Thoughts on Les Miserables and the label "Family Film"

I was in high school when I saw the professional production of Les Miserables for the first time. Third row, dead center. I was blown away. I wasn't able to listen to the soundtrack for at least a year without crying. The suffering, self-sacrifice, injustice, mercy, and redemption... along with the phenomenal talent, impressive set, and the message, struck me to the very core.

I have seen film adaptations before the current release and they were horrendous. Missing the most beautiful elements of the story, changing emphasis, and adding stupid things. I did think that the latest musical version looked promising but I was not planning on seeing it. just. yet. After the reviews started pouring in, I started to soften a little... until finally decided to wait for the DVD version. Someday. Instead, I'm going to use my family movie money to see The Hobbit with the older kids.

The decision came down to the fact that, in spite of what the reviewers have been saying, Les Mis is simply not a family friendly movie. By that, I mean that it's theme is definitely extremely mature. It is about prostitution and degradation and terrible injustice. There is suicide and adult romance and murder, revolution, and war. This is not a story for 10-year olds. Depending on the family, I question whether it is appropriate even for many older children.

I would be more inclined to allow a teenager to see the theatrical version which, while still containing dark and crude elements, tends to display them in a more implicit, rather than explicit, way. The movie, so it appears, is very explicit in the way it displays the dark elements and themes. There is not the distraction of a colorful stage nor the distance of the audience during the prostitution scenes, but the up close and personal image and particular movements and sounds of the sex act. Regardless of how fruitful it was in communicating the message of the movie, I think this largely disqualifies it from the "family friendly" label.

I have read a Christian defense of Fantine's prostitution scene in which it is argued that the message of mercy would not have been as powerful without showing the raw degradation. I strongly disagree with the assessment that mercy cannot be powerfully depicted without displaying graphic sexual exploitation. We are not so uncreative a people that we cannot figure out how to portray degradation without showing body parts and explicit movements. My own experience of the musical play supports this position... I cannot express what a profound affect it had on my understanding of mercy. Bawdy? Yes. Crude? Yes. Mature. Yes. Family friendly? Mmmm... negotiable. Explicit? Not really. I believe that God used that moment to plant a seed in my soul. To soften it and open it so that I would be more prepared to embrace His merciful Love into my life so fully only a couple years later.

And He didn't need to use a sex scene (or two or three) for that.

I understand why people would want to billet this movie as family friendly. The message is one that we want our kids to experience and be moved by. If you, as an adult, left the theatre with profound thoughts and feelings of mercy and hope, I know how much you want to share that with your kids. The question that I have asked myself regarding this movie is if it is essential for them to be subjected to such base imagery in order to know the message of mercy. And the answer that I have come up with is a clear no.

My 15-year old son was talking to a friend of his about the movie this past week (which his friend had recently seen and he had not). My husband entered the conversation and the topic of mature content came up. The youngster squirmed a little and admitted that the content was definitely mature. The language... and stuff. 

Perhaps there are children so hardened to such imagery that they would not be very affected by it. On the other hand, kids so hardened might also miss the finer points of the Christian message. I am a visual person. I have to be rather careful with TV and movies because the images will play for me unbidden throughout the day and even disturb my prayers. Am I more sensitive than so many children? And do I really prefer for a message of mercy to be delivered to my young teens alongside graphic images of sexual degradation? Or am I just caught up in the public enthusiasm for a newly released movie? Sometimes, we are so accustomed to viewing life through our hardened adult sensibilities that we forget that our children are separate, more sensitive creatures than we are who are being formed by all the sights and sounds of their world.

At LifeSiteNews, Patrick Craine writes an honest assessment of the movie's grittier moments. (He only mentions two but my googling has uncovered quite a few visual sexual images.) He finds Fantine's graphic prostitution scene difficult but "beautiful in its wretchedness" and describes the "deep breaths of her violator's climax" (yikes) as contributing to the viewers share in her horror. He also describes another scene (becoming commonly known as the "santa scene") which he finds "radically out of place" and which causes him to label the film overall a "tarnished gem."

He goes on to say: "Whether or not such a scene ruins the film for us, I think we all ought to at least marvel that Hollywood was able to produce so profoundly Christian a film."

To which I must add...

Whether or not we feel that the bold use of sexual images contributes to the good message of the movie, and whether or not we personally like the movie, I think we all ought to consider that such images are not productive or healthy for many developing children and adolescents. It's just a movie. If you're not sure, just let it go and be at peace. Life goes on.  If they must, the kids can rent it on DVD when they are adults.

I must give full disclosure and admit that I am a huge Les Mis fan and as soon as the U.S. tour hits Cleveland again, I'm going to beg my dear husband for an early/late birthday/Christmas gift of tickets. :) I have heard that they have made some changes to the original but I'm hoping they do not detract from the substance.

A treat for you other fans out there... Colm Wilkinson singing "Bring Him Home"

Also, for those of you who are interested in introducing your kids to the story but prefer a more child-friendly version, Focus on the Family's Radio Theatre has a gentler version that my kids have enjoyed. A heads up that they do use the word prostitute and your kids will ask you what that means. I am honest with the littles but only give what information they really need. I have explained that a prostitute is someone who sells themselves to another person for money, like a slave. "What do people do with them?" Whatever they want. They sell their freedom to people who wish to do evil. That's why it's wrong.
Posted on January 18, 2013 and filed under "Les Mis", "movies".