03/28/2013 11:12 am ET Updated May 28, 2013

Our Homegrown Miserables: Missing the Point Amid Box Office Bounty

The big-screen version of Les Misérables is now available in DVD, having already reaped Oscar gold and massive box-office bounty. Millions of Americans can once again shed tears as they witness the heart-wrenching travails of Fantine and Cosette. They will cheer anew as Jean Valjean negotiates the complicated terrain of moral goodness in a fractured society. But I worry that most Americans, as they hum the rousing tunes, have missed the real depths of the story.

The smash Broadway musical, from which the film is adapted, has long been its own cultural commodity, such that many viewers may forget its origins: the 1862 novel by French writer Victor Hugo. A long and expansive milestone of the romantic era, Hugo's novel blended drama, romance, history, tragedy, and politics in its vivid panorama of Paris in revolutionary ferment. But Hugo's intention was far more than telling a strapping good yarn. He was utterly committed to art in the service of social justice. Les Misérables is a passionate cri de coeur against the brutal economic and political forces and systems that exploited, oppressed, and dehumanized people. In his preface to the novel, Hugo writes, "Through the working of laws and customs there continues to exist a condition of social condemnation which artificially creates a human hell within civilization." Long involved in political and social reforms in France, Hugo wrote Les Misérables with the expressed aim of affecting public consciousness, changing attitudes, and ultimately transforming basic societal practices.

His literary lances are pointed most directly at the French legal and penal systems, which only aggravated the dehumanizing forces of social injustice. (Spoiler alerts ahead.) Jean Valjean seeks to mitigate the starvation of his family by stealing a loaf of bread, resulting in a nineteen-year prison sentence. Not only is he hardened by his imprisonment, French law forces him to carry the notorious yellow ticket with his number -- 24601 -- for the rest of his life, exposing him to continuing social discrimination and marginalization. No amount of moral and social good that Valjean later achieves in his life alleviates that discrimination -- forcing him, in Hugo's narrative, to hide his identity and be constantly on guard for the law.

We would insist, of course, that the U.S. corrections system is not as oppressive as that of Victor Hugo's France. But the harsh truth is that the social stigma of our prisons functions in many ways the same today. Even the most cursory survey of crime in America today would bear out Hugo's argument: That much of it is spawned in degrading situations of poverty and dehumanizing conditions. Graduates of our penal colonies may not be required to carry and show numbered cards all their lives. But Americans with felonies on their records are permanently barred from many programs, such as public housing subsidies.

Many states still have laws permanently banning ex-felons from voting; and in those states that overturned previous bans, there is widespread belief that the laws are still in effect, effectively keeping many from exercising their right.

Perhaps the most egregious form of discrimination against those who have served time are the barriers to employment. In trying to rebuild their lives, including the core necessity of gainful employment, ex-cons inevitably come to "the dreaded box" on a job application next to the question: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" Checking the box usually means the form ends in the waste basket. How different is it from the yellow ticket and Valjean's 24601?

The high recidivism rates of those who have been in prison are hardly surprising. Even minus the legal rigidity of the 19th-century French system, U.S. culture has numerous ways to keep people imprisoned long after they leave prison. Substantial and effective rehabilitation programs are few and woefully under-resourced for those behind bars; second chances for those who have paid their dues are minimal while obstacles to rebuilding their lives are numerous and daunting.

Yet, we also have our own Jean Valjean stories. Among our famous criminals transformed into heroes are Malcolm X and convicted Watergate felon-turned-evangelist and social activist Chuck Colson. Less known are people like Kimberly Brown in Durham, North Carolina, who works on civil rights, education, and re-entry support for those coming out of prison. Or Ben Mitchell, who was behind bars between stints of homelessness -- he now works as a peer specialist to support and empower other persons in recovery or living with mental health issues in Philadelphia.

I can't help but think that Victor Hugo would lament how the juggernaut of blockbuster entertainment threatens to subvert his profound and very relevant challenge to oppressive social systems that are as real today as they were in the Paris of his day.

For millions of movie-goers and DVD watchers, the lyrics from the dramatic finale of Les Misérables echo in their heads: "Will you join in our crusade, will you be strong and stand with me? Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?" Do we long to see a world that believes in human moral transformation, where people are given genuine second chances, where we understand that many persons who have gone through dark times can turn around and contribute tremendous gifts to their community? If so, then let's join an urgently needed crusade of reform in the U.S. criminal justice system.