By the book: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

To say it upfront: Between Victor Hugo’s two “big” novels, I tend to gravitate more towards Les Misérables, mainly because Notre Dame de Paris is downright depressing. Oh, both books delve deep into the social injustices of their time and the darkness of the human soul. But I think that Les Misérables is the more sophisticated take of those two, much clearer in the message it is trying to tell with much more relatable characters in it. Notre Dame de Paris is from a literature historic angle the more important one though, because it is considered the first novel about the society as a whole, including different classes, instead of concentrating on only the rich or only the poor. That Disney even tried a take on it is somewhat surprising, because Disney movies are not about social but about personal problems. When Disney does Dickens it’s never about the social aspect and always about the fate of main character of the story. But Dickens’ stories usually have some sort of happy end which plays well into the fairy-tale-like family- friendly storytelling Disney likes so much. Notre Dame de Paris has none of those elements, it is a very disturbing book made for adults. So, does Disney’s watered down version work?

1. The Setting

You might have noticed that I used so far the original French title for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That was intentional, because the translated title is very misleading. It’s not the Hunchback who is the main character of the story, it’s Notre Dame. Most of the book is set there and a lot of time is spend on the description of Notre Dame itself. And the Disney version? Well, there Notre Dame is prominent, too. The most memorable parts of the movie feature the cathedral and the scales are very impressive. The difference is that Disney shows off the beauty of Notre Dame, while Hugo’s intention was to point out that this great building was neglected and slowly falling to ruins. The state of Notre Dame reflects the state of society.

I’m not too bothered by the change, though. The audience and the intention of the movie is entirely different from the book. A close adaption would try to stick to those kinds of details, but I think that a good adaption should try to be relevant. And for a modern audience it makes more sense to appreciate the beauty of what survived the decades (I guess Victor Hugo would be very pleased to know that his book made sure that Notre Dame is nowadays one of the most well-known places in Paris).

2. The Animation

Would you be surprised if I told you that Notre Dame is actually not that big of a church? The two big towers are only 69 metres high. Nor are there any steps leading up to the entrance. What is real, though, are the gargoyles, the giant rosette window and the bells. But I don’t mind it that Disney exaggerated a little bit, I put this down to artistic licence. What is truly important is not how realistic the church and Paris itself is, but if the portrayal works for the movie, and it certainly does. Nearly all Disney movies are visually impressive, but this one is especially memorable.

3. The Characters

The great thing about the original book is that none of the characters are totally good or totally evil. The one who comes the closest of being an “innocent” is Esmeralda, who is somewhat (to borrow a line of another Disney movie) a diamond (or Emerald) in the rough. The Disney version is somewhat clearer cut – therefore the characters end up being very, very different.

Disney Quasimodo: More or less imprisoned at Notre Dame he dreams of leaving the place. He is kind-hearted and doesn’t do a single bad thing during the movie. Original Quasimodo: Not only ugly but also practically deaf and nearly unable to speak he chooses not to venture out of Notre Dame very often. He tries to kidnap Esmeralda for Frollo, but later, after she showed some kindness towards him out of pity, he does his very best to defend her, killing a couple of people in the process, including gypsies who are actually there to rescue her. He eventually murders Frollo when he laughs about Esmeralda’s death by throwing him from the cathedral. And then dies of starvation next to her body.

34 FrolloDisney Claude Frollo: A judge who uses his power over Paris mostly in a crusade against the Gypsies. After he accidentally kills a woman, the archdeacon orders him to take care of her ugly child as penance. He gives the child the “cruel name” Quasimodo and hides him in the tower. When he falls for Esmeralda, he slowly descends into madness, burning half Paris and eventually trying to burn her. Original Claude Frollo: The archdeacon, who takes care of an abandoned Quasimodo out of compassion and named him after the day on which he was found. He also cares deeply for his spoiled younger brother (who gets later accidentally killed by Quasimodo). Despite being a man of the church he dabbles in alchemy and is therefore mistrusted by the people of Paris. When he falls for Esmeralda, he falls into sin, first by trying to kidnap her, later by offering her escape in exchange for being with her when the king orders to ignore the sanctuary of Notre Dame. Oh, and he tries to rape her, and lets her take the fall for the murder of Phoebus.

Disney Esmeralda: A gypsy and free spirit, who openly challenges the authority of Frollo. She is able to see through Quasimodo’s misshapen face, seeing the beauty of his soul. But she is not in love with him, instead she falls for the heroic Phoebus. Original Esmeralda: As a child she was kidnapped by the gypsies who left her mother Quasimodo in her place. Her beauty causes more or less every man she meets to fall for her. She once gives Quasimodo water and rescues his life when he is punished for the kidnapping attempt of her. But this is only an act of pity, she is repulsed by him the same way as everyone else until she spends some time with him in the cathedral. Later she marries a poet (who is originally interested in her, but later more obsessed about her goat – and no, I’m not making that up) in order to rescue his life after he discovers the court of miracles. She never lays with him, though, because she is convinced that staying chaste is important in order to find her real mother (which she does, shortly before her death). The only man who nearly manages to convince her of laying with him his Phoebus. She is impressed by him due to his beauty and because he rescued her when Quasimodo first tried to kidnap her. But their “night of passion” is interrupted by Frollo who stabs Phoebus in the back. Esmeralda is accused of his murder (and of being a witch) and killed.

Disney Phoebus: The hero. And that’s more or less all you need to know about him. Oh, and that he is in love with Esmeralda, who rescues him from drowning after he rescued some people from getting burned by Frollo, getting hit by an arrow in his back in the process. Original Phoebus: An egocentric womanizer whose main interest is to bed Esmeralda, despite the fact that he is already betrothed. He actually survives Frollo’s attack on him, but nevertheless doesn’t step forward to defend Esmeralda. Instead he lives unhappy ever after in the cage of marriage.

Disney Clopin: Some sort of king of the gypsies, who is sometimes the narrator of the movie. He once intends to kill Quasimodo and Phoebus for finding the court of miracles. But he also speaks up on Quasimodo’s behalf…eh…this character really doesn’t make much sense, he switches from bad to good and back in seconds. Original Clopin: First introduced as a beggar he is later revealed to be the king of the gypsies. He has never much contact with either Quasimodo or Phoebus, the episode in the Court of Miracles involves the Poet Gringoire instead. Towards the end of the book he is killed by molten lead when he leads an attack on Notre Dame in order to rescue Esmeralda.

4. The Plot

After the rundown it should be pretty clear that the story of the movie is only vaguely related to the original. The animators mostly took elements they liked and created a new story out of it. Therefore, I won’t bother to discuss if this is a faithful adaptation of the book. It naturally isn’t. The real question is if the newly created plot works and if the movie at least manages to address some aspects of the book.

Disney followed the misleading English title and tried to make Quasimodo the main character. Therefore there are storylines which got rewritten for the movie in order to include him, most notable the scene in the Court of Miracles. But what Disney didn’t manage to do is to make him an interesting character. The original Quasimodo is in appearance as close to a monster as a human can be, and not just because of his looks, but also because he has trouble to communicate. Frollo is more or less his only human contact until he meets Esmeralda. He is also a character who means well, but rarely acts well – which is a contrast to most of the other characters in the book, who often are able to sell even the most selfish acts as good to the other characters.

Disney’s version of Quasimodo is, to be frank, quite bland, mostly because they changed his relationship to Frollo and society in general. This Quasimodo doesn’t feel shunned by society, but mostly removed from it. Everything Quasimodo does is about finding a way to connect to the word outside, but since he lacks any experience with it prior to the movie, his isolation seems to be more Frollo’s doing than based on how society tends to react to people who look different. And if you take Quasimodo’s desire away, what is actually left of the character? Quasimodo is basically the ugly duckling, which never becomes a swan. And we tend to feel for the ugly duckling. But if Quasimodo weren’t such a suffering character, would he actually be likable? Being all naïve and wide-eyed? I’m not sure.

Quasimodo’s view on the world is very convoluted. Does he love the cathedral, hate it or a little bit of both? Does he want to leave it for good, does he want to see the world outside or does he mostly want human companionship? Well, he has the companionship of his gargoyles. Yeah, the gargoyles. I didn’t mention them beforehand because they are more or less solely Disney’s creation. A lot of people have stated the opinion that they ruin the mood of the movie and shouldn’t be there in the first place. I agree and disagree.

34 hunchback-gargoyles-webI agree that their kind of humour (mostly modern jokes) doesn’t fit into the movie. But I don’t think that the gargoyles alone are the problem, they are just the worst offenders. This is the movie which put the goofy yell on a scene in which someone falls into an inferno of flames. A freaking goofy yell. I can’t imagine anything more unfitting. It’s like the makers were worried that the movie might become too dark so they threw in as many unfunny jokes as possible to make up for it.

I also agree that the gargoyles as comic relief don’t work. But I also think that the basic idea for them wasn’t bad. Quasimodo spends a lot of time alone, so having the gargoyles as sounding board is a very good solution. An even better solution would have been, if they were presentations of Quasimodo’s psyche. A couple of times during the movie it is suggested that the Gargoyles are not real. This goes out of the window in the final scene, when the Gargoyles intervene in the battle. But if they had stick to the idea and had made the Gargoyles representations of different aspects of Quasimodo’s mind (for example Victor stands for the rational site which keeps saying that nobody will like him, while Hugo (a less silly one) stands for his emotions and his wish to try nevertheless), arguing with each other instead of with him, this could have turned him into a more rounded and interesting character.

Esmeralda and Phoebus are not that interesting either. Oh, Esmeralda is an improvement from the book in being fiercer, and she got some of the best scenes in the movie. Especially the “God help the outcast” scene. Seeing Esmeralda, someone who doesn’t own much and isn’t even a Christ asks for the less lucky ones, while in the background the “true believers” voice their egoistical and shallow wishes, creates a contrast which prompts the audience to think about religion and morals, without being judgmental or preachy. And personally, I think the movie would have been much more interesting if they had made Esmeralda a secondary lead and had taken the time to flesh her out a little bit more.

The main problem with Esmeralda is that she is mostly reduced to her love story, which is very generic. Though the fault lays more with Phoebus than with her, since he is very badly explained in his motivations. One minute he is the obedient soldier who will follow everything Frollo says, next he turns around and does whatever he wants. Which could be an interesting story-line if he were either a soldier who believes in obedience but is eventually swayed by Esmeralda and the level of cruelty Frollo displays, or if he were from the get go someone who doesn’t think highly of authority and only wants a cushy assignment to get away from the war. Any motivation which would require some character development on his part would be more interesting than him just doing what the plot requires of him to do.

But let’s talk about the best character in this movie: Frollo. One of the greatest Disney villain, mostly because he has one of the most interesting motivations and perhaps the best villain song to go with it. Hellfire can’t be praised enough for putting his decent into madness into memorable lyrics and stunning visuals. There is a tiny problem with it though, since Frollo isn’t the archdeacon but a judge, there is actually no reason why he shouldn’t be interested in a woman, he isn’t bound by a vow of chastity after all. But I guess that can be explained away with him thinking of himself as above such feelings, especially when they are related to a gypsy of all people.

But, in a strange twist, everything which makes this character so good works to the disadvantage of the movie as a whole. Because Frollo is a bastard from the start, his feelings for Esmeralda are not really the downfall of his soul, they only lead to revealing a new level of darkness. And because he is the one who hides Quasimodo (in a way a symbol for him hiding his “sins” from the world), he basically stands between him and society. But the idea that society is shunning Quasimodo doesn’t have much a merit when it mostly happens because of Frollo’s actions, and not because society is the way it is.

Which brings us to the real problem of the plot: society. Nothing the “people of Paris” do makes any sense. They have the feast of fools (even though Gypsies are prosecuted they apparently allowed to come out of hiding for this one – weird…..), and they act with fear when they realize that Quasimodo left his tower. Fair enough. Who knows what horrifying stories are told about him (though it would be great to learn what they think about him at one point, the only story which we do see told about him paints him as a victim, after all). But following Clopin’s lead they start to celebrate him. Still understandable, the first shock is over and apparently Quasimodo is no danger. And then they suddenly turn on him…why? He has done nothing, why should they throw anything at him? And later on, where exactly are all those people when Frollo starts to burn down Paris? But when he starts to attack Notre Dame, they are suddenly all for helping Phoebus because a cathedral is naturally more important than their own homes?

This movie should be,about the relation between the Hunchback and society, and that’s what the animators are intended to do. But because the actual story focusses so much on Frollo and the other main characters, the relation between Quasimodo and society becomes an afterthought most of the time.

5. The Music

It should be obvious at this point that I adore the soundtrack of Hunchback of Notre Dame…well, most of it. I really can do without “A guy like you”. But overall he soundtrack is the main reason for me to watch the movie. I especially love how the sound of the bells are integrated in music, most notable in “The Bells of Notre Dame”. But my favourite songs are “Hellfire” (English version) and “God save the outcasts” (German version). Those are songs about deep emotions which manage to transport a lot of feeling.

6. The Conclusion

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very flawed movie, which has a lot of very good aspects which sadly don’t go together very well and are overshadowed by silliness. Some consider it Disney darkest entry. I disagree. It might seem that way because in recent year Disney has become fairly sugary. But if you look back to the classics, you’ll find that Disney can do dark. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s just not done very well. Mostly because the animators couldn’t decide on one tone for the movie. You can either do Pinocchio or Aladdin, but you can’t do both at once, you have to pick one style and stick to it. It seems like the animators were worried that making it too dark would make it too adult. I don’t think that one necessarily causes the other. You could have told this story in a serious way without it being utterly unsuitable for children as long as you made sure that you put the story in terms they understand.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those Disney Movies which don’t have much to offer in terms of storytelling, but excel in animation and music. The big scenes  are really gigantic and always worth a watch. Though I admit, I tend to watch it this way: I rewind the “Bells of Notre Dame” three or four times, because it’s so good, then I press the fast forward button, with a few interruption for a couple Frollo bastardy and Esmeralda dancing scenes, until I reach “God help the outcast”. I switch to German for this song (because there it’s more sung like a prayer), go back to English and again fast forward to the hellfire scene. Then I skip (no, not fast forward, I skip so that I don’t have to see any part of “A guy like you”) to the Court of Miracles and from this point onward I watch the rest of the movie.

And that sums up the movie pretty well: A lot of good but with too much bad mixed in to work out as a whole. But, to be honest, considering the source text and how unsuitable it is for a Disney movie, this can be considered an okay effort.


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