‘And the award for the best supporting actor goes to…’

My allergy to musicals meant that I was unmoved when the world went crazy for the stage production and then the film of ‘Les Miserables’. I thought I’d escaped unscathed until bassoonboy announced that his school were putting on the production, and he would be playing in the orchestra. I can’t say I was thrilled, but you know, I take my duties seriously as a parent, so I booked my tickets and prepared to grin and bear the ordeal.

I was astounded when it was amazing. I actually couldn’t believe that sixth-formers could find such emotional range. I’ll even admit to having a tear in my eye in parts. I finally got what everyone had been getting in such a tizzy about. However, while the production was great, the novel was so much richer, and I’m really glad I made the effort to read it.

I’m not used to seeing films or productions before I’ve first read the book, as I hate it when the film set and cast override my imagination, so this was new territory for me. One of the most striking differences was the way that the bit part players from the musical were fully realised in the text. There are numerous wonderful, memorable characters that have either had to be totally cut out or dramatically edited due to the impossible task of reducing such a huge tome into a few hours of drama.

One of my favourites is Monseigneur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel, or the Bishop of Digne. At the start of the production he offers shelter and food to Jean Valjean, who in desperation then steals his silverware. When caught by the police, the Monseigneur takes pity on the ex-convict and claims that not only had he given him the silverware, but the candlesticks that he’d neglected to take. This kindness is pivotal for Valjean, setting him on a quest to become a worthy man, and that’s the last we hear of Bishop Myriel.

In the novel, 100 pages pass before the silverware is stolen, and in that time, we have come to know a modest religious man who quietly lives like a pauper, in order that more money can be given to the poor and needy. He doesn’t advertise his good deeds, and doesn’t correct people when they falsely accuse him off living in luxury in the pay of the church.

I really warmed to him, especially that his charity did not make him pious or proud. When he visits an elderly infamous Revolutionary athiest, he is as moved and changed by the encounter as the elderly man on his deathbed. In recognising the incredible humanity of the man, he is humble enough to ask a blessing from he whom he came to bless. Perhaps because they’re such a rare breed in real life, It’s unusual to find honourable religious figures represented in fiction. I might hold a different worldview to him, but his humanity, his genuine care for people and his selflessness made him one of my favourite characters in the novel. In fact, he reminded me a lot of my Dad.

The power of the novel is that it is peopled with a wide cross-section of Parisian society, yet each character is given the same weight of importance regardless of their background.The decisions they make may seem slight to them, but we get to see the impact. That single act of mercy from a simple humble man, Monseigneur Bienvenu, has such far-reaching consequences which ripple on and on, changing the fortunes of so many throughout the novel.

I could have posted up a picture of him from the film but this was too good to ignore – Bishop Myriel of Digne as a lion (by Meg Beth at ‘Deviant Art’)

Bishop Myriel of Digne as a lion

You can find more awesome ‘Les Miserables’ inspired pictures here.