Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Musical Monday: Stars, Inspector Javert


Friday night I became one among millions of Americans who have seen the latest version of Les Miserables (yeah, I know there’s supposed to be an accent over the ‘e’, but I just can’t work that hard at this hour).

The movie did not disappoint me. I thought most of the performances were very strong, and even Russell Crowe, whose singing voice is not the best, did a great job as Javert, the policeman obsessed with finding the dastardly parole violator, Jean Valjean. And it’s Javert I want to focus on here, because I had one of those ‘Ah, hah!’ moments while watching the film, the same sort of moment I wrote about while watching Breaking Bad over the summer.
If you’re not familiar with the story, the quickest summation I can  give you is this: After spending almost 20 years in prison for stealing and making multiple escape attempts, Jean Valjean is released on parole, which he promptly breaks. He is hounded across the years by Javert, a former prison guard now turned policeman, who doesn’t care that Valjean has reinvented himself as a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist: the man is a thief and a parole violator, and must be brought to justice. Of course, the story is much, much more than that, but for the purpose of this post, that’s all you need to know.
At any rate, there was a scene in the first third of the movie. Following a close encounter with Valjean, Javert sings the song, Stars (this is from the 10th anniversary concert, not the current theatrical release):

A particular line caught my eye and gave me that “Ah, hah!” moment:

“He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord”

What was it about this line? To me, it was a perfect illustration of that writing aphorism that gets batted about whenever someone asks about villains:
“The antagonist is the hero of his own story.”
Here we have two men on opposite sides of the story. Valjean, living under a false identity, trying to be a good man. Javert trying to prove the subterfuge and uphold the law to its letter. We sympathize with Valjean because we’ve seen how good he is, and we probably feel that his original sentence was not just to begin with. But in this moment we see Javert as a man absolutely convinced that he is not only right in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of the Lord as well. He is the hero of his own story.
Victor Hugo’s book covers Javert’s backstory in great detail (Oh, does it go into great detail), so we have time to understand who he is and why he behaves the way he does. The musical does not have that luxury of time, and, given the attention span of many modern readers, we probably don’t, either. But two lines in one three-and-one-half minute song out of nearly three hours gave us all we needed to know about Javert; it made him understandable, if not exactly sympathetic. We can see him as the hero of his own story, even if he’s not the hero of ours.
 

12 Responses

  1. I loved the story, musical, and now movie, having seen the musical a number of times. It is a great insight that I never thought about and should show all us writers how to provide that plausible motivation for our perceived villain.

  2. Haven't seen the film yet, but I plan to.

    Very good point about the antagonist's character, something I'm struggling with in my novel. This is the sort of thing I need to make a note of in his character sketch: hero in his own story.

  3. Yeah, that's a great observation. I've recently been catching up on The Sons of Anarchy, which is a really violent, crazy show. But in it the protagonists are all felons — druggies, murderers, and gun runners. But they are the heroes of the show and in their minds they are the good guys. It's such a flip on the normal set up that I had to watch just to see how they manipulated me into rooting for these guys. I've about had my fill, but it was interesting to see how the show pulled it off.

  4. I love when you do these posts. I always get something out of them. I think the bad guy in my second novel fits this perfectly in his way. He definitely is the hero of his own story.

  5. I have to agree with you here, and it opens up the question of perspective; a villain is only a villain if you read the story from the perspective the writer provides you with. The same subject (as opposed to the same story), might be entirely different if told from the perspective of the character painted as the villain in the original. Hero, antihero, villain; all are simply handles screwed onto the character by perspective.

  6. I agree. The antagonist should be understandable in order to be believable. He might be bad, but he has a good reason to be. Lisa is right about her second book. Her character, Wyatt, was the first to come to mind. He's a very bad guy & does horrible things, but he has a plausible excuse, maybe even a good reason. Villains shouldn't be evil for the sake of being evil. They should be just as human as the MC. Otherwise, they feel cartoonish.

  7. Man, wasn't it incredible? I saw it a few days ago and was so impressed. It was fantasic to see the reimagining of such an iconic musical. crow was a little pitchy, but oh my, how impressed I was that they all were able to sing AND cry and not have their voice break! So amazing.

    Good point about villains, too! hope you had a terrific Christmas break! 🙂

    Angela

  8. I haven't seen it yet but it sounds so good. I just have to talk hubby into it … which is not going to be easy! Might have to wait to buy the DVD 🙂

    I love those aha moments! Especially when someone can create one in such a clear/concise way 🙂

  9. Great observation. I've learned that villains who was completely evil are boring. The more convincing their twisted logic (their vision of themselves as the hero), the more compelling they are, especially if they can make be see their point, even a little.

  10. I've never watched Sons of Anarchy, but it sounds like it's right up my alley. It's a little different than the case of Javert, I'd say, because at least Javert is on the side of the law, even if we may not like it.

  11. Can't say I've seen Les Miserables, but I am interested to see it. Villains are always fun, especially when they are the heroes of their own stories. Death Note, anyone?

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