What's the basic Les Miserables storyline?

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Answered by: Christopher, An Expert in the Reviews and Recommendations Category
Musicals can be confusing. Unless you already know the Les Miserables storyline, it can be difficult to follow along since dialogue, action and plot are put into lyrical verse. So before you see Les Miserables this year, here is what will be happening.

The following is a brief character description of the major players of the show. In case you aren't one of the 70 million people who have already seen the show, I did not include the ends of these characters' stories.


We’re in the booming metropolis that is 19th century France, where everything is bleak and nobody is happy. There’s a lot of poverty and premature death, presumably not a lot of laughter or high fives, and – just to make things worse - the beginnings of the French Revolution were stirring.


Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman)

Nineteen years ago, Valjean – the story’s main protagonist - stole a loaf of bread because his sister and her children were quite literally starving to death, an action anyone could understand so long as they’ve seen Aladdin. He was caught and sent to a French prison where hardened criminals suffer and work and make sure to trounce any sign of optimism by reminding everyone their wives and children and Jesus don’t really care about them anymore. He’s referred to by a number, 24601, because the prison system used to be shockingly inhumane, and that number is tattooed onto his chest, which was probably painful and definitely involuntarily.

Valjean serves his time and gets parole, but he needs to carry around this passport which makes known his criminal past. Since he can’t find a place to sleep or work, he just leaves, assumes a new name, runs a successful factory, and eventually becomes the Mayor of this new town.

His parole officer, JAVERT, eventually tracks him down, and they spend the rest of the show playing a tragic game of hide-and-seek.

He also meets FANTINE and promises to take care of her child, COSETTE.

JAVERT (Russell Crowe)

Javert is – I suppose – the antagonist of the story. I mean, he’s not really evil. He’s kind of a pain in the ass, he makes Valjean’s life pretty rough, but Valjean was sort of a criminal, but not a bad enough guy to warrant being obsessively hunted for decades. Javert is obsessed with justice, so maybe he was just doing his job, but his perception of justice was insane and closed-minded. Maybe he was objectively evil. Maybe he just took his job and himself too seriously. I don’t know. This is why I haven’t read the book. There are too many philosophical dilemmas and not enough Anne Hathaway.

Anyway, whether he’s evil or misguided, Javert is really into stars, hates when people forget his name, and enjoys nipping revolutions in the bud. He’s a prison guard turned parole officer turned Parisian police inspector, and he and Valjean don’t really see eye to eye.

He spends most of his adult life chasing Jean Valjean around Europe and eventually joins a student revolutionary movement as a spy.

FANTINE (Anne Hathaway)

Fantine is a factory-worker in the town that Valjean presides over as Mayor. Back in the day, she fell in love with a French guy who impregnated her and then disappeared before the illegitimate child – Cosette – was born. France was like today’s all-girls Catholic schools in its opinion of out of wedlock pregnancy, so she sends her daughter away to live with an innkeeper and his wife – the Thenardiers – as to escape being socially ostracized.

Since people in 19th century France liked to gossip, her friends at the factory find out about Cosette and demand her termination. She gets fired, resorts to prostitution, sells all of her hair and her two front teeth, and then sings a tragic song about how her life isn’t going the way she dreamt it might.

Javert arrests her for prostitution, but Valjean comes out of the woodworks, realizes he had allowed Fantine to be fired from her job, and uses his new mayoral powers to make Javert back off. Javert reluctantly obliges, Valjean takes Fantine to a hospital and promises her that he’ll find Cosette and take care of her, a nice gesture which she very much appreciates.

COSETTE (Amanda Seyfried)

We meet Cosette as a child, living with Madame and Monsieur Thenardier in their inn and singing about clouds. Her mother, Fantine, sent her over there because she was dealing with a lot of shit and thought that this would give her a chance to grow up in a relatively healthy home. The logic there makes sense, but the Thenardiers weren’t very nice people – actually, they’re pure evil (unlike Javert) – and made Cosette into their own personal Cinderella. She was dressed in rags, forced to work, and probably didn’t eat very much.

Eventually, Valjean – fulfilling his promise to Fantine – comes and gives the Thenardiers a lot of money and takes Cosette away to Paris and loves and cares for her as if she were his own.

Years later, while Cosette is making heads turn every which way because now she looks like Amanda Seyfried, she accidentally bumps into this boy named Marius, and – just like in real life – they fall immediately in love with one another and sing to each other about their feelings.

THE THENARDIERS (Sascha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter)

As mentioned before, the Thenardiers are awful human beings who treat our girl Cosette horribly. They also have a daughter named Eponine, who grows up pampered, entitled, and misunderstood.

They own this inn and serve their customers watered-down drinks and dead cat meat that looks like sausage. The inn doesn’t make very much money, probably because it's not very hospitable, so they use the Fantine’s child support cash – money she is literally dying to provide – to finance their own lavish lifestyle.

When Jean Valjean comes to whisk Cosette away, they pretend they care about her as a negotiating tactic, and that’s not cool. Years later, they lose their inn and move to Paris to live on the streets and rob innocent people. They try to expose Valjean’s true identity to Javert, which doesn’t work, and they eventually take up the honorable profession of wartime corpse robbing.

EPONINE (Samantha Barks)

She’s the Thenardiers’ spoiled daughter. Like Cosette, we meet her as a little girl. You could say she was an evil-stepsister type person to Cosette when she was younger, but she was never actively cruel to her. She doesn’t share her toys or nice clothes or do anything to stop Cosette from being abused, but she is also an eight-year-old with terrible parents; we can’t expect her to have a fully developed moral compass just yet.

She was a cute little kid, but when she grows up, she lives on the streets with her parents. She’s always dirty, doesn’t have any nice things, and the book describes her as having “a prematurely-aged face with only a trace of beauty lingering,” which is one of the meanest things you can say to a teenage girl.

But you know what? She’s a sweetheart.

Twice, her father tries to rob Valjean and expose his true identity, and, twice, Eponine warns gives Valjean and Cosette warning so that they can get away unnoticed. She’s super in love with Marius, and has to deal with him constantly calling her to talk about how in love with he is with Cosette, which is probably tough. Despite her own feelings, she brings the leads Marius to Cosette’s new address and stands in the corner while they sing cute things to each other.

I think she’s terrific. And she’s played by Samantha Barks, who is even more terrific.

MARIUS (Eddie Redmayne)

Marius is a French student who is really into government and policy. He’s all about change and thinks the French lower class deserves better treatment and more representation in French government. Naturally, he loves the idea of revolution. His favorite color seems to be either red or black.

He’s also apparently really charming and attractive, because Cosette and Eponine both fall head over heels for him really quickly. He’s a nice guy – loyal, hardworking, and smart – and he and Enjolras are the primary leaders of the revolution.

Jean Valjean – like anybody with a beautiful adopted daughter who falls in love with a hot-headed, attractive French revolutionary – can’t decide how he feels about Marius being in love with Cosette.

In addition to these major characters, be on the look out for GAVROCHE - a little boy who is incredibly passionate about the revolutionary movement, ENJOLORAS - the student leader of the movement, and THE BISHOP - Valjean's savior in the beginning of the story.

THat's the basic Les Miserables storyline, character by character.

Enjoy the movie!

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