The Hunchback of Notre Dame

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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What maniac at the Walt Disney Corporation could have had the idea of attempting to transform Victor Hugo’s grim Gothic masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, into an animated cartoon? If ever a book violated every single rule of contemporary American family entertainment, this is it. The book is saturated with violence, sexual longing, contempt for organized religion, and long meditations on the history and meaning of art. It ends horribly unhappily, with the famous bellringer Quasimodo hurling himself into the grave alive to embrace the corpse of his beloved Esmeralda after she has been forsaken by one lover and judicially murdered by another.

But that’s not the worst of it!

The Disney Hunchback seeks as all modern Disney cartoons do to teach improving lessons about diversity and tolerance. The corporate thought process must have gone something like this:

“Well we have done our bit to create positive images of native Americans with Pocahontas, of East Asians with Mulan, and we are developing, developing, developing (but never quite completing) a movie featuring an African-American girl. Is there anything we could do to create a positive image of disability?”

To which somebody with a hazy memory of college French literature – or old 1930s movies – responded: “Hey, how about a cuddly animated hunchback?”

It rather reminds me of one of those classic 1960s books on the advertising industry, where somebody has to think of a slogan to introduce some new Japanese company – Datsun say – to the US market. “How about: ‘From those wonderful people who brought you Pearl Harbor!’”

Here’s what Victor Hugo himself had to say about the effects of Quasimodo’s disability in the actual Hunchback:

It is certain that the mind becomes atrophied in a defective body. Quasimodo was barely conscious of a soul cast in his own image, moving blindly within him. The impressions of objects underwent a considerable refraction before reaching his mind. His brain was a peculiar medium; the ideas which passed through it issued forth completely distorted. The reflection which resulted from this refraction was, necessarily, divergent and perverted.

Hence a thousand optical illusions, a thousand aberrations of judgment, a thousand deviations, in which his thought strayed, now mad, now idiotic.

The first effect of this fatal organization was to trouble the glance which he cast upon things. He received hardly any immediate perception of them. The external world seemed much farther away to him than it does to us.

The second effect of his misfortune was to render him malicious.

He was malicious, in fact, because he was savage; he was savage because he was ugly. There was logic in his nature, as there is in ours.

His strength, so extraordinarily developed, was a cause of still greater malevolence: “Malus puer robustus,” says Hobbes.

This justice must, however be rendered to him. Malevolence was not, perhaps, innate in him. From his very first steps among men, he had felt himself, later on he had seen himself, spewed out, blasted, rejected. Human words were, for him, always a raillery or a malediction. As he grew up, he had found nothing but hatred around him. He had caught the general malevolence. He had picked up the weapon with which he had been wounded.

This account is not without compassion. Hugo is at least as capable as a Hollywood studio exec of recognizing and condemning prejudice and injustice. Where he diverges from the execs is that he also recognizes that injustice damages those on the receiving end.

In the movie, Quasimodo is the child of gypsies, another designated victim group, hunted and despised for no good reason. Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of the cathedral, is the lead villain of both novel and movie. In the movie, he hates Esmeralda because he hates gypsies. In the book, Frollo professes to hate gypsies to conceal his lust for Esmeralda.

In the movie, Frollo falsely accuses gypsies of child-stealing. In the book, the gypsies actually do steal children – indeed we discover only too late that Esmeralda is a French child stolen by gypsies – and that Quasimodo was a broken child left behind by the gypsies in Esmeralda’s place. The gypsies may be victims of society – but society is in turn victimized by its victims.

Hugo’s Quasimodo will grow into the only character in the novel – not excluding Esmeralda – capable of a love that is not lust, of generosity, of gratitude.

This is the ambiguity of great literature, and literature does not get greater than Hunchback. Published in 1831, when Hugo was just 29, it took all medieval Paris for its theme. It is very weird to think that the Paris of 1831 looked much more like Paris of 1482 – the year in which the novel is set – than the Paris of today.

There was of course no Eiffel Tower, no Grand Palais, no Pont Alexander III. There were no Belle Epoque apartment houses, no Metro signs, no Opera, no Haussman boulevards. The Arc de Triomphe was begun – but abandoned unfinished.

Ile de la Cite was still a jumble of ancient houses and shops. The area around the Beaubourg, the old marketplace, was still one of the most densely inhabited in the city. Montmartre was a semi-rustic village, covered with vineyards and windmills. The Tuileries marked the westward end of the built-up city, with the Champs Elysees a long suburban promenade spotted here and there by palaces new and old.

The city would change more in the next 175 years than it had in the previous 350. The medieval city still sufficiently survived for Hugo to name individual buildings in the confidence that his readers would recognize them. Hugo’s work famously galvanized Europe’s first campaign of historic preservation, prodding the city to appreciate and renovate the neglected cathedral. Hugo failed in his larger mission, however, of protecting the texture and form of the medieval city.

It’s a very striking thought that a modern tourist can see much, much, much more of the scenes and surroundings of the American Revolution than of the French. The Bastille: gone. What was the National Assembly: gone. The Jacobins and the Cordeliers: gone. The prison in which Louis XVI was held: gone. The Champs de Mars: changed beyond all recognition.

You can stand where Patrick Henry gave his oration, visit old North Church, tour the hall in which the Constitution was written, and of course see the homes of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and so many others. Let nobody talk of the European sense of history and American neglect!

Hugo adored medieval architecture, hugely preferred it to the architecture of his own day (fair enough) – or even to the architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries. (Not so sure of that!)

(You can read here his marvelous recreation of medieval Paris, chapter 2 of Book III.)

Medievalism was a growing vogue in the early 19th century, but it was usually associated with royalist politics and Catholic sympathies. Not in Hugo’s case!

Hunchback ferociously portrays the ignorance, superstition, and brutality of medieval society. Esmeralda is sentencted to death for witchcraft and murder. So is her goat. Yet when it emerges that the man she supposedly murdered is very much alive, that in no way helps her. People shrug it off as an irrelevant and barely noticeable detail.

Hugo offers brilliant pen sketch of the cruel machinations of King Louis XI and the absurdities of medieval pseudo-science. His most hated target however is the church that built the cathedral he loved. Hugo was a believer and a Christian, but he was no Catholic.

Here for example is Claude Frollo confronting the truth that his hatred of Esmerlda is born of his desire for her:

And as he thus sifted his soul to the bottom, when he perceived how large a space nature had prepared there for the passions, he sneered still more bitterly. He stirred up in the depths of his heart all his hatred, all his malevolence; and, with the cold glance of a physician who examines a patient, he recognized the fact that this malevolence was nothing but vitiated love; that love, that source of every virtue in man, turned to horrible things in the heart of a priest ….

Hugo reserves nearly equal scorn and outrage for medieval aristocracy. He does not even bother to denounce and refute the chivalric ideal glamorized by his contemporary, Walter Scott. As far as Hugo is concerned, it does not exist. The aristocracy are driven by greed, arrogance, and disdain. There is nothing heroic or self-sacrificing in their enjoyment of violence: Violence is something they inflict on others. Esmeralda’s beloved Captain Phoebus is a conceited, mediocre, and ultimately cowardly fool.

There are good characters in the novel. The circumstances of the times drive them to crime, madness, or early death. Rarely has anyone so loved a period in the history of the art – and so harshly arraigned the society in which that art was produced – as Victor Hugo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. One of the many, many reasons I suppose that this great work so haunts us. And perhaps if that silly cartoon inspires anyone to try the book, then maybe the Walt Disney Company will have done a good action after all by its bizarre reinvention of Hugo’s colossal and terrible story.

I read Hunchback for the first time about a decade ago, but I enjoyed it even more as an audiobook. It is available in many narrations, but as always when I have a choice, I chose George Guidell’s, who also narrates almost all of the Alan Furst novels available as audiobooks. As always, be careful to check that your are getting the unabridged version.

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