Serenity is one big homage to Les Miserables.* It’s not the same story, but there are too many parallel moments to discount. So, let’s count:
1. The Operative is Inspector Javert. Not “kinda like” or “reminds me of”. The parallels here are far too close for that. The Operative is obsessed with the idea of sin, specifically ridding the world of sin. The law is his everything, his identity, and he refuses to question the regime he serves. Big damn hero Malcolm Reynolds (who isn’t Jean Valjean but fills the role in a lot of ways) refuses to kill the Operative when he has the opportunity near the end but instead forces him to consider that he’s wrong. We already know that the Operative fixates on the idea of suicide as penance for sin. He responds to the notion that Mal might see him again with the words, “You won’t. There is nothing left to see.”
2. River Tam is not Cossette, but she fills that function in the narrative here by being a MacGuffin character. A MacGuffin is the all-important thing in a story that the protagonist needs to find, get, hide, deliver, keep away from others that are trying to get it, etc. A character MacGuffin is a character who also serves this purpose for the protagonist. R2D2, for example, is a character MacGuffin. The real MacGuffin in Serenity is the planet Miranda, but River is the key to it and she’s the one everybody’s after. Likewise with Cossette: Go find Cossette, haggle for Cossette, hide Cossette while on the run from the law, keep Cossette away from her old tormentors. Hide River while on the run from the law, keep River away from her old tormentors. I find it interesting that in this movie the place from which they rescue River is a tavern, and that Mal is there to haggle. A bit of a stretch, but it’s neat.
3. Simon and River and Kaylee. This one is another slight stretch because the love between Simon and River is family, not romance. Still, Slumming Rich Boy’s constant attention to Miss MacGuffin prevents him from noticing that Helpful Working Class Girl is pining away for him.
4. The team of idealists forming a barricade to bring down the regime? That takes up space all the way from “I aim to misbehave” through “I’m a leaf on the wind” and down on to Jayne’s last grenade. River is the only thing that saves the crew of Serenity from the same fate as the Paris uprising of 1832. If only Cossette could have done the same.
5. Apparently (from multiple sources) we were going to learn in season two of Firefly that Inara is dying and has been dying for a long time. So that first big confrontation between the Operative and Mal, the one where they argue and threaten one another and it’s all very dramatic… that scene takes place in a dying prostitute’s room. Seriously. There’s no way a parallel that specific was by accident.
Also, compare both opening lines:
“Valjean, at last, we see each other plain. Monsieur le Maire, you’ll wear a different chain.”
“I have to say, Captain, I’m impressed that you would come for her yourself. And that you would make it this far, in that outfit.”
In conclusion, Serenity isn’t the same story as Les Miserables, but if that amount of tribute were paid in gold, both the Browncoats and the ABC would have had enough funding to stand a chance. Thus ends the weird fan theory.
*I’m going with the musical version because I still haven’t read the novel (I know, I know) and because everybody knows that Joss Whedon likes musicals.