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J. E. McReynolds: Mercy triumphant in Hugo's novel

Published: January 20, 2013

In 1968, my father's employer transferred him from Muskogee to Hugo. The family headed south to find a house, on the same day Robert F. Kennedy was shot in a California hotel near the Hollywood Freeway.

Hugo. The story goes that the Choctaw County seat was named for Victor Hugo, the French author now getting renewed attention with the latest Hollywood adaptation of “Les Miserables.” This is the movie awards season. Critics, fans and Hollywood insiders are judging 2012 releases, spurning some and celebrating others.

Thus “Lincoln” is the perceived darling of the Academy Awards but was mostly spurned by the Golden Globes, which loved “Argo,” a movie that got the cold shoulder from the Oscars organization. “Les Mis” took best musical or comedy at the Globes, along with acting honors for Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. The film is nominated in three major Academy Award categories; “Lincoln” has five major-category Oscar nods and is a favorite to win Best Picture.

“Lincoln” is a good movie with great performances. “Les Mis” is a great movie with great performances. It deserves whatever awards come its way, which will bring more recognition for a Frenchman named Hugo and, however slightly, for the American cities that share his name.

(Hugo. A 2011 movie by that name was nominated for 11 Oscars, winning five — thereby confirming Hollywood's penchant for rewarding forgettable films.)

“Les Mis” will long be remembered. The movie came out 150 years after release of Hugo's book. Commercially, the novel stormed the barricades of Paris and beyond. Critics, though, spurned the work. Adam Gopnik, who wrote an introduction for a recent translation of “Les Miserables,” used the movie's release to reflect on why Hugo's story can still hold an audience.

How, he wrote, can a novel that is “improbably long and gassy in spots” still matter so much to so many? While Charles Dickens was a storyteller to a nation, Gopnik wrote, “Hugo was the conscience of a people.” The novel, set in a time of tyranny in France, was written while Hugo was living in exile, during another time of tyranny in France.

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