My wife and I just returned from seeing director Tom Hooper’s truly incredible film version of Les Miserables. I feel emotionally wasted. Something struck me as we drove home; every self-respecting writer should run out and see it.
I am somewhat of an aficionado on Les Mis. I have seen it on Broadway four times, again on television and once more via PBS for the 25th anniversary performance in London. If I had known in advance about this concert, I would have flown to London for that stellar performance. Seriously! Instead, I ran out and bought the DVD, which I watched yet again. So the current film would have been my seventh viewing.
Forget about the visuals and the unforgettable music for a moment. For its sheer story arc, there is not a work that has ever been written that wrests more emotion from a viewer. And that is what we must internalize if we are ever to move our readers by the hand as we weave our stories.
Why It Works
Les Mis is a series of interwoven love stories. No, it’s a story about freedom and the tribulations people will endure to pry it loose from the hands of despots. No, it is a story of rigid values set against the redemption of an all-too-human individual. No, yet again, for it is a story of God’s love and his/her promise of redemption. In fact it is all these things and more; much more.
Of course one could read Victor Hugo’s original classic, not likely in today’s fast-paced world. But let’s give credit to the writer’s of the play, which both compresses the action and expands the emotional impact.
As I watched the movie in the crowded theater, not one person stirred or talked. People were riveted. Now that’s the sign of a great story. The plot weaves together various elements including the French Revolution, complex love relationships and a single-minded pursuit sans compassion that propels us along. Even the love story between Marius and Cossette adds a tragic element in the form of Epinine. Brilliant.
Of course the theme of the obsessive, relentless pursuit has been copied ever since. The television series and the movie The Fugitive are simple retellings of Inspector Javier’s obsession and Jean Valjean’s redemption.
Here is my challenge to all of us writer’s: how can we ramp up the emotionality of our work so that we touch something deep in the souls of our readers? How can we rework those uplifting universal themes- love, honor, redemption, freedom- in a way that glues our readers to their seats and elicits tears of joy and sorrow? After you see Les Mis (or see it yet again) look at the book, short story, or play you are working on now and see what you need to do to touch the universal spirit that resides in us all.