Les Misérables: The book or the movie?

Book Title: Les Misérables
Author: Victor Hugo (Author), Lee Fahnestock (Translator, Introduction), Norman MacAfee (Translator), Chris Bohjalian (Afterword)
Date Published: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Signet; Unabridged edition
Genre: 1. French
2. Classics
3. Historical
ISBN: 978-0451419439
Reviewer: Ruth Rosen
Review Date: January 21, 2013

I just saw the 2012 version of the movie Les Misérables. I am also a quarter of the way through the unabridged audiobook. I think the question “the book or the movie?” is more complex with Les Mis than it is with some other titles. (“The Hobbit,” for example, in which the film version gives added meaning to “an unexpected journey” if you “expect” the film to follow the book).

On the one hand, the amazing depth and many facets of Victor Hugo’s characters are barely hinted at in the movie. To be fair, character development usually is not a strong suit of movies, much less musicals. (I’m not hating. I’m a fan of many movies and musicals.)

On the other hand, do we need to guard against what my nephew calls “book bias”? He feels that movies, as art in their own right, should be judged on their own merits. My question is, does the entertainment or even artistic value outweigh the author’s intent?

But here’s something else to consider in the “book or movie” debate. Honestly, how many people would know the epic tale of Les Misérables had it not been brought to stage and screen? How many people today are willing to listen to 50+ hours of audiobook or read 900+ pages of text? For those folks who can’t or won’t get to the book, the movie is superbly better than nothing.

If I could only listen to the audiobook or only see the movie, I would take the book narrated by Frederick Davidson in a heartbeat. With the book, you get everything the author intended. It takes more than a movie screen or a stage to hold the enormity of Hugo’s words. It takes an open mind and heart — and Hugo’s  book will change the minds and hearts of those who give it room. But then, maybe the abbreviated versions can change people too, because even at a fraction of the original, the story is so full of grace.

What do you think? How important is the author’s full intent versus our expectations/entertainment/catharsis? What if the author wanted more for us than we want for ourselves? Can we afford to be satisfied with less? And . . . did he have to use so many words?

Hugo’s story of despair and redemption is almost, but not quite, incomparable. But it’s not sheer volume that makes it so. A much shorter story not only compares to Les Misérables, but exceeds it (and every other story, I believe) as the source of all true redemption. Yes, I am thinking of the story of Y’shua, Jesus.

Jesus is described as “The Word become flesh” in the Gospel of John. The God who spoke the world into existence enfleshed himself to be seen, heard, touched, loved, hated, crucified . . . risen. If he sang or danced we don’t have it captured on film. But his life, death and resurrection was a real life drama that was faithfully penned in a very unintimidating style and a very manageable length. And though the gospel is not a long story, it is changing hearts, minds and destinies as it creates new life and new stories every day.
Many movies have been based upon it.
Have you read the book?
Have you seen the movies?
Did you get all that the Author intended?
Can you afford to be satisfied with less?


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Ruth Rosen | San Francisco

Newsletter Editor, Missionary

Ruth Rosen, daughter of Jews for Jesus founder Moishe Rosen, is a staff writer and editor with Jews for Jesus. Her parents raised her with a sense of Jewishness as well as "Jesusness." Ruth has a degree in biblical studies from Biola College in Southern California and has been part of our full-time staff since 1979. She's toured with Jewish gospel drama teams and participated in many outreaches. She writes and edits quite a few of our evangelistic resources, including many broadside tracts. One of her favorites is, "Who Needs Politics." Ruth also helps other Jewish believers in Jesus tell their stories. That includes her father, whose biography she authored in what she says was "one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life." For details, or to order your copy of Called to Controversy the Unlikely Story of Moishe Rosen and the Founding of Jews for Jesus, click here. Or click here for a video desription of the biography. For the inside story and "extras" about the book, check out our Called to Controversy Facebook page. Ruth also writes shorter "faith journey" stories in books like Jewish Doctors Meet the Great Physician as well as in booklets like From Generation to Generation: A Jewish Family Finds Their Way Home, which you can download for free here. She edits the Jews for Jesus Newsletter and RealTime for Christians who want to pray for our ministry and our missionaries. In her spare time, Ruth enjoys writing fiction and playing with her dog, Annie, whom she "rescued" from a shelter. Ruth says, "Some people say that rescue dogs have issues, and that is probably true. If dogs could talk, they'd probably say that people have issues, and that is probably even more true. I'm glad that God is in the business of rescuing people, (and dogs) despite—or maybe because of—all our issues." You can follow Ruth Rosen on facebook or as RuthARosen on twitter.

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Connect with Jews for Jesus. No matter where you are on the journey of life, whether you’re Jewish or non-Jewish, a believer in Jesus or not – we want to hear from you. Chat with someone online or connect via our contact page below.  
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