Movie night

I am settling in for a movie and supper.  Tonight I’ll watch an old favorite, the 1998 Les Miserables with Geoffrey Rush as Javert and Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean.  No movie would get everything that Victor Hugo pressed into his pages (it is one of the only full novels I have ever read in French – I also read Notre-Dame de Paris and it was like torture, the French was so much harder), and there are lots of changes to the novel for its filmification.

Hugos’s digression about Waterloo in Les Miserables (not in the film) is amazing, up there with the mighty digression about the plague in Milan in I promessi sposi.  But I digress.

There are pathetic moments in Les Miserables, in the sense of pathos, and the film captures the social conditions of the time, the tenuous nature of women in the era, the extremities of justice without mercy versus human and Christian mercy and compassion.  And of course there is tale to be told here about what happens where there is hierarchy for the sake of hierarchy based on wrong notions entirely.

Great film.  Geoffrey Rush is, as usual, brilliant.  He captures rigid obsession with frightening impact.

Here is an excerpt of a pivotal moment when the old bishop ransoms Valjean’s soul from bitterness and ultimate despair.

Valjean, a convict of 19 years of hard labor for stealing and just paroled, is taken in for a night by the bishop of a place.  Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and knocks the bishop out when he comes to investigate. He flees.


BTW… later in the movie there are some liturgically incorrect (absurd) scenes of Mass and a clothing of postulants.  And the actors/clergy sure ain’t French.  You can tell that the people who made the film had no historical sense when it came to the Church.  Thus, we see that pagans think the Church doesn’t change things very much over time and therefore the way we do things now must be the way they did things in the early 19th century.  And thus, enters Claire Danes to replace the sweet little girl who played Cosette.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. avecrux says:

    Lots of Les Mis fans in my house. Having heard your speaking voice, Father, I always thought you would sing Javert’s part in the stage version well.

  2. avecrux: NO! NO! This is NOT the musical. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. No no no no…

  3. flyfree432 says:

    We use this film to teach grace in RCIA.

  4. AnAmericanMother says:

    Perhaps a minority opinion, but I thought Charles Laughton as Javert defined the role.

  5. Legisperitus says:

    The 1980 TV-movie “A Time for Miracles” had Elizabeth Bayley Seton receiving Communion from a priest who (speaking as if he were trying to haunt a house) merely said “Coooooorpus Christiiiiiiii” with her responding “Amen.”

    And the recent “Therese” movie, I think, also had some liturgical anachronisms, but I can’t be sure if it was anything beyond the use of the vernacular.

  6. digdigby says:

    I love love love period films of substance. I will rent this. Thanks.

    In many post VII churches there is nothing even worth stealing – I can’t see Valjean making off with a pottery chalice and a felt banner.

  7. APX says:

    I’m having flashbacks to grade 8, and my teacher’s corny fake French accent while reading this book in class. *shudder*

    It’s times like this I wish I had Netflix. Despite getting every movie channel available, there’s really nothing on for movies (or TV) that I could watch and still be able to remain in the state of sanctifying grace. *sigh* Even the video rental stores have all gone out of business. It’s times like this a Little House on the Prairies TV marathon would be helpful.

  8. Matt R says:

    Father, have you seen the 1958 French version starring Jean Gabin? I watched it in my French class with English dubbing. I think it captures the plot and themes of the plot extremely well for a film. Unfortunately it can’t capture the framed narrative and commentary very well. There are some minor differences in a few scenes but nothing too terribly amiss.

  9. avecrux says:

    I know Father – but I actually like the musical! My girls are trying to get me to watch the film version – so I probably will soon. They have read the book as well, but I haven’t. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t even read The Lord of the Rings yet – I’ve relied on the extended version of the movies. Wasted youth and hard to find the time with 6 kids… but one day if God spares me.

  10. Scarltherr says:

    My, now, husband and I watched this film while we were dating, as well as the version that has most of the action taking place during WWII. We still say “Je T’aime” to one another when we say good-bye. Lovely film. So much about marriage that is important and how to weather the storms. I even engraved ‘je t’taime’ on his wedding band, to remind us if Les Miserable. Thanks Father Z.

  11. JSArt867 says:

    Ugh… I think the musical’s MUCH better than the ’98 film (for one thing, the melodies are absolutely lovely.) Check out the 1987 Original Cast, and the 25th & 50th Anniversary performances.

  12. Gail F says:

    avecrux: The LOTR is SO much better than the movies. When you finally have time you will enjoy them.

    My dad told me that one of the reasons he lost his faith is that they were not allowed to read “Les Miserables” in school. He said it was on the Index because the bishop lies in that famous scene. Is this true, do you know? Or was it just his school?

  13. NoTambourines says:


    “Despite getting every movie channel available, there’s really nothing on for movies (or TV) that I could watch and still be able to remain in the state of sanctifying grace. *sigh*”

    Oh, good, it’s not just me! I turned off SNL in record time tonight, for exactly that reason. Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting t0o prudish, but tv isn’t what it was even 20 years ago.

  14. Kent says:

    I watched this version of Les Miserables for the first time just the other night. Thoroughly enjoyed it. You’ve got to like Uma Thurman; a completely different character from her later movies.

  15. Charles E Flynn says:

    This article likely to provide a few surprises:

    Modern History Sourcebook: Index librorum prohibitorum, 1557-1966 [Index of Prohibited Books].

    “Les Miserables” was on the Index until 1959. It would be interesting to know why each of these works was condemned. I had no idea that Emanuel Swedenborg had written a “History of the Devil”.

  16. everett says:

    Here’s the same scene (ish) from the concert version of the musical:

    The Bishop sings:
    That is right.
    But my friend you left so early
    Surely something slipped your mind
    You forgot I gave these also
    Would you leave the best behind?
    So Messieurs you may release him
    For this man has spoken true
    I commend you for your duty
    May God’s blessing go with you.
    But remember this, my brother
    See in this some higher plan
    You must use this precious silver
    To become an honest man
    By the witness of the martyrs
    By the Passion and the Blood
    God has raised you out of darkness
    I have bought your soul for God!

  17. Hank Petram says:

    The best version I’ve seen is the 1934 French film by Raymond Bernard. A bit long at 4:40, but it does justice to the book. The Criterion disc is available on Netflix and Amazon.

  18. Peter G says:

    Good to hear you are a Geoffrey Rush fan Fr.
    He lives in the suburb next to me here in Melbourne and was named Australian of the Year on Australia Day (Jan 26)

  19. disco says:

    They always do seem to butcher the scenes depicting mass in movies. The Godfather 1&2 are the only movies I can think of that were authentic, probably because the actor playing the priest is actually a priest.

  20. APX says:


    No, TV has gotten so bad. When I was a kid prime time tv had shows that were actually about family values. We need a channel simply for those shows now.

  21. New Sister says:

    Fr Z, bravo for reading Les Mis en francais! (I don’t yet know how to make accents or a “cedille” on my laptop)

    I watched Clint Eastwood shoot up bad guys in “Unforgiven”. Now I wonder if something is wrong with me spiritually, for liking it so well.

  22. mibethda says:

    Charles E. Flynn,
    Among the ‘surprises’ of the list in the Modern History Sourcebook you reference is the fact that the column of authors does not match the column of their works.

  23. Matthew says:

    This rendition of the book was really diminished by Claire Daines. She played Cosette as a petulant, angsty American teenager. yech.

    As for versions: has anybody ever filmed one that includes Hugo’s indulgences – that pair of fifty page digressions on the Battle of Waterloo and the history of the Parisian sewers? Maybe they could be turned into special documentary features on the DVD.

  24. Jack Hughes says:

    I love Les Miserable, it is in my view right up there with Dickens in taking social injustice out to woodshed, the fact that Valjean runs for mayor, not because of the money he could make out of his office; but for promoting the common good, indeed as the old women says “A good mayor is a good thing. Are you afraid of the good you can do?”

    I also find the book’s preface to be particularly cutting “ So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilisation, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age — the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night — are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless”

  25. gloriainexcelsis says:

    It was nice to see the correct title of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I read it (in English, of course) when I was about 12 or 13 years old. My grandmother, who raised me, had a great library. The title on the cover was “Notre-Dame de Paris.” I don’t think I’ve heard it since the Charles Laughton movie was produced.

  26. Charles E Flynn says:


    Thank you for pointing out the mismatch between the works and authors in the list. I think Pascal would be surprised to learn that he wrote “Critique of Pure Reason,” and since when is Rousseau interested in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire?

  27. James Joseph says:

    Highly recommended is ‘The Hunter’ with William Dafoe. It is clean to the eyes and there is no dirty stuff or revulsive images. Instead, I found myself counting the religious references and images. See if you can find them: A book of the hours and a bishop dressed in a green chausable are only two. The movie itself only has one hokey scene at the end. It is unavoidable in nearly everymovie. The director has got to do something to poison the orthodoxy of a film.

  28. Mary Jane says:

    I have seen this version, as well as a black and white version…I can’t remember what year the B&W version was made…but I have to say, I liked the B&W version much, much better than this version. I thought this version of the film butchered the book/plot, and I thought Liam Neeson didn’t do justice to Jean Valjean’s character. It was like trying to watch Keira Knightley play Elizabeth Bennet…just did_not_work.

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