Victor Hugo’s Hunchback

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HunchbackI have just finished listening to a well-read audio book (in English) of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame, or more properly, Notre Dame de Paris, as the original title was written. I had read the novel several years ago in a more recent Penguin edition, but hearing it on my peregrinations around town with the dogs gave me time to focus on some sections I had glossed over in the written form.

Unlike the abysmal Disney animation of 1996, and unlike all the films and TV series that have been made of the story since the first (Esmeralda, 1905), the novel doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a sad, bitter tale. And Quasimodo, the hunchback, is not the main character. It is only in part his story. The happy, dancing hunchback of Disney’s tale is a cruel abomination of the tragic figure in Hugo’s novel.

Lon Chaney’s 1923 version was the first truly great portrayal of Quasimodo, but the censors of the time, under the Hays Code, forced the writers to recast several characters – Claude Frollo goes from villain to virtuous, and his brother, the drunken scholar Jehan, goes from vain bumbler to villain. The plot is also twisted to include bits Hugo never wrote, including a Pygmalion-like ball where Esmeralda is disguised as a noble lady.

If you don’t mind silent film, you definitely should see it for Chaney’s portrayal, but it isn’t the story Hugo wrote.

Maureen O'HaraUnfortunately, some of this bizarre plot nonsense is carried in the the otherwise superb 1939 film version, in which Charles Laughton magnificently plays the hunchback. It’s a great, fun, dramatic film, a huge budget epic with a cast of hundreds, but is isn’t Hugo, either. It is still one of my own favourite films of all time. Laughton’s work is simply stunning. He captures Quasimodo’s character – lonely, isolated, feared, angry, but yet human and vulnerable. I think it was his finest role.

It also starred 19-year-old Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. I had a pre-teen crush on her based on her performance in this film, which I saw many times, not realizing to years later she was old enough to be my mother!

Edited and Bowdlerized versions have been filmed many times, as late as the 1997 version with Salma Hayek. The 1956 version with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo and Gina Lollobrigida as Esmeralda had some parts right, but again felt the need to alter the plot and characters. Quinn’s hunchback is curiously unhunched.

I have never encountered a single film version true to the actual story, although each one I’ve seen has elements of it, yet each chokes before the end. It’s almost as if filmmakers and directors were afraid to put the actual tale into life, and needed to rewrite it to calm their own unease.

Perhaps modern audiences demand more resolution and redemption more than in the past. Could anyone write Anna Karenina today with its tragic ending? Hugo’s novel is unrelenting without even the illicit romance as an excuse.

Perhaps, too, the sanitized versions appeal to our growing anti-intellectualism: Hunchback made nice means we don’t have to delve into ourselves to ponder the cruelties of fate or question our collective morality and individual mortality. Clean it up, add a few musical numbers and a schmaltzy soundtrack and people will love it. No one watching need think hard thoughts. Or was that Les Miserables? Or Pride and Prejudice? Or Oliver? Camelot?

And who will know? Who reads Hugo these days, after all? How many people will be able to compare the original with the glitzy screen version? How many will sit in the theatre or at home and say, “That’s not right. It’s not like this in the book…”?

Besides, Hunchback is also a social commentary, predating Dickens, about government, the church, religion, politics and the masses. Hugo is unforgiving about them all. And it’s peppered with Latin phrases and lengthy asides about architecture, fashion and Parisian urban development. How can you put all that into a 90-minute movie? Big ideas, big themes get reduced to caricatures too easily.

No one in the novel emerges a hero, no one fully transcends the muck, although some manage to lift their heads above it at times. Character flaws are glaring, and few strengths balance their weaknesses. Humans are all too human in Hugo’s hands. Yet, when we make the effort to read or hear it, we are carried along with his tale, even when we know it will end badly. If you haven’t read it, at least try the audio book. It’s worth the effort.

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  • Reading time: 257 s
  • Speaking time: 395s
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