(Note: if you have not yet seen Les Miserables and you are hoping to see the film, be forewarned that this post has a few spoilers)
I’d like to take a moment to recognize how different my family is, and how proud of them I am for that difference. We are a family that is not afraid of compassion.
We have seen the stage production of Les Miserables many times as a family. Touring productions mostly, but one notable youth production as well. So, we know the story pretty much end-to-end. The music players of two of my three kids has the soundtrack of Les Mis (pronounced lay-miz) on it, and all of us will sit around singing songs from the show. It’s kind of a centerpiece, but also a well-worn tale. We’ve been looking forward to the movie version of Les Miserables for quite a while, and here, on the second night of it’s release, the family trekked to the local theater and sat in rapt attention for 2 hours and 40 minutes as we watched Hollywood’s version of our favorite show.
On the way in, we passed others who were just coming out. They were happily chatting about the show, and some were singing a song or two. I figured, in a couple of hours, we’d be just like them, happily chatting about one scene or another.
Yet, once the show started, the story took hold. It’s not that Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe were particularly brilliant, because they weren’t. I have kind words to say about the acting, but I’ll save that for another day. It’s the story that captures, and it’s a story that we know well. We listened and recognized songs, and once again, we were there, in sixteenth century France, following the lives of John Valjean and Cosette and Marius and Javert. I will admit that I shed a tear, as I always do, when Fantine dies, and again when Gavroche falls on the barricade.
When the movie was over, and the lights came up, the audience started to rise and chat and discuss the show. We didn’t. My wife Marina was drying her eyes. One of my teenagers quickly fled to theater to the bathroom so that no one would see tears. As we left, with other families chatting merrily, our family was quiet. We were still in the story. We were repeating that final song in our hearts. Realize that there were no surprises for us. We knew the story end to end, yet we still felt it.
This is not the first time we have reacted differently to movies than your typical family. I still remember clearly, a couple of years ago, we were watching one of the Transformers movies. The giant robots were rampaging through the streets of a major city, tossing cars left and right. The other folks in the theater were paying rapt attention, which robot would win. One of my kids turned to me and said “There are people in those cars!” It’s those moments when I know that the media has not taught my children to ignore humanity, to become immune to caring about suffering wherever it is to be found. We notice the people while the director would have us ignore them and focus only on the hero and the villain.
So when a story of compassion, like Les Miserables, comes to the screen, it floors the whole family. We listen to the pain of the prisoners. When Fantine loses all dignity, her tears became our tears. When Cosette cries at the death of her father, we all feel her loss.
In this world of cardboard characters and epic comic book movies where the hero battles the villain through the streets of the city without any concern for the people who live there, we notice. And that’s different. A difference I am proud of.