The stories of Victor Hugo have been subjected to possibly more retellings, adaptations, and spin-offs than any other authors (save perhaps Charles Dickens’). Curiously, he only wrote two popular novels. However these two paper bricks have been redone countless time for the stage and the screen. The novels I’m referring to are of course Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris, better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
There are three relatively well-respected film versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A Lon Chaney silent film from the 1920s. A Charles Laughton vehicle in 1939. And most recently a Disney Renaissance film of the late 90s. Yes, I know. A film starring Anthony Quinn as the titular character exists; however this incarnation of the Medieval epic fails to impress anyone. I recently re-watched the animated Disney film and I find that, curiously, it is the only film of the three which captures the spirit of Hugo and tells the most satisfying story. Disney’s version has always been somewhat of an anomaly. It’s dark, even by the late Walt’s standards, and deals with themes of lust, Church corruption, crises of faith, racism and other controversial subjects the “family-friendly” company tends to shy away from. That it exists is a mystery in itself. That it is by far the most epic, elegant, and entertaining of the three popular versions of Hugo’s novel is a testament to the art of animation.
I don’t care for the Lon Chaney movie at all. At ninety-five minutes it feels much too long, and hired-hand Wallace Worsley’s direction doesn’t help matters. Worsley’s stagey storytelling quickly ceases to amaze. It is sloppily written, relying heavily of flash-backs, and Lon Chaney acts tired throughout the whole film. I guess he was saving his energy for The Phantom of the Opera. All this aside, there’s something unmoving about the bells of Notre Dame when you can’t hear them. Still, I think ultimately the movie’s failure lies in the over-simplification of the villain Frollo. No deep soul searching here. No religious conflict. Frollo is reduced to a licentious creep and the change does not serve the story.
The version starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo is better. The bells ring this time. Frollo, played tremendously by Sir Cedric Hardwick, is allotted his rightful complexity. And of course Charles Laughton seals the deal. Still, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, this movie fails to amaze. Perhaps it feels too small. Perhaps it seems like it was filmed on a set (because of course it was). Whatever the reason, 1939’s Hunchback does not entail the proper dosage of epicness to excite me. A movie centered around one of the most divine pieces of architecture ever constructed by human hands should impart some of that majesty to its audience. As it is, the Charles Laughton movie is mundane and ordinary.
The Disney film is my favorite because while it tells a decent and complex story, it is also aesthetically satisfying. Though a few of the subtexts of previous adaptations have been dropped for convenience and mass appeal, and the ending has been reworked into a classic Disney “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” scene, the writers were careful not to talk down to their audience. Talking gargoyles have been added for the kiddies, yet without sacrificing the tale’s original weight and seriousness. It is this version, oddly enough, which most thoroughly explores the themes of corruption and bigotry.
Frollo, voiced by stage actor Tony Jay, is a classic Pharisaical hypocrite: a righteous man of the law on the outside, but privately a lecher and philanderer whose pride and lust get the better of him. G.K. Chesterton said famously that the “difference between saints and sinners is that saints know that they are sinners.” In probably the movie’s most notorious sequence, Frollo is confronted (in a sort of fantasy/dream) by a host of faceless, red-robed monks who convict him of his sin and vice. In a Biblical charade of human self-deception he pleads that it’s not his fault, that siren gypsy girl cast a spell on me, the devil made me do it! All the while the specters chant the Confiteor Deo and the Kyrie Eleison. Frollo would be a tremendously holy man, if only he would admit first that he’s a sinner. But no, he blames everyone but himself. The specters’ answer is, rightly, to hell with him.
Hunchback follows in Disney Renaissance tradition. It is a musical, with songs by the all-permeating Alan Mencken (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid) and slightly less known Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell). There are perhaps less great songs in this movie than in, say Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. However two songs in particular stand out as two of Disney’s best. One, “God Help the Outcasts” is Esmeralda the gypsy’s cry for help to the Virgin. The other, a gothic and sinister organ track which accompanies Frollo’s aforementioned scene. Say what you will about the opening scenes of The Lion King, the “Hellfire” sequence is one of the most spectacular and epic animated montages set to music since that other Disney film Fantasia.
Its real musical strength, however, is that reverberant choir and that thundering pipe organ which add depth to the action scenes. Most movie choirs just chant gibberish. No kidding, people are actually paid to write a sequence of ohs, ees, and ahs that actually sound like words. None of that slothful muddling for Hunchback: that choir is singing real, unadulterated Ecclesiastical Latin. This touch of authenticity adds a certain objective beauty to the already gorgeous animation. Hunchback was directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the same team that directed Disney’s breakthrough film Beauty and the Beast and it shows. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that out of all the Disney Renaissance films, Hunchback is my favorite besides Beauty and the Beast. The films between Beauty and Hunchback were fine in their own way, but these two films have a certain maturity and a respect for the audience which the others lack.
Unfortunately, though it was generally praised by critics, The Hunchback of Notre Dame failed to generate the financial success of Disney’s earlier films of the 90s. Further controversy born from scrupulous parents and decency crusaders have prompted Disney to hide this gem of a production away. I think it has only been released on DVD once, and has not had the in-and-out-of-the-vault treatment of the other Renaissance movies (hell, that Phil Collins debacle Tarzan is more readily available). Gotta love Mothers Against Anything (substitute Drugs, Drunk Driving, Guns, Firecrackers, Tattoos, Birth). They’ll write the film out of history, but at least you’ll get a warm chocolate chip cookie in the process. Then of course there was the outrage from that artless band of cretins at The Catholic League. Heaven forbid a man of the Church (Frollo) be portrayed as a villain. They would have censored Dante.
Despite Disney’s attempts to keep Hunchback from soiling its image, the movie has a following that recognizes it for it greatness. As an animated movie, it’s one of Disney’s best. As far as Hugo adaptations go, it’s the best (alongside Schönberg and Boubil’s Les Miz). Who knew talking gargoyles and two-dimensional (in appearance at least) characters were the key to Quasimodo’s success. That’s Divine Comedy for you.