Victor Hugo, perhaps the most recognized French author in the world, wrote plays and novels that are still beloved by millions worldwide. While (arguably) his most famous work was, Les Misérables, has been an inspiration since its publication in 1862, from film to theater and political movements, Hugo’s other novel is perhaps more beautiful in language and scale because it is a smaller novel dealing with more personal themes of humanity and love. While Jean Valjean is perhaps the most well known Victor Hugo character to deal with those themes, it is Quasimodo who embodies those themes wholeheartedly.
The book, which was originally titled “Notre-Dame de Paris” is not about Quasimodo, but the cathedral itself. There are chapters solely dedicated to architecture and humanism, two of Hugo’s great loves combined into what he viewed as the idealistic city of Paris. It is perhaps the only instance where a novel shaped the exterior of a building; it is true that when Hugo wrote “Notre-Dame” the famed gothic cathedral was in disarray, clearly having seen better days – so, in his novel, Hugo described what he believed the cathedral should appear, and upon the book’s publication, which propelled Hugo from a mere playwright to an international opinion on social change, the cathedral was remodeled to fit Hugo’s description.
In the modern age, there have been numerous film adaptations of Hugo’s work featuring the kind hunchback and the beautiful gypsy, but only one film version manages to do the source material justice. The Charles Laughton (Qausimodo) and Maureen O’Hara (Esmeralda) version from 1939, directed by William Dieterle.
The film is noted for having one of the largest sets in film history and was also the most expensive film for RKO Encino with a budget of $1.8 million. The cathedral and Paris sets were constructed for a cost of $250,000, or $4,500,000 in modern currency (when adjusted for inflation). With production issues and makeup horrors, the film was originally a remake of the 1923 Lon Chaney version, but studio hang-ups, recasts caused the film to be made in 1939. The script was written by Sonya Levien, a Russian-American screenwriter who adapted Hugo’s novel to fit with modern issues of the time – Sonya is noted for being one of the highest female scriptwriter in the 1930s.
The film was met with emotional moments during production. On September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, ushering the world into its deadliest conflict of World War II and it was because of the war that the film instilled emotion in the story that makes it appear timeless – as much as it is wishful thinking to believe that wars will cease, there is always going to be a war somewhere and this film will always be there to speak to the emotion that people go through during trying times – thus, making the film a timely, impactful viewing that creates emotional and spiritual weight.
While the Disney animated film from 1996 is certainly beautiful and carries the themes of spirituality and emotion (kindness), it lacks something that the 1939 Laughton possesses – weight. Perhaps it was the Disney-ifcation of the source material, or the omitting of characters (Pierre) and combining multiple characters into one or completely changing a character all together – regardless, the Disney film is not the definitive version. For starters, Frollo was portrayed to pure evil, while in the novel and in the 1939 version, he was not a particularly great person, he was not as evil as the Disney version portrays. Phoebus, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Adonis in the Disney film, is, for lack of a better description, an asshole, in the novel. He is selfish, manipulative, and is essentially another version of Frollo – the only difference between the two is simply Frollo is more redeemable than Phoebus. The gargoyles, which do not exist in any other version and serve as comic relief in the Disney film, bog the 1996 version down with unnecessary “jokes” and songs that ultimately serve no purpose beyond levity from the drama. Despite this, the Disney film seems to largely do Quasimodo justice, and the rendering of Paris is perfect, and yes, even the songs are fine (save for “A Guy Like You”), but overall, the Disney film seems too sanitized and extremely safe.
If one wishes to watch a novel accurate film with emotional weight that is nearly timeless, consider Laughton’s version. There is a reason it is the best version – it delivers the source material accurately in every aspect that an adaptation is supposed to – while there are no perfect adaptations and the novel is leaps and bounds better than any film just for Hugo’s prose alone, the 1939 film version is certainly a worthy addition in the halls of cinema.