Micah Chalmer

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Jean Valjean's Soul: Saved or Bought?

I saw the Les Miserables movie, and rather than reviewing the movie as a whole, I want to talk about a single word in it–something that is fairly trivial overall, but struck me anyway: they changed Bishop of Digne’s last words to Jean Valjean. In the original show, the bishop tells Valjean, “I have bought your soul for God.” In the movie they changed “bought” to “saved.”

The more I think about this change, the more I don’t like it. “I have bought your soul for God” is great poetry. It humbles both Valjean and the Bishop. The word “bought” reminds Valjean that he had in fact just sold his soul, and for a cheap price at that, by stealing the silverware in the first place. It also acknowledges that the Bihsop himself is taking the part of the devil in the transaction. That needs acknowledging, because the Bishop can’t be confident that this gambit is actually going to work! He can’t force Valjean to change–he can only give him one more chance, and even that probably won’t be enough. In the real world, people’s habits usually don’t change in one epiphany–a person’s habits have to be forced out of their old groove and into a new one, day by day, slowly. Of course, this isn’t the real world–this is a show, so the Bishop’s kindness prompts Valjean to transform himself into a saint in one “what have I done” song. But that moment, and the transformation afterwards, are much more powerful if the Bishop doesn’t know that it’s going to happen that way. Valjean’s soul is not in God’s hands yet–the Bishop placed the order, but Valjean has to deliver it.

“Saved,” on the other hand, just seems smug–rather than the devil, the Bishop places himself in the role of Jesus. To have him immediately say “I have saved your soul” implies that once he gave up the silver the work was already done–that Valjean is heaven-bound already, before he has even had his epiphany. As if there was no doubt in the Bishop’s mind what the result would be–which diminishes the significance of it really. Any of us would hand over the silver in a heartbeat if we knew how it would turn out. It’s a no-brainer. How could we be impressed by that?

Quite a bit of religious meaning to hang on one word–especially for an atheist like myself. And yes, it does reveal how many times I listened to the original broadway cast album as a child that I even noticed the change.

(By the way–as for the movie as a whole, I liked but didn’t love it. It seems like they narrowly mnissed the chance to make it truly great–some great performances, but then the whole experience was marred for me by making me stare at close range up the actors’ noses for the entire movie. A few tight closeups are good–but this much, constantly all the time, was ridiculous and hurt my brain. But the performances were good enough–and Les Mis is still awesome enough–that I enjoyed it overall.)