Friday night I became one among millions of Americans who have seen the latest version of Les Miserables (yeah, I know there's supposed to be an accent over the 'e', but I just can't work that hard at this hour).
The movie did not disappoint me. I thought most of the performances were very strong, and even Russell Crowe, whose singing voice is not the best, did a great job as Javert, the policeman obsessed with finding the dastardly parole violator, Jean Valjean. And it's Javert I want to focus on here, because I had one of those 'Ah, hah!' moments while watching the film, the same sort of moment I wrote about while watching Breaking Bad over the summer.
If you're not familiar with the story, the quickest summation I can give you is this: After spending almost 20 years in prison for stealing and making multiple escape attempts, Jean Valjean is released on parole, which he promptly breaks. He is hounded across the years by Javert, a former prison guard now turned policeman, who doesn't care that Valjean has reinvented himself as a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist: the man is a thief and a parole violator, and must be brought to justice. Of course, the story is much, much more than that, but for the purpose of this post, that's all you need to know.
At any rate, there was a scene in the first third of the movie. Following a close encounter with Valjean, Javert sings the song, Stars (this is from the 10th anniversary concert, not the current theatrical release):
"He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord"
What was it about this line? To me, it was a perfect illustration of that writing aphorism that gets batted about whenever someone asks about villains:
"The antagonist is the hero of his own story."
Here we have two men on opposite sides of the story. Valjean, living under a false identity, trying to be a good man. Javert trying to prove the subterfuge and uphold the law to its letter. We sympathize with Valjean because we've seen how good he is, and we probably feel that his original sentence was not just to begin with. But in this moment we see Javert as a man absolutely convinced that he is not only right in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of the Lord as well. He is the hero of his own story.
Victor Hugo's book covers Javert's backstory in great detail (Oh, does it go into great detail), so we have time to understand who he is and why he behaves the way he does. The musical does not have that luxury of time, and, given the attention span of many modern readers, we probably don't, either. But two lines in one three-and-one-half minute song out of nearly three hours gave us all we needed to know about Javert; it made him understandable, if not exactly sympathetic. We can see him as the hero of his own story, even if he's not the hero of ours.