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The 'Good Fairy Tale' and the Movie Les Mis

01/09/2013 11:09 am ET | Updated Mar 10, 2013

To begin, this is not meant to be a judgment on the film per se, but rather a reflection on the story that has torn at many of our hearts through either the book or, for more of the people I know, through the show and now the movie. I had read some reviews, the good and the bad, and those making fun of the poor viewers who applauded, and more. And yet, I went with a rather open heart and mind with as few preconceptions as I could muster.

The spectacle was grand, and I was involved, even realizing I must really like some opera because the movie was like one in many ways. But it's the story I'd like to question, in that it comes through as enough of a fairy tale to be seen as such. And in that spot, I found it bothering, quite a bit in fact.

While the judgment about a good or bad fairy tale is not one I'd usually think of on my own, Bruno Bettelheim's book The Uses of Enchantment goes a long way to teach us that a "good" fairy tale takes the overwhelming feelings of a growing child and gives them not only some order but real hope. If the protagonist, with whom the child is meant to identify, does the work and puts in the effort to struggle with life's obstacles, there will be some intervention -- a fairy godmother, or the miracle of development in some form -- to yield a promising result, a kind of salvation if you will. The salvation becomes symbolic of the possibility of life and love and safety even after the separation from the once upon a time all-knowing parents. And the hope is that the resources we all have will meet up with the possibility of circumstances we can either change or enjoy or both.

In the play, I didn't see this part; I was too wrapped up in the music and the glory of it all, and of course the tears. But as I left the movie theater, I had something which for me is a rather odd thought: "How Oedipal is this?" I almost said out loud. It's not my wont to be performing a psychoanalytic autopsy on a movie experience, and I've come to feel okay about not liking or liking a film for my own reasons, whether they go with or against the critics of the moment. But it was a powerful response, to think about how first of all the major characters -- even Russell Crowe's Inspector Javert (for one, I loved his singing and his everything), the police officer who cannot bear confusion or to be wrong and needs black and white -- depend on God, often for contrasting wishes. I had forgotten how Christian, how Catholic the play is, and how much the glory that is sought is expected through death.

In a fairy tale that inspires a child to work through the stuff of life, there is the promise of more of life, and not the guilt of killing the father figure at the very moment one finds the physical and emotional new love -- here in the form of Marius. Hugh Jackman, wonder of wonders as a performer in general, ages and loses and gains weight in the blink of an eye, and he does so amazingly. But everyone seems to gain love at the price of another's death. Cosette gains her saving father figure as her mother (yes, for me Anne Hathaway was glorious) lies dying in his arms. And he will try to redeem his past through honoring her wish and promising Cosette's salvation. When she in turn finds her own husband, we can say her now father doesn't take it all that well. His heart seems to break at the knowing -- he is after all singing these very words -- that she has another true love, and she was not his to keep. And yes, this is part of life's drama in general, but how far do we have to go? Really, on her wedding day, does she have to run to see him die? And does the new love have to have within it the promise of Marius to Jean Valjean that he now will care for Cosette for forever and a day?

As the agnostic Jew that I am, the Catholocism and the idea of God being in charge of all but the revolution, which I had remembered as winning its causes rather than being an aborted attempt at least for that time, was also a bit tough to take. The story wasn't about people and their capacity to deal with love and its realities, but about God taking love away and giving it, while we didn't see it grow for more than minutes, along with any conflicts within the relationships. We didn't see people coming up against obstacles, living through them and a fairy godmother (makes you realize how God-neutral those Grimm Brothers were, at least in their stories) coming to lend a hand.

To my mind, we need some more "good" fairy tales, in that we need the inspiration to work at the realities of our selves, and of course each other, and of course the larger world. The giving it up to God almost spoiled my enjoyment of the movie. But that much I'll give myself, I'm a mush, and it's not something I intend to change any time soon. So my suggestion or even wish is: See it, join the conversation... not just about whether the movie was as good as the play, but whether the plot has problems that go way beyond either one.

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