In his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo decried the “numberless degradations and mutilations” the Notre Dame cathedral had suffered at the hands of remodelers.
If Hugo were alive today, he might have a similar opinion about what Disney has done to his classic work.
Disney’s cartoon version, which opens in theaters Friday, is a sanitized, politically correct retelling of Hugo’s grim tale.
In the studio’s hands, Hugo’s grotesque hunchback becomes cute and endearing, and the novel’s gruesome ending turns happy and uplifting. Disney changed the villain, Frollo, from a priest to a judge and transformed gypsies from baby stealers into an oppressed minority.
The novel is one of many “examples of books of the past that have been betrayed by translations and interpretations,” said Hugo scholar Victor Brombert, of Princeton University.
Disney’s version is the fourth “Hunchback” movie. While previous films also took liberties with the story, they at least didn’t turn the the title character, Quasimodo, into a cuddly little guy.
That’s a far cry from the original vision of Victor Hugo (1802-1885). He was a prolific French poet, novelist and playwright who dominated 19th century literature. Although most respected in France for his poetry, he’s best known elsewhere for his novels Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
In the fall of 1830, Hugo locked his formal clothes away, so he wouldn’t be tempted to go out, and penned the 500-page Notre Dame of Paris in 4 1/2 months. (The title was changed to The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the English translation.)
The historic novel is set in Paris in the late 15th century. . . . Warning: Don’t read on if you don’t want the novel’s plot revealed.
Gypsies steal a baby girl, Esmeralda, and in her crib leave behind the grotesque Quasimodo. Esmeralda grows up a beautiful gypsy dancer, while Quasimodo is adopted by the demented priest, Frollo. The reclusive Quasimodo becomes the cathedral’s bell ringer, which causes him to lose his hearing.
Frollo lusts after Esmeralda, but she loves Phoebus, a captain of the king’s archers. Phoebus seduces Esmeralda, cynically professing his love. Frollo stabs Phoebus in a jealous rage. But it’s Esmeralda who’s charged with the crime, and she’s sentenced to hang.
Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda from the gallows and brings her to the cathedral, where she’s given sanctuary.
A mob attacks the cathedral, and while Quasimodo is fending them off, Frollo kidnaps Esmeralda. Frollo offers her freedom in return for sleeping with him. She refuses and is sent back to the gallows.
This time, Quasimodo is unable to rescue Esmeralda. He sees her “dangling at the end of the rope” while “terrible convulsions travel down (her) body.” Enraged, Quasimodo throws Frollo off the cathedral.
Quasimodo disappears, and about two years later, authorities discover his remains in a cellar where Esmeralda and other criminals are buried. Quasimodo’s skeleton is clutching Esmeralda’s skeleton.
Not exactly a Disneyesque ending.
Disney rewrote the story from start to finish. The movie leaves out the part about gypsies stealing a baby, as well as passages in which Esmeralda is horribly tortured and locked in a rat-infested dungeon. For comic relief, there are three talking gargoyles, two of whom are named Victor and Hugo. Phoebus is transformed from an unprincipled cad into a brave and handsome lover. In the end, Quasimodo saves Esmeralda, kills the hated Frollo and is carried through the streets a hero.
Nevertheless, the movie is grim, at least by Disney standards. The music is heavy, the colors are dark and some parts may frighten small children. Especially scary is a scene in which Frollo sees Esmeralda’s image in a fire and vows she’ll face the fires of damnation if she won’t have him.
Since the book isn’t read much anymore in American schools, the Disney version likely will supplant Hugo’s story in popular culture. And that’s too bad. Hugo’s novel is “a great work,” said French lit professor Robert Morrissey of the University of Chicago.
“When my students read it, they loved it,” Morrissey said. “It’s got everything – sex, power, blood, and Quasimodo, who’s a great character.”
And there’s more to the novel than its compelling plot. Hugo ruminates on themes such as architecture, the futility of acquiring knowledge and the French Revolution. The mob attack on the cathedral, for example, is a metaphor for the storming of the Bastille.