The influence of “Les Misérables” on Luc Besson films




I realise that this is something of a fanciful, even frivolous, idea, but those who are genuinely interested in Besson’s work may find the following notes thought-provoking.



A few years ago I tried (and failed) to contact M. Besson, simply to put forward the suggestion that he would be the ideal director of a modern version of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”. It seemed (and still seems) to me that many of the elements and themes in Besson’s work are shared with, and would lend themselves to an adaptation of Hugo’s masterwork, and a director of his talent would be able to make such an adaptation relevant to modern audiences.


It even seemed to me, on further reflection, that Besson had already incorporated some of the themes and motifs from Les Misérables into his own work. Only recently, especially after viewing the director’s cut of “Leon”, did I think more about this possibility, so I thought I would gather my thoughts for this page of reflections. I am not in any way suggesting that Besson used Les Misérables as a direct inspiration, but I would suggest the possibility of some subliminal influence. That is not to say that every Besson film owes an extensive debt to Hugo’s work, but there may be subtle influences at work.





In the narrative of “Subway”, the police are seen as dull and unthinking, applying the rule book and showing little initiative. This is similar to Hugo’s characterisation of Javert, and indeed to those in authority in general in Les Misérables.


Fred is a misfit. He is a free thinker, independent and running from both sides of the law. In many ways Fred’s situation is similar to that of Jean Valjean, who learns to think and act independently as a result of his experience.


Héléna falls for this quasi-revolutionary (Fred) as she is bored with the status quo and falls in love with what amounts to a total stranger, but one who offers genuineness. Fred shares these feelings for Héléna, in much the same way that Marius and Cosette meet and fall in love in Les Misérables, where love is seen as spontaneous and uncontrollable.


Fred gathers around him a group of people who wish to be true to themselves and not simply accept the imposed social order, not unlike the actions of Marius, Enjolras and the students in Les Misérables who set out to achieve social justice for the poor.




Once again, the police are constricted by rules (though they are willing to use what they see as psychopathic tools to act outside these rules).


Morally, Nikita develops beyond the level of her controllers, becoming an independent thinker just like Valjean.


Love is seen as spontaneous and uncontrollable – Nikita loves her mentor Bob, though she learns to contain her feelings. She also has a relationship with Marco, something of an idealist (Marius?). Love in the form of self-respect enables Nikita to grow and to gain her independence (Valjean?).




In the course of the film, Leon learns to become an independent thinker through love and self-respect. It is specifically through love of a child that he develops. Just as in Les Misérables, Leon’s feelings for Mathilda are confused – she is essentially like a daughter to him, but she is also like a sister, mother and even a wife to him! This theme is “discussed” at some length in Les Misérables, where Valjean’s relationship with Cosette is multi-facetted, though, like Leon’s with Mathilda, remains spiritual and paternal. Like Valjean, Leon is willing to sacrifice himself for love of his little girl.


Leon is essentially on the run from both sides of the law (like Valjean), and the police are less than helpful, unable to see beyond their noses and recognise Stansfield’s guilt.


Mathilda is let down by her parents (like Cosette) – her step-mother is even a prostitute - and is saved by what amounts to a total stranger who develops a sense of responsibility and compassion as a result of their meeting (like Valjean).




In “Angel-A”, the police and, indeed, all figures of authority are perceived as lacking compassion and initiative.


André and Angela both develop into independent thinkers as a result of love and self-respect.


In the Besson-produced and scripted films “Kiss of the dragon” and “Taken”, the parent-child relationship is essential and leads to acts of self-sacrifice. The heroes in each are forced to do battle with both sides of the law, and each becomes an independent thinker. In the case of “Kiss of the Dragon”, Jessica is a reluctant prostitute seeking her daughter (who has been taken into care), and who helps the hero, a Chinese detective who always tries to reason with opponents before being forced to do battle.




Perhaps this is mere coincidence, or perhaps Hugo established a “perfect” framework in which to develop social themes and develop characters. Perhaps similarities could be found in any number of directors’ and authors’ works, or perhaps I have allowed my admiration for Hugo’s work to influence my own interpretations to such an extent that I see connections where none really exist!



My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found this article of some interest.


I would be happy to discuss any of the issues raised. I can be contacted at or .


Stuart Fernie




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