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Waiting for Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (French Release Version).

Translated by William Moritz

Although The Hunchback of Notre Dame was reviewed by William Moritz, we thought it would be interesting to also get the reaction of a leading Victor Hugo scholar when it opened in France in late November. Arnaud Laster is not only a leading authority on Hugo, he has also written extensively on poet Jacques Prévert, whose prolific screenwriting career even encompassed animation.

Esmeralda and Phoebus in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. © Walt Disney Pictures

When you love, as I do, the novel Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, what can you expect from its adaptation by the Disney Studios under the traditional English-language title The Hunchback of Notre Dame? I should specify up front that I have just seen the animated feature once, and in a dubbed French version, which is the only way you can see it in Paris, since no theater offers the original version (meaning that the distributors foresee an audience primarily of children, and in no case of adult movie fans). Now it is not inconceivable to interest an exacting adult audience in an animated feature: the success of the masterpiece by Jacques Prévert and Paul Grimault Le Roi et l'oiseau (The King and Mr. Bird) proved that.

To go immediately to the main point, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as I discovered, seems much less an adaptation from the Hugo novel than from a cinematic predecessor, the famous American version directed by William Dieterle in 1939. The music behind the titles already gives the first clue. The function of the Judge devolved onto Frollo, whose original status as Archdeacon is again transferred to a benevolent ecclesiastic, is a second one. You will note that in 1996 everything is still done as if it were impossible to present a priest character who does wrong. This self-censorship robs the work of one of its strongest tensions: the monstrosity of Frollo results in effect from the repression caused by the enforced obligation of continence and celibacy imposed on clergy by the Catholic church. Victim of this interdict, horrified by his own sexuality, he can no longer bear to witness that of others and persecutes Love; the cry of the flesh is so imperious that he makes recourse to blackmail, becomes guilty of attempted rape and, being' unable to possess the object of his desire, ends by rejoicing in seeing Esmeralda delivered to the executioner. We bet that concern about sparing children the evocation of such torments is opportunistically added to the preoccupation with not shocking the devotees of a religion that is still powerful in the United States and elsewhere. The obsession of Frollo nonetheless inspires one sequence that I found aesthetically the most beautiful and which, exceptionally, uses with talent the specific resources of animation: that in which flames escaping from a chimney near the redoutable judge form the image of Esmeralda.

Clopin Trouillefou, narrator of The Hunchback of Notre Dame © Walt Disney Pictures

The makers of the animated feature have clung faithfully to the Dieterle film in which the respect for him whom the media still often call "The Holy Father" leads to crowning Quasimodo not (as in Hugo) the "Pope of Fools" but rather the "King of Fools". On the other hand, they did not keep the King Louis XI of Dieterle's film, who is idealized to the point of becoming the bearer of Hugo's own convictions, which constitutes not only a violation of the character in the novel but also a transgression against Hugo's own anti-monarchy tendencies which were already strong at the time he Wrote Notre-Dame. They have substituted for him a sort of sovereign of the Court of Miracles, Clopin Trouillefou, in whom they invested the function of narrator, which he hardly merits. Furthermore they have given him the appearance of a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac, such as Edmond Rostand caricatured him, and it is this rather un-Gothic silhouette that stars on the film's posters, a sort of unwitting anti-publicity. Hugo himself did quite the opposite in his own adaptation of the novel to an opera libretto (music by Louise Bertin): he made Clopin the accomplice of Frollo.

Nothing But Kindness and Devotion

Physically, Quasimodo seems to me hardly more successful: the character created by Charles Laughton seems to have served as model, but the ugliness that rendered it so interesting, indeed fascinating, has been attenuated to the point of being almost meaningless. This poor hunchback is nothing but kindness and devotion, while in the Hugo novel his deformity and deafness having engendered general repulsion and isolation, he behaves like a nasty dog at the service of his (adoptive) father and master, until that moment on the pillory when Esmeralda gives him a drink and he sheds his first tear. That sublime scene, charged with emotion and bearing one of the main meanings of the novel, since the compassion shown by Esmeralda not only opens and changes the heart of Quasimodo but also communicates to the populace, has lost its power because the authors of the cartoon don't have enough confidence in their own emotional feeling. Nonetheless Esmeralda's accusation of Frollo "You mistreat this man as you mistreat a people" belongs to an up-dated interpretation directly inherited from that proposed by Dieterle's film on the eve of war in 1939. The persecution of the Gypsies and of Quasimodo have in common to be directed against their obvious difference, whose superficial character is justly underlined. Here, at least, you recover one of the dimensions of the novel which most portended what was to come, in that it establishes Hugo's future battles and reinforces the struggle against the racism of the end of his own century and that of ours.

Esmeralda greeting Quasimodo during the Festival of the Fools.© Walt Disney Pictures

Captain Phoebus, with his blonde beard and his completely banal face, totally lacks seductiveness, his sole trump in the novel. Here he is supposed to be just returned from a war in which he was distinguished, but instead of behaving like a disciplined soldier and without the martial soul of the novel's character, he thwarts the repressive zeal of the police, demands that Frollo shorten Quasimodo's suffering, and claims the right of asylum for Esmeralda. By means of reducing the characters to stereotypes, this adaptation involuntarily makes, once again, the most striking demonstration of Hugo's originality in contrast to the codes of melodrama. In the novel, this young hero has only a good military bearing and no true emotional depth; as far as Frollo is concerned, it is a sincere act of charity, not constrained or forced, that leads him to rescue the sickly abandoned baby whom he names Quasimodo--and it is through cowardice that he fails to save Quasimodo from the pillory, not, as in the cartoon, in order to teach him a lesson. By making the characters conform to conventional figures of generous hero and completely evil villain, the script of the animated feature measures exactly how wrong it is to accuse Hugo of being simplistic black-and-white. The Best of American Mentality This sort of simplification doesn't only lead to drawbacks and shortcomings. In Dieterle's lineup of characters, Frollo ends up condensing in himself the most abominable traits of 20th-century criminals, the war crimes and crimes against humanity, those who ordered the massacres at Ouradour and Vietnam, the genocides and ethnic purifications. Hugo himself prefigured this distantly with the protagonist of a too-little-known drama that he wrote almost 40 years later, Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, an emblematic figure of what today is called "right-wing fanaticism". Without daring to connect Frollo's cruelty explicitly with religious fanaticism, the animated feature still makes you think of it momentarily, and that's to its credit. Similarly Phoebus' refusal to obey, "My role as a soldier isn't to kill innocent people", and his discharge from the army (discreetly suggested) give validation, for the audience of children, to a type of non-conformist behavior. One discovers here the best of American mentality, quite in accordance with Hugo: their capacity to say "no" to a law and order which scorn justice and liberty. The revolt against the iniquitous judge and against injustice reigning in the person of the minister of justice Frollo is one of the too rare exalting moments of the film. In Paris that inevitably reminded us of the Africans with no identification papers, not so long ago, who took refuge in a church, and the door was chopped down to seize them for questioning.

The gargoyles (Hugo,Victor, Laverne) with Quasimodo and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame © Walt Disney Pictures

The final scenes, diverging more than in any preceding versions, from the ending planned by Hugo, falls back on cliches. In consistent evil, Frollo wants to stab Quasimodo, but Esmeralda is there to save her friend, and then Phoebus catches him in flight. The only point in common with the novel is the fall of Frollo from the high towers of Notre-Dame, but not indeed because of Quasimodo, since undoubtedly the authors did not want to tarnish his unvarying kindness by making him push his master to his death. There couldn't be a more conventional "Happy End": the pretty Esmeralda (she in undeniably pretty, and so much more, just as Hugo had imagined her) marries the handsome Phoebus (or whoever that creature really is) under the touching gaze of Quasimodo. In Dieterle's version, Phoebus did not escape Frollo's dagger, and it is a character omitted from the animated film, the poet Gringoire (a bearer of Hugo's sentiments in a different register from King Louis XI) who wins Esmeralda's love, and the happy couple leave behind them the poor Quasimodo, dreaming of becoming stone like the gargoyles. That was not satisfactory and even bluntly disappointing, the animated happy end leaves one still further from the last pages of the novel with its double tragic ending, ironically represented by two marriages: that of Phoebus with his noble lady Fleur-de-Lys, and that poignant "wedding" of Quasimodo desperately clutching the corpse of Esmeralda even in death. Perhaps it needed a poet like Jacques Prévert (in the adaptation that was filmed in 1956 by Jean Delannoy) to have Hugo's "grotesque" and "sublime" last sentence about Quasimodo spoken on the soundtrack: "When they tried to detach him from the skeleton that he embraced, it fell into dust." Arnaud Laster, Master of Lectures in French Literature at the New Sorbonne (University of Paris III), author of books on Victor Hugo (of which Pleins feux sur Victor Hugo was published by the Comédie-Française) and co-editor, with Danièle Gasiglia-Laster, of the complete works of Jacques Prévert in the Pléiade edition. He teaches notably the relation of cinema and music with the works of Victor Hugo, and analyzes the screenplays and dialogues of Prévert.