I learned to read when I was three years old, sounding out the hard words in the phonetic King James Bible for my blind grandmother's entertainment. My teachers wisely put aside tales of Dick and Jane and Spot and instead gave me wonderful works, the classics which became my constant companions as I grew up.
I was only six when I first read "Les Miserables" and I have read the book every year since then. In the early years I knew nothing about French history or the finely detailed portraits of Parisian society Victor Hugo created. What I did understand was the immense pain of Jean Valjean, a man put in prison for stealing bread to feed his child, and the cruelty of Inspector Javert, who pursued him relentlessly after he was released. Even then I understood about poverty and what it drives people to do, as it did Fantine.
As I grew older and began to understand the world less in black and white, I understood about the world's Thenardiers and their ability to be bad without regret. I understood about moral obsession and how it could lead to downfall, as it did for Javert.
College brought me to the awareness of one kind of love, one of Cosette's roles in the book. I traveled to Paris, saw what was left of what Hugo had seen. I learned French history and began to understand Hugo's politics.
It was many years after that before I understood that love can also tear apart as soul, as it did Valjean's. I began to see the themes in his work and in our human lives of self-sacrifice, of love for country and ideals, of the ultimate victory of the human spirit.
Thus I stubbornly refused to ever see the stage adaptation of this novel. In my mind the settings, the characters and the themes were so firmly fixed I knew anything else would pale. Paying highly to see the all-important messages about poverty and equality and the human spirit reduced to a stage performance seemed obscene, especially emerging from the theater to sidewalks where the homeless camped.
In turn I refused to see the movie -- for awhile. Then a young student convinced me to come with her. Make no mistake. The movie cannot approach the book. The horror is downplayed and the pathos and personal drama is emphasized.
Yet, to my pleasure, the movie did retain my long-remembered scenes: Valjean unjustly imprisoned, Javert pursuing him relentlessly, the people of Paris striving for justice and freedom. Most importantly, the role of the old priest who redeemed Valjean finally made sense, and the relentless self-scrutiny of his life was transparent.
Never having seen the musical, I was free to enjoy such singing as was done, or to reject it as not being the voice I thought the character should have. I tired quickly of Javert and Cosette, but Valjean never disappointed, either in voice or in character. Thenardier and his household made me laugh, The scenes at the barricades, as in the book, made me cry.
My observation, then, is that sometimes a movie can capture great themes, if not full essence, of a masterwork. Flawed in many respects, this movie nevertheless reminded me of why the book appealed so much to my six-years-old self. Redemption always has a price. The search for it is never ending. Therein lies the storytelling genius of Victor Hugo.