bad fight.
Episode 5 shows someone with a bad wound, desperate women in jail, lying, a kiss, a boy stealing several things, a girl being held at knifepoint, a man mentions he had “plenty of” affairs, a man is shot and there is a riot with several people badly hurt, and near the end, there is a revolt and a barricade and quite a few people are shot (on-screen; one has a wound that is bleeding quite a bit, and a character talks to the person before they die).
Episode 6 has continued scenes of the revolt, with canon fire and quite a few people badly hurt or killed. “Hell” is used as an expression, and several men are killed by bayonet or firing squad (all on-screen, pretty gruesome). A man goes through the sewers, and later a man jumps off a bridge into a river to commit suicide. Near the end, a man dies.