After seventeen years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, and for many escape attempts, Jean Valjean is finally released from a French prison. Under the identity of Madeleine, he enters the town of Montreuil-sur-mer, where he invents an ingenious manufacturing process that brings the town prosperity. He eventually becomes the town’s mayor.
Fantine, a young woman from Montreuil, lives in Paris. She is the single mother of Cosette. In order to find a job, she realizes that she will have to give up Cosette. In the town of Montfermeil, she meets the Thénardiers, a family that runs the local inn. The Thénardiers agree to look after Cosette as long as Fantine sends them a monthly allowance.
After briefly working in Madeleine’s factory, Fantine has to resort to prostitution in order to pay the Thénardiers who keep on demanding more money to support Cosette. One night, Javert, Montreuil’s police chief, arrests Fantine. She is to be sent to prison, but Madeleine intervenes. Unfortunately, Javert has discovered Madeleine’s criminal past, and arrests him for hiding his identity. To make matters worse, Fantine dies of an illness.
After a few years, Valjean escapes from prison and heads to Montfermeil, where he buys Cosette from the Thénardiers. The Thénardiers are in fact a family of scoundrels who abuse Cosette while spoiling their own two daughters, Eponine and Azelma.
Marius Pontmercy is a young man who lives with his wealthy grandfather, M. Gillenormand. Although he has never met his father, his death prompted the young man to learn more about him, and he comes to admire his father’s democratic politics. Angry with his grandfather for never allowing him to see his father, Marius moves out of Gillenormand’s house and lives as a poor young law student. While in law school, Marius associates with a group of radical students, the Friends of the ABC, who are led by the charismatic Enjolras.
One day, Marius sees Cosette and he instantly falls in love with her, but a protective Valjean prevents them from seeing each other. Marius overhears a plan that involved the Thénardiers who were going to rob Valjean. Marius notifies Javert, who foils the robbery and arrests the Thénardiers.
Marius and his radical friends start an uprising in the city. Much to Marius’ sadness, Valjean announces that he and Cosette are moving to England. Back at the barricade, the students discover Javert, and realize that he is a spy. Valjean intercepts a note that Marius sends to Cosette, and sets out to save the life of the man his daughter loves.
Valjean arrives at the barricade and volunteers to execute Javert, but he actually lets him free. As the army storms the barricade, Valjean grabs the wounded Marius and flees through the sewers. When Valjean emerges hours later, Javert immediately arrests him. Javert is torn between his duty to his profession and the debt he owes Valjean for saving his life. Ultimately, he lets Valjean go and he commits suicide.
Marius makes a full recovery and is reconciled with Gillenormand, who consents to Marius and Cosette’s marriage. After a brief tension between Marius and Valjean, they reconcile just before Valjean’s death.