Photo: Universal Pictures
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean.
Here's to Forgiveness!
By Laurie Kinkaid
Happy New Year's Eve, Friends! With a few precious hours left in 2012, can we talk?
As every self-respecting moviegoer in America knows, Hollywood saves what they consider their best for last: their strongest Oscar nominees for release in December. In my humble opinion, compared to some of the movies coming out of Hollywood today, the movies we're watching in December anyway — just because it's Christmas — should be re-nominated for the award: "It's A Wonderful Life," "Joyeux Nöel," and "A Christmas Story." Thankfully, the release of "Les Miserables" on Christmas Day this year is possibly the best Christmas gift Tinsel Town has given us in decades. Hubby and I were in the throng at the movie theatre on opening day.
Although I missed the Broadway run of "Les Mis," I had to read the novel in French in college, and I still use the "candlestick chapter" with my own French students. It may not surprise you that the reading of it for academic credit had less of an impact on me (as I worried about my grade) than did the viewing of the movie last week.
It is fabulous, and well worth the price of a big screen ticket. Don't wait for it on DVD — go now! No, I'm not going to critique the cinematography and direction by people who brought us "The King's Speech," "Miss Saigon," and "Phantom of the Opera." Still, I am very impressed that the director (or the editor) got us to page 100 of the novel in the first nine minutes of the movie. As magnificent as the photography and music are, it is the story that rules, and this story is for all generations and for all time.
It is a story of forgiveness. Forgiveness extended to one who had never known it before, one who had known only degradation, punishment, and condemnation since that day 20 years ago when he was arrested for stealing bread to feed his sister. Forgiveness from a clergyman who called him "brother" and told him to be no longer "owned by evil but by good." ("It's your soul I've bought for you," says the bishop, "and I give it to God.") Given a second chance, Jean Valjean began to remember his former self: a man with a family, a man with loved ones, a man who went to the extreme to feed starving relatives. He began to think of himself as valuable in God's eyes, and to act like a man of character, integrity, honesty, bravery, strength, and compassion. He spends the rest of his life paying forward the second chance He was given. Later, when confronted by the "letter of the law" in the person of Javert, the military officer who had overseen his incarceration, he has to acknowledge his past. But he is stronger now, and even in the face of legalistic Javert and the unbending "law," he can forgive. He can put his own life on the line for another, he can sacrifice for a daughter who is not his own, and he can even love. His transformation is complete, and no matter what he may have to endure physically, his soul is free, no longer owned by evil, but free to live for good and free to do what's right.
If "Les Miserables" was my "big shiny present under the tree," then my "stocking stuffer" is the film "It's a Wonderful Life," which every year manages to surprise and delight me. Do I have to summarize this Christmas Classic for anyone? Classic Frank Capra, classic Jimmy Stewart, classic "angel-earning-his-wings": heroism, selflessness, generosity, love, right-over-might, the power of friendship over the "power" of influence. Even more compelling than all this is the "what if" glimpse at "what might have been" without that wonderful life.
After his uncle accidentally misplaces the bank deposit, George Bailey takes responsibility for it and goes asking for help from the very man who is determined to destroy him, Henry Potter. Potter not only refuses to help, but cruelly suggests that George would be more valuable dead than alive. At his lowest, when George is convinced things would be better if he had never been born, he receives the unique gift of seeing what life actually would have been without him. Convinced of his own worth, and no longer focused on himself, his business, and his success, George is able to receive gifts of friendship from those whose lives he's touched, with gratitude and humility.
Where am I going with this?
Straight onto 2013, with a clean slate, cleared off with the erasers of ... forgiveness and gratitude.
In "Les Miserables," once Valjean was shown forgiveness, he was able to forgive others, even Javert. Living with forgiveness not only freed him from the need to retaliate, but also to live respectably and generously, without fearing the retaliation of others. In "It's a Wonderful Life," once George Bailey recognized the gift that was his life in and of itself, he was able to honestly assess the value of what he had done over what he hadn't been able to do, of what he had over what he couldn't have. He was freed not only to be grateful for the gift of life, but to accept gifts of love from others, even those financially indebted to him. He didn't have to be the rescuer this time; he could be rescued by those whom he'd helped.
Now don't get me wrong. Forgiveness means neither that we excuse the offense nor that we forget it. It means we take the "forgiven" off our hook and put him/her on God's hook. He/she is not our responsibility, so there's no sense wasting our time judging. And gratitude does not mean that we are thankful for injustice or cruelty, but for our ability to learn from and grow beyond injustice and cruelty.
Sometimes the (most strenuous) lesson is learning patience to wait for the wrong to be righted and for justice to prevail. (Look at Job in the Bible for that lesson!) FORGIVENESS removes the burden and GRATITUDE moves us forward.
Maybe your holiday season has not been quite so introspective up till now, but why just happen into 2013 as you happened into 2012? Why go into another New Year with only weight-loss and money-saving resolutions? Why not make a resolution that will better you, inside and out, every day of the year? Not to mention that you'll probably shock and amaze most everyone you know.
Heaven knows, Jean Valjean and George Bailey certainly shocked people, and they ended up "the richest men in town" for it.
Laurie Kinkaid is the founder, director, script-writer, and presenter of Stories-on-Stage Acting Studio & Performance House, "for such a time as this." Her warm, witty characters bring wisdom and humor to audiences far and wide. Laurie can also be found participating in local community theatre. She taught French and headed up the Drama Club at Community Christian School in Westfield, Mass., for five years, and she still encourages her students to write their own scripts based on time-tested literature and true stories.