From the beginnings of Hollywood through today, it can truly be said that there has never been a wholly accurate adaptation of Victor Hugo's literary classic, Notre-Dame de Paris. Perhaps this isn't so surprising, for the novel is a signature sprawling historical epic that examines everything from the lives of religious orders to Mediaeval architecture to Parisian class conflict to the very depths of obsession and depravity. At its heart, like Hugo's famed Les Misérables, it is an unflinching look at the brutality of civil society and poverty in the nineteenth century (through the metaphor of the Middle Ages). It is many things, reflecting on gender dynamics, the interplay of Church, State and Society, and the nature of romantic, fraternal and familial love. None of what it says, however, is amenable to the conventions of American filmmaking.
Consider this, the fourth chapter of the eighth book of Notre-Dame de Paris, with its entwined imagery of physical and emotional oppression, beginning with a bit of an architecture lesson. It is the speech of Claude Frollo to Esmeralda, and it is more powerful than any words placed in his mouth in cinema...
In the Middle Ages, when an edifice was complete, there was almost as much of it in the earth as above it. Unless built upon piles, like Notre-Dame, a palace, a fortress, a church, had always a double bottom. In cathedrals, it was, in some sort, another subterranean cathedral, low, dark, mysterious, blind, and mute, under the upper nave which was overflowing with light and reverberating with organs and bells day and night. Sometimes it was a sepulchre. In palaces, in fortresses, it was a prison, sometimes a sepulchre also, sometimes both together. These mighty buildings, whose mode of formation and vegetation we have elsewhere explained, had not simply foundations, but, so to speak, roots which ran branching through the soil in chambers, galleries, and staircases, like the construction above. Thus churches, palaces, fortresses, had the earth half way up their bodies. The cellars of an edifice formed another edifice, into which one descended instead of ascending, and which extended its subterranean grounds under the external piles of the monument, like those forests and mountains which are reversed in the mirror-like waters of a lake, beneath the forests and mountains of the banks.
At the fortress of Saint-Antoine, at the Palais de Justice of Paris, at the Louvre, these subterranean edifices were prisons. The stories of these prisons, as they sank into the soil, grew constantly narrower and more gloomy. They were so many zones, where the shades of horror were graduated. Dante could never imagine anything better for his hell. These tunnels of cells usually terminated in a sack of a lowest dungeon, with a vat-like bottom, where Dante placed Satan, where society placed those condemned to death. A miserable human existence, once interred there; farewell light, air, life, ogni speranza—every hope; it only came forth to the scaffold or the stake. Sometimes it rotted there; human justice called this "forgetting." Between men and himself, the condemned man felt a pile of stones and jailers weighing down upon his head; and the entire prison, the massive bastille was nothing more than an enormous, complicated lock, which barred him off from the rest of the world.
It was in a sloping cavity of this description, in the oubliettes excavated by Saint-Louis, in the inpace of the Tournelle, that la Esmeralda had been placed on being condemned to death, through fear of her escape, no doubt, with the colossal court-house over her head. Poor fly, who could not have lifted even one of its blocks of stone!
Assuredly, Providence and society had been equally unjust; such an excess of unhappiness and of torture was not necessary to break so frail a creature.
There she lay, lost in the shadows, buried, hidden, immured. Any one who could have beheld her in this state, after having seen her laugh and dance in the sun, would have shuddered. Cold as night, cold as death, not a breath of air in her tresses, not a human sound in her ear, no longer a ray of light in her eyes; snapped in twain, crushed with chains, crouching beside a jug and a loaf, on a little straw, in a pool of water, which was formed under her by the sweating of the prison walls; without motion, almost without breath, she had no longer the power to suffer; Phoebus, the sun, midday, the open air, the streets of Paris, the dances with applause, the sweet babblings of love with the officer; then the priest, the old crone, the poignard, the blood, the torture, the gibbet; all this did, indeed, pass before her mind, sometimes as a charming and golden vision, sometimes as a hideous nightmare; but it was no longer anything but a vague and horrible struggle, lost in the gloom, or distant music played up above ground, and which was no longer audible at the depth where the unhappy girl had fallen.
Since she had been there, she had neither waked nor slept. In that misfortune, in that cell, she could no longer distinguish her waking hours from slumber, dreams from reality, any more than day from night. All this was mixed, broken, floating, disseminated confusedly in her thought. She no longer felt, she no longer knew, she no longer thought; at the most, she only dreamed. Never had a living creature been thrust more deeply into nothingness.
Thus benumbed, frozen, petrified, she had barely noticed on two or three occasions, the sound of a trap door opening somewhere above her, without even permitting the passage of a little light, and through which a hand had tossed her a bit of black bread. Nevertheless, this periodical visit of the jailer was the sole communication which was left her with mankind.
A single thing still mechanically occupied her ear; above her head, the dampness was filtering through the mouldy stones of the vault, and a drop of water dropped from them at regular intervals. She listened stupidly to the noise made by this drop of water as it fell into the pool beside her.
This drop of water falling from time to time into that pool, was the only movement which still went on around her, the only clock which marked the time, the only noise which reached her of all the noise made on the surface of the earth.
To tell the whole, however, she also felt, from time to time, in that cesspool of mire and darkness, something cold passing over her foot or her arm, and she shuddered.
How long had she been there? She did not know. She had a recollection of a sentence of death pronounced somewhere, against some one, then of having been herself carried away, and of waking up in darkness and silence, chilled to the heart. She had dragged herself along on her hands. Then iron rings that cut her ankles, and chains had rattled. She had recognized the fact that all around her was wall, that below her there was a pavement covered with moisture and a truss of straw; but neither lamp nor air-hole. Then she had seated herself on that straw and, sometimes, for the sake of changing her attitude, on the last stone step in her dungeon. For a while she had tried to count the black minutes measured off for her by the drop of water; but that melancholy labor of an ailing brain had broken off of itself in her head, and had left her in stupor.
At length, one day, or one night, (for midnight and midday were of the same color in that sepulchre), she heard above her a louder noise than was usually made by the turnkey when he brought her bread and jug of water. She raised her head, and beheld a ray of reddish light passing through the crevices in the sort of trapdoor contrived in the roof of the inpace.
At the same time, the heavy lock creaked, the trap grated on its rusty hinges, turned, and she beheld a lantern, a hand, and the lower portions of the bodies of two men, the door being too low to admit of her seeing their heads. The light pained her so acutely that she shut her eyes.
When she opened them again the door was closed, the lantern was deposited on one of the steps of the staircase; a man alone stood before her. A monk's black cloak fell to his feet, a cowl of the same color concealed his face. Nothing was visible of his person, neither face nor hands. It was a long, black shroud standing erect, and beneath which something could be felt moving. She gazed fixedly for several minutes at this sort of spectre. But neither he nor she spoke. One would have pronounced them two statues confronting each other. Two things only seemed alive in that cavern; the wick of the lantern, which sputtered on account of the dampness of the atmosphere, and the drop of water from the roof, which cut this irregular sputtering with its monotonous splash, and made the light of the lantern quiver in concentric waves on the oily water of the pool.
At last the prisoner broke the silence.
"Who are you?"
The words, the accent, the sound of his voice made her tremble.
The priest continued, in a hollow voice,—
"Are you prepared?"
"Oh!" said she, "will it be soon?"
Her head, which had been raised with joy, fell back upon her breast.
"'Tis very far away yet!" she murmured; "why could they not have done it to-day?"
"Then you are very unhappy?" asked the priest, after a silence.
"I am very cold," she replied.
She took her feet in her hands, a gesture habitual with unhappy wretches who are cold, as we have already seen in the case of the recluse of the Tour-Roland, and her teeth chattered.
The priest appeared to cast his eyes around the dungeon from beneath his cowl.
"Without light! without fire! in the water! it is horrible!"
"Yes," she replied, with the bewildered air which unhappiness had given her. "The day belongs to every one, why do they give me only night?"
"Do you know," resumed the priest, after a fresh silence, "why you are here?"
"I thought I knew once," she said, passing her thin fingers over her eyelids, as though to aid her memory, "but I know no longer."
All at once she began to weep like a child.
"I should like to get away from here, sir. I am cold, I am afraid, and there are creatures which crawl over my body."
"Well, follow me."
So saying, the priest took her arm. The unhappy girl was frozen to her very soul. Yet that hand produced an impression of cold upon her.
"Oh!" she murmured, "'tis the icy hand of death. Who are you?"
The priest threw back his cowl; she looked. It was the sinister visage which had so long pursued her; that demon's head which had appeared at la Falourdel's, above the head of her adored Phoebus; that eye which she last had seen glittering beside a dagger.
This apparition, always so fatal for her, and which had thus driven her on from misfortune to misfortune, even to torture, roused her from her stupor. It seemed to her that the sort of veil which had lain thick upon her memory was rent away. All the details of her melancholy adventure, from the nocturnal scene at la Falourdel's to her condemnation to the Tournelle, recurred to her memory, no longer vague and confused as heretofore, but distinct, harsh, clear, palpitating, terrible. These souvenirs, half effaced and almost obliterated by excess of suffering, were revived by the sombre figure which stood before her, as the approach of fire causes letters traced upon white paper with invisible ink, to start out perfectly fresh. It seemed to her that all the wounds of her heart opened and bled simultaneously.
"Hah!" she cried, with her hands on her eyes, and a convulsive trembling, "'tis the priest!"
Then she dropped her arms in discouragement, and remained seated, with lowered head, eyes fixed on the ground, mute and still trembling.
The priest gazed at her with the eye of a hawk which has long been soaring in a circle from the heights of heaven over a poor lark cowering in the wheat, and has long been silently contracting the formidable circles of his flight, and has suddenly swooped down upon his prey like a flash of lightning, and holds it panting in his talons.
She began to murmur in a low voice,—
"Finish! finish! the last blow!" and she drew her head down in terror between her shoulders, like the lamb awaiting the blow of the butcher's axe.
"So I inspire you with horror?" he said at length.
She made no reply.
"Do I inspire you with horror?" he repeated.
Her lips contracted, as though with a smile.
"Yes," said she, "the headsman scoffs at the condemned. Here he has been pursuing me, threatening me, terrifying me for months! Had it not been for him, my God, how happy it should have been! It was he who cast me into this abyss! Oh heavens! it was he who killed him! my Phoebus!"
Here, bursting into sobs, and raising her eyes to the priest,—
"Oh! wretch, who are you? What have I done to you? Do you then, hate me so? Alas! what have you against me?"
"I love thee!" cried the priest.
Her tears suddenly ceased, she gazed at him with the look of an idiot. He had fallen on his knees and was devouring her with eyes of flame.
"Dost thou understand? I love thee!" he cried again.
"What love!" said the unhappy girl with a shudder.
"The love of a damned soul."
Both remained silent for several minutes, crushed beneath the weight of their emotions; he maddened, she stupefied.
"Listen," said the priest at last, and a singular calm had come over him; "you shall know all I am about to tell you that which I have hitherto hardly dared to say to myself, when furtively interrogating my conscience at those deep hours of the night when it is so dark that it seems as though God no longer saw us. Listen. Before I knew you, young girl, I was happy."
"So was I!" she sighed feebly.
"Do not interrupt me. Yes, I was happy, at least I believed myself to be so. I was pure, my soul was filled with limpid light. No head was raised more proudly and more radiantly than mine. Priests consulted me on chastity; doctors, on doctrines. Yes, science was all in all to me; it was a sister to me, and a sister sufficed. Not but that with age other ideas came to me. More than once my flesh had been moved as a woman's form passed by. That force of sex and blood which, in the madness of youth, I had imagined that I had stifled forever had, more than once, convulsively raised the chain of iron vows which bind me, a miserable wretch, to the cold stones of the altar. But fasting, prayer, study, the mortifications of the cloister, rendered my soul mistress of my body once more, and then I avoided women. Moreover, I had but to open a book, and all the impure mists of my brain vanished before the splendors of science. In a few moments, I felt the gross things of earth flee far away, and I found myself once more calm, quieted, and serene, in the presence of the tranquil radiance of eternal truth. As long as the demon sent to attack me only vague shadows of women who passed occasionally before my eyes in church, in the streets, in the fields, and who hardly recurred to my dreams, I easily vanquished him. Alas! if the victory has not remained with me, it is the fault of God, who has not created man and the demon of equal force. Listen. One day—"
Here the priest paused, and the prisoner heard sighs of anguish break from his breast with a sound of the death rattle.
"One day I was leaning on the window of my cell. What book was I reading then? Oh! all that is a whirlwind in my head. I was reading. The window opened upon a Square. I heard a sound of tambourine and music. Annoyed at being thus disturbed in my revery, I glanced into the Square. What I beheld, others saw beside myself, and yet it was not a spectacle made for human eyes. There, in the middle of the pavement,—it was midday, the sun was shining brightly,—a creature was dancing. A creature so beautiful that God would have preferred her to the Virgin and have chosen her for his mother and have wished to be born of her if she had been in existence when he was made man! Her eyes were black and splendid; in the midst of her black locks, some hairs through which the sun shone glistened like threads of gold. Her feet disappeared in their movements like the spokes of a rapidly turning wheel. Around her head, in her black tresses, there were disks of metal, which glittered in the sun, and formed a coronet of stars on her brow. Her dress thick set with spangles, blue, and dotted with a thousand sparks, gleamed like a summer night. Her brown, supple arms twined and untwined around her waist, like two scarfs. The form of her body was surprisingly beautiful. Oh! what a resplendent figure stood out, like something luminous even in the sunlight! Alas, young girl, it was thou! Surprised, intoxicated, charmed, I allowed myself to gaze upon thee. I looked so long that I suddenly shuddered with terror; I felt that fate was seizing hold of me."
The priest paused for a moment, overcome with emotion. Then he continued,—
"Already half fascinated, I tried to cling fast to something and hold myself back from falling. I recalled the snares which Satan had already set for me. The creature before my eyes possessed that superhuman beauty which can come only from heaven or hell. It was no simple girl made with a little of our earth, and dimly lighted within by the vacillating ray of a woman's soul. It was an angel! but of shadows and flame, and not of light. At the moment when I was meditating thus, I beheld beside you a goat, a beast of witches, which smiled as it gazed at me. The midday sun gave him golden horns. Then I perceived the snare of the demon, and I no longer doubted that you had come from hell and that you had come thence for my perdition. I believed it."
Here the priest looked the prisoner full in the face, and added, coldly,—
"I believe it still. Nevertheless, the charm operated little by little; your dancing whirled through my brain; I felt the mysterious spell working within me. All that should have awakened was lulled to sleep; and like those who die in the snow, I felt pleasure in allowing this sleep to draw on. All at once, you began to sing. What could I do, unhappy wretch? Your song was still more charming than your dancing. I tried to flee. Impossible. I was nailed, rooted to the spot. It seemed to me that the marble of the pavement had risen to my knees. I was forced to remain until the end. My feet were like ice, my head was on fire. At last you took pity on me, you ceased to sing, you disappeared. The reflection of the dazzling vision, the reverberation of the enchanting music disappeared by degrees from my eyes and my ears. Then I fell back into the embrasure of the window, more rigid, more feeble than a statue torn from its base. The vesper bell roused me. I drew myself up; I fled; but alas! something within me had fallen never to rise again, something had come upon me from which I could not flee."
He made another pause and went on,—
"Yes, dating from that day, there was within me a man whom I did not know. I tried to make use of all my remedies. The cloister, the altar, work, books,—follies! Oh, how hollow does science sound when one in despair dashes against it a head full of passions! Do you know, young girl, what I saw thenceforth between my book and me? You, your shade, the image of the luminous apparition which had one day crossed the space before me. But this image had no longer the same color; it was sombre, funereal, gloomy as the black circle which long pursues the vision of the imprudent man who has gazed intently at the sun.
"Unable to rid myself of it, since I heard your song humming ever in my head, beheld your feet dancing always on my breviary, felt even at night, in my dreams, your form in contact with my own, I desired to see you again, to touch you, to know who you were, to see whether I should really find you like the ideal image which I had retained of you, to shatter my dream, perchance, with reality. At all events, I hoped that a new impression would efface the first, and the first had become insupportable. I sought you. I saw you once more. Calamity! When I had seen you twice, I wanted to see you a thousand times, I wanted to see you always. Then—how stop myself on that slope of hell?—then I no longer belonged to myself. The other end of the thread which the demon had attached to my wings he had fastened to his foot. I became vagrant and wandering like yourself. I waited for you under porches, I stood on the lookout for you at the street corners, I watched for you from the summit of my tower. Every evening I returned to myself more charmed, more despairing, more bewitched, more lost!
"I had learned who you were; an Egyptian, Bohemian, gypsy, zingara. How could I doubt the magic? Listen. I hoped that a trial would free me from the charm. A witch enchanted Bruno d'Ast; he had her burned, and was cured. I knew it. I wanted to try the remedy. First I tried to have you forbidden the square in front of Notre-Dame, hoping to forget you if you returned no more. You paid no heed to it. You returned. Then the idea of abducting you occurred to me. One night I made the attempt. There were two of us. We already had you in our power, when that miserable officer came up. He delivered you. Thus did he begin your unhappiness, mine, and his own. Finally, no longer knowing what to do, and what was to become of me, I denounced you to the official.
"I thought that I should be cured like Bruno d'Ast. I also had a confused idea that a trial would deliver you into my hands; that, as a prisoner I should hold you, I should have you; that there you could not escape from me; that you had already possessed me a sufficiently long time to give me the right to possess you in my turn. When one does wrong, one must do it thoroughly. 'Tis madness to halt midway in the monstrous! The extreme of crime has its deliriums of joy. A priest and a witch can mingle in delight upon the truss of straw in a dungeon!
"Accordingly, I denounced you. It was then that I terrified you when we met. The plot which I was weaving against you, the storm which I was heaping up above your head, burst from me in threats and lightning glances. Still, I hesitated. My project had its terrible sides which made me shrink back.
"Perhaps I might have renounced it; perhaps my hideous thought would have withered in my brain, without bearing fruit. I thought that it would always depend upon me to follow up or discontinue this prosecution. But every evil thought is inexorable, and insists on becoming a deed; but where I believed myself to be all powerful, fate was more powerful than I. Alas! 'tis fate which has seized you and delivered you to the terrible wheels of the machine which I had constructed doubly. Listen. I am nearing the end.
"One day,—again the sun was shining brilliantly—I behold man pass me uttering your name and laughing, who carries sensuality in his eyes. Damnation! I followed him; you know the rest."
The young girl could find but one word:
"Oh, my Phoebus!"
"Not that name!" said the priest, grasping her arm violently. "Utter not that name! Oh! miserable wretches that we are, 'tis that name which has ruined us! or, rather we have ruined each other by the inexplicable play of fate! you are suffering, are you not? you are cold; the night makes you blind, the dungeon envelops you; but perhaps you still have some light in the bottom of your soul, were it only your childish love for that empty man who played with your heart, while I bear the dungeon within me; within me there is winter, ice, despair; I have night in my soul.
"Do you know what I have suffered? I was present at your trial. I was seated on the official's bench. Yes, under one of the priests' cowls, there were the contortions of the damned. When you were brought in, I was there; when you were questioned, I was there.—Den of wolves!—It was my crime, it was my gallows that I beheld being slowly reared over your head. I was there for every witness, every proof, every plea; I could count each of your steps in the painful path; I was still there when that ferocious beast—oh! I had not foreseen torture! Listen. I followed you to that chamber of anguish. I beheld you stripped and handled, half naked, by the infamous hands of the tormentor. I beheld your foot, that foot which I would have given an empire to kiss and die, that foot, beneath which to have had my head crushed I should have felt such rapture,—I beheld it encased in that horrible boot, which converts the limbs of a living being into one bloody clod. Oh, wretch! while I looked on at that, I held beneath my shroud a dagger, with which I lacerated my breast. When you uttered that cry, I plunged it into my flesh; at a second cry, it would have entered my heart. Look! I believe that it still bleeds."
He opened his cassock. His breast was in fact, mangled as by the claw of a tiger, and on his side he had a large and badly healed wound.
The prisoner recoiled with horror.
"Oh!" said the priest, "young girl, have pity upon me! You think yourself unhappy; alas! alas! you know not what unhappiness is. Oh! to love a woman! to be a priest! to be hated! to love with all the fury of one's soul; to feel that one would give for the least of her smiles, one's blood, one's vitals, one's fame, one's salvation, one's immortality and eternity, this life and the other; to regret that one is not a king, emperor, archangel, God, in order that one might place a greater slave beneath her feet; to clasp her night and day in one's dreams and one's thoughts, and to behold her in love with the trappings of a soldier and to have nothing to offer her but a priest's dirty cassock, which will inspire her with fear and disgust! To be present with one's jealousy and one's rage, while she lavishes on a miserable, blustering imbecile, treasures of love and beauty! To behold that body whose form burns you, that bosom which possesses so much sweetness, that flesh palpitate and blush beneath the kisses of another! Oh heaven! to love her foot, her arm, her shoulder, to think of her blue veins, of her brown skin, until one writhes for whole nights together on the pavement of one's cell, and to behold all those caresses which one has dreamed of, end in torture! To have succeeded only in stretching her upon the leather bed! Oh! these are the veritable pincers, reddened in the fires of hell. Oh! blessed is he who is sawn between two planks, or torn in pieces by four horses! Do you know what that torture is, which is imposed upon you for long nights by your burning arteries, your bursting heart, your breaking head, your teeth-knawed hands; mad tormentors which turn you incessantly, as upon a red-hot gridiron, to a thought of love, of jealousy, and of despair! Young girl, mercy! a truce for a moment! a few ashes on these live coals! Wipe away, I beseech you, the perspiration which trickles in great drops from my brow! Child! torture me with one hand, but caress me with the other! Have pity, young girl! Have pity upon me!"
The priest writhed on the wet pavement, beating his head against the corners of the stone steps. The young girl gazed at him, and listened to him.
When he ceased, exhausted and panting, she repeated in a low voice,—
"Oh my Phoebus!"
The priest dragged himself towards her on his knees.
"I beseech you," he cried, "if you have any heart, do not repulse me! Oh! I love you! I am a wretch! When you utter that name, unhappy girl, it is as though you crushed all the fibres of my heart between your teeth. Mercy! If you come from hell I will go thither with you. I have done everything to that end. The hell where you are, shall he paradise; the sight of you is more charming than that of God! Oh! speak! you will have none of me? I should have thought the mountains would be shaken in their foundations on the day when a woman would repulse such a love. Oh! if you only would! Oh! how happy we might be. We would flee—I would help you to flee,—we would go somewhere, we would seek that spot on earth, where the sun is brightest, the sky the bluest, where the trees are most luxuriant. We would love each other, we would pour our two souls into each other, and we would have a thirst for ourselves which we would quench in common and incessantly at that fountain of inexhaustible love."
She interrupted with a terrible and thrilling laugh.
"Look, father, you have blood on your fingers!"
The priest remained for several moments as though petrified, with his eyes fixed upon his hand.
"Well, yes!" he resumed at last, with strange gentleness, "insult me, scoff at me, overwhelm me with scorn! but come, come. Let us make haste. It is to be to-morrow, I tell you. The gibbet on the Grève, you know it? it stands always ready. It is horrible! to see you ride in that tumbrel! Oh mercy! Until now I have never felt the power of my love for you.—Oh! follow me. You shall take your time to love me after I have saved you. You shall hate me as long as you will. But come. To-morrow! to-morrow! the gallows! your execution! Oh! save yourself! spare me!"
He seized her arm, he was beside himself, he tried to drag her away.
She fixed her eye intently on him.
"What has become of my Phoebus?"
"Ah!" said the priest, releasing her arm, "you are pitiless."
"What has become of Phoebus?" she repeated coldly.
"He is dead!" cried the priest.
"Dead!" said she, still icy and motionless "then why do you talk to me of living?"
He was not listening to her.
"Oh! yes," said he, as though speaking to himself, "he certainly must be dead. The blade pierced deeply. I believe I touched his heart with the point. Oh! my very soul was at the end of the dagger!"
The young girl flung herself upon him like a raging tigress, and pushed him upon the steps of the staircase with supernatural force.
"Begone, monster! Begone, assassin! Leave me to die! May the blood of both of us make an eternal stain upon your brow! Be thine, priest! Never! never! Nothing shall unite us! not hell itself! Go, accursed man! Never!"
The priest had stumbled on the stairs. He silently disentangled his feet from the folds of his robe, picked up his lantern again, and slowly began the ascent of the steps which led to the door; he opened the door and passed through it.
All at once, the young girl beheld his head reappear; it wore a frightful expression, and he cried, hoarse with rage and despair,—
"I tell you he is dead!"
She fell face downwards upon the floor, and there was no longer any sound audible in the cell than the sob of the drop of water which made the pool palpitate amid the darkness.
Hollywood is not merely a place where movies are made, but is in many ways a genre unto itself. Doubtlessly reflecting the optimism of its society, Hollywood is a genre in which good always wins and love is ultimately rewarded... The exact opposite of anything to be found in the pages of Hugo's novel. Yet filmmakers have not been able to ignore the picturesque qualities of the story, be it the love affair between Esmeralda and Phoebus, the obsession of Claude Frollo, the living gargoyle Quasimodo – whose presence subsumed the very title of the book – or it's true protagonist, the sublime Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Thus Hugo's themes have been consistently watered down to fulfill the cultural longings of American society, not the least of which is the daring rescue and the lovers united.
For the most part, these films have been good enough to give us something of merit in themselves. The first adaptation of any note was the 1923 Universal Studios version, employing the talents of the original cinematic chameleon, Lon Chaney Sr. This version did not even have the courage to make Archdeacon Frollo the villain, displacing wanton lust onto his conniving brother. Nevertheless it is a robust silent film epic canonized as the first of Universal's classic monster movies. To its credit, 1923's Hunchback of Notre Dame did highlight Hugo's underlying theme of class warfare.
The 1939 version is most notable for the performance of one of the screen's greatest thespians, Charles Laughton, as Quasimodo. This version does manage to give it as happy an ending as possible while staying as true to the novel as it chooses to, and it highlights the idea of a new day of human freedom dawning... Perhaps intentionally in light of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair ("The World of Tomorrow") and definitely ironic given the war that just began in Europe that same year. 1939 is also widely regarded as the greatest year in Hollywood's Golden Age, and Hunchback of Notre Dame stands up well against other films of that year like Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Of Mice and Men, and Gone With the Wind.
Then comes Disney in 1996, with an animated feature widely regarded as closing out the "renaissance" era begun with 1989's The Little Mermaid and peaking with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. As a project it certainly had the best possible pedigree, including the reunion of Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the directors who carried Beauty and the Beast to Disney's first Best Picture nomination. Musical numbers were drafted by the dream team of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, whose combined credits included The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies, Aladdin and Pocahontas. In terms of the quality of the animation, this was Disney at the height of its artistic powers, working under the inspiration of one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture ever built. With all these credentials backing it up, how did Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame go so wrong?
The blunt answer is that the film required so many fundamental betrayals of the novel that one has to wonder why Disney ever thought to do it to begin with. At what point do you look at a novel and see that you have to change so much about what it is and says in order to make it suitable to children that you just don't bother with the thing at all? The consequence of these demands was a motion picture eviscerated of its depth, a tepid release remembered only for having that one pretty scary song in it. Most people do not revile it as strongly as I seem to, but neither is it remembered so fondly. The last time Disney committed it to home video, it was a quiet and perfunctory gesture double-billed with its direct-to-video sequel.
Artistically, Hunchback of Notre Dame is accomplished. Its painted vistas of Mediaeval Paris are gorgeous and its character designs are perhaps the best put to film. Though he was demoted from archdeacon to judge, Claude Frollo is one of my favourite literary characters and I love Disney's design. I just wish it was applied to a character of more gravitas, truer to the novel than was to be found in Tony Jay's warbling of a substandard Broadway number. Though Menken and Schwartz would go to make magic with Wicked and Enchanted, their efforts on Hunchback were rough at best. The songs are never quite good enough, and neither is the script.
Had Disney's film been in the same league as Beauty and the Beast, perhaps it would not have been so abject a failure. Altering the ending could have been tempered with an otherwise well-written story. That I wince whenever certain characters open their mouths, whenever complex soliloquies are reduced to stunted snips of dialogue, it doesn't speak well of the whole. Ironically, in Disney's hands it took on a different, though still mercilessly brutal message: that ugly people cannot aspire to companionship, but that's okay because they can be satisfied with watching beautiful people be happy together. I raise that against any feminist misinterpretation of Belle, Ariel or Jasmine.
In one sense, one might look upon an inability to stay true to Hugo's novel as a testament to the indomitable human hope in truth, justice and goodness. The lovers must win out, justice must be served and goodness must be rewarded, even though the very point of Notre-Dame de Paris is that, in the real world, none of this must be true. Another point of Hugo's body of work is that if these things are to emerge victorious over sin, death and the Devil, it must be us who make that possible. Ironically, the enduring hope in the indomitable human spirit actually neuters this message by shifting responsibility from our own actions to some airy cosmic aspiration.