Baron Dave Romm (barondave) wrote,
Baron Dave Romm
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The Hunchback of Notre Dame x 3

Gordy Dickson started me on reading classics after his death in 2001. By the time I got to his estate sale, most of the sf (besides his) had been picked over, and most of the fannish stuff (except his GoH silver plate from the 1984 Worldcon in Baltimore) was long gone. But he had a huge number of interesting books. I picked up a bunch of best sellers, stuff I'd wanted to read for years: James Michener, Clive Custler and more. This started a trend, and I picked up and have been reading a lot of non-sf fiction. A year or so ago I started in on The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (1831). It was boring, and I put it down for many moons. (One of the books in the stack was Gone With the Wind. I read it, then rented the movie from Netflix. Why does anyone like this book? But I digress.)

Well, eventually the stack got back down to the Hunchback. I picked up where I had left off, and somewhat to my surprise it was pretty good! Maybe I needed a year to mellow. Maybe the beginning was boring and all the characters were now introduced. I dunno. So I rented the 1939 movie starring Charles Laughton (consistently recommended as the most faithful and best version) and the 1996 Disney adaptation. While they're fresh in my mind, I'm going to review all three.

I feel a bit odd that a 174 year old book, a 66 year old movie and a ten year old movie should be behind a spoiler alert, but there you have it.


The book is about the contrast of opposites. A lowly cripple occupying the highest physical location and eventually the highest moral ground. The loud bells that can be heard by everyone in Paris except the deaf bellringer. The King of France vs. the King of the Beggars. A trial in the Court of Miracles (that dispenses a rough justice) vs. the state court (which literally can't hear the truth and dispenses arbitrary punishment). A very vertical book, where the high and mighty contrast with the low and powerless in physical space. Hugo makes ironic statements about the godly vs. the heathen. A very down book, and no one wins... except the architecture which continues on. Only man's work survives, not man himself.

The story starts out with the assembled at a play by Gringoire. This contrasts with roughly the same people assembled at Notre Dame. At the play, hecklers in the rafters rain insults down on the crowd and the play. At Notre Dame, Quasimodo rains death. After the play, the action adjourns outside to the Feast of Fools, where a Pope of Fools is crowned: Quasimodo. I won't go into all the plot (because I don't remember details from a year ago) but we meet Chopin, King of Thunes (ie King of the Beggars). Gringoire and Quasimodo get help from La Esmeralda: She marries Gringoire to save him from being executed because he trespassed in the Court of Miracles; a chaste marriage, just to spare his life. Quasimodo, who had helped Frollo in his attempt to kidnap her, had taken the entire blame and was put on trial and unfairly punished, and La Esmeralda was the only one to give him water after his flogging. Claude Frollo is the Archdeacon in charge of Notre Dame; both movies have him as a magistrate not a man of the cloth, even though his vows of chastity are critical to the plot, presumably because they didn't want to offend the church. Frollo adopts the deformed four-year-old on Quasimodo Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, when he is twenty, and the action in the book takes place 16 years later.

Throughout the book are long sweeping descriptions of the rooftops of Paris, the history of the city and its people, and of the meaning and use of Sanctuary and how it can be denied. Hugo often talks directly to the reader.

Esmeralda is a kind innocent, but she's an idiot. She's a 15 year old dark-skinned Gypsy. Her race has a very bad reputation, and she makes money by dancing. She (and her goat) are outcasts who only find a home with the beggars of Paris. She's kind to Gringoire the poet and Quasimodo, the ugly deaf cripple. She falls in love with the one guy who only wants to fuck her. Phoebus is a cad and a bounder who has a chance to save Esmeralda and doesn't. Frollo isn't evil at first, but can't handle his own sexuality. As she's about to get laid for the first time, a jealous Frollo stabs Pheobus and Esmeralda is accused of being a witch. (As is her goat.). Her virginity is a big deal, because according to the charm she wears as a necklace she can only find her mother if she's pure.

She gets threatened with torture and confesses to being a witch, and is locked up in the dungeon until her hanging. As she is brought to the gallows, Quasimodo rescues her and takes her up to the sanctuary of Notre Dame. A very vertical relocation. Unable to leave, she still only pines for Phoebus and ignores her rescuer. Her blindness contrasts with Quasimodo's deafness.

Quasimodo is also an innocent, but his deafness causes him to do injustice, just like the deaf magistrate. He doesn't realize that Parliament has revoked Sanctuary and they are trying to thwart the authorities. He attacks the crowd trying to save Esmeralda, thereby ensuring her death. She gets spirited away by Frollo and Gringoire: architecture and literature, high and low, powerful and powerless, married to Esmeralda but chaste and married to the church but lustful. She is publicly hung as a witch, while Phoebus and his most recent conquest watch. Ironically, it is only because she wants to get laid and is being hanged that she finally meets her mother. (The mother is a whole subplot not in either movie, presumably to contrast her love for her child vs. Frollo's cold contempt for his adopted son.) Frollo, having sent Gringoire away with the goat, returns to Notre Dame. He watches Esmeralda hang and Quasimodo sees it too, and pushes him off the parapet, where he bounces off the gargoyles on the way down. (He doesn't get picked up and thrown, like in both movies.)

In the book, all the main characters die except Phoebus: Esmeralda is hung as a witch, Frollo gets pushed off Notre Dame, Quasimodo dies in Esmeralda's tomb; meanwhile, Pheobus recovers from his knife wound and watches Esmeralda die, even knowing he could save her. Various characters not in either movie also die a grisly death. In the 1939 movie, Pheobus and Frollo die. In the Disney version, Frollo is much more evil and dies a far more dramatic death. Both movies set up the concept of Sanctuary differently, which is not bad but is also not particularly accurate. Who is breaking into Notre Dame is vastly different in the movies. In the book and 1939 movie, the crowd understands that Sanctuary is about to be revoked and are trying to rescue Esmeralda. In the Disney version, Frollo is trying to get her for Nefarious Purposes, and fails because of Quasimodo's valiant defense of the church. Both movies have Esmeralda and Pheobus riding off together while Quasimodo stays in the upper reaches of Notre Dame, looking down, wondering if he's made of stone.

The 1939 movie is directed by William Deiterle, who made a number of films as Wilhelm Dieterle in Germany and who is influenced by German Expressionism. His version The Hunchback of Notre Dame reminded me a lot of Metropolis, all about the cusp of the old and new and the spark of revolution created by a dancing girl. Metropolis' tag line is "There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator" . In Hunchback, this is entirely true... the heart fails as mediator and there is no understanding. This movie has the same plot as the book, but it changes the fate of virtually all the main characters. And, fitting with the German Expressionism theme but NOT the theme of the book, changes the name of the goat from Djali to Aristotle. The first scene in the movie is not in the book, but the discussion of the printing press is a major exegesis by Hugo, and the movie gets it wrong. The printing press is not the dividing line between the old and the new, it's the synergistic invention that changes the historical record from architecture to the written word. "The book will kill the edifice", writes Hugo in a book. Writing will last longer, since it has no substance to crumble. I give them credit for mentioning the concept (but not for the odd dischronicity of turning down Columbus), but I wish they'd gotten the context right.

Leftover notes: The most obvious reference to Metropolis is the mass of peasants (the Truands in the book) marching in a triangle, approaching Notre Dame. Oddly, Charles Laughton has the wrong eye being blind; the book makes it clear that the left eye has a wart over it. In the book, Louis XI doesn't leave his room high in the Bastille but in the movie he's as active as Gandalf. And Quasimodo is lame, so the leaping around is not in character. This version is superbly produced with a fine cast and I can see why people like it. But, alas, it doesn't capture the soul of the book.

The plot of the 1996 Disney animated movie has some vague relationship to the book, but thematically this movie is much closer to the source material. The gargoyles, in the book as hecklers from on high (in the opening scene, in neither movie) and as Quasimodo's friends (his only companions in the lonely belltower of the church; "the cathedral was not only his society, it was his universe"), are animated and singing, but are clearly shown as an extension of Quasimodo. Latin is liberally sprinkled through the book, and that spirit is retained here. A realistic portrayal would have been darker, but I'd still have to give the Disney movie the edge in narration and revealing inner thoughts. Clopin is a good choice to act as narrator/puppet master. The movie opens on scenes that aren't in the book, but give the background that Hugo slips in later, inventing some on the way. The animation (which is very good) allows for much more of Paris to be seen than in the 1939 movie, where they went to Paris but built the sets in Hollywood. The camera movement is much more indicative of vertical power, zipping up and down the streets and buildings, going so far as to contrast the High Court (that punishes Quasimodo wrongly) with the underground Court of Miracles.

I've been to Notre Dame, and both movies capture the facade and surroundings well. The Disney movie is much, much better at showing the Paris of 1482. The Deiterle movie is grittier, but the singing and dancing Disney version captures the culture better, even to the point of correctly referring to "La Esmeralda". For all of its Disnefication, the basic duality of the book is better preserved.

Still, read the book. It's hard for modern readers, but pays off.
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