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STUDIO: Sony Pictures
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
“It’s kind of like taking a medieval revenge tragedy and giving it a happy ending. Happier, anyway.
Anthony Hopkins (unrecognizable!), Derek Jacobi (incomparable!), Lesley-Ann Down (forgettable!)
Dom Claude Frollo (Jacobi) is a pervy old priest, who lusts over gypsy dancing girl Esmerelda. Plainly, this means that she is a demon who has cast a spell upon him, because no man of sufficient piety could ever harbor impure thoughts. Esmerelda, recoiling from Frollo, falls in love with Captain Phoebus, while slightly manic poet Gringoire falls in love with — and somehow marries — her. All this time, Quasimodo the hunchback rings the bells of Notre Dame.
In the book, things play out like this: Quasimodo gets tortured for an attempted kidnapping of Esmerelda. Frollo kills Phoebus, and blames the murder on Esmerelda, who is tortured, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging. Quasimodo steals her away to the cathedral, where she can claim sanctuary. Angry rioters gather around the cathedral, the King of France says: “Fuck sanctuary,” and sends his soldiers in to retrieve Esmerelda. Frollo gives her up. She is hanged. Quasimodo pushes Frollo to his death, then goes and finds Esmerelda’s grave, curls up inside it with her body, and gently starves to death.
In this adaptation, a lot of the same stuff happens, but Esmerelda survives, Quasimodo kills Frollo in self-defense, Gringoire and Esmerelda fall in love, and then Quasimodo dies after being chased off a parapet by a band of soldiers.
Oh, quit encouraging him.
Quasimodo is not a hero, god damnit. He’s not a romantic figure. He’s definitely not a lovable, plucky scamp with a heart of gold. He’s not even the central figure of Victor Hugo’s original novel, for a very simple reason: Nothing about the story works when he gets thrust into that role. Many of the countless adaptations try to humanize the hunchback, to turn the story into a fable about love crossing all boundaries of class or level of hideous deformity. Hugo was a much better writer than Chris Columbus.
SLOTH LOVE PUNK!
This 1982 Hallmark version of the story isn’t the worst offender in misrepresenting Hugo’s characters, but the changes its handlers made, such as the above, bemuse me. First, to Quasimodo: Where his arc is initially aimed at exemplifying the nature of a beast — its capriciousness, its sometimes confounding loyalty, and its unavoidable retribution — it ends up flying off in a tangent in the final third, and misses the mark entirely. He becomes reactive, in the mode of a hero. Instead of reflecting animal behaviors back at the main players of the story, he begins to fight back against his circumstances, eventually directing a bit of thoughtful, premeditated violence at Frollo.
“And this bothers you because…?”
Just because I don’t see Quasimodo as a character so much as a foil, and a pretty heartbreaking one at that. As a hero, especially when he becomes a hero midway through the story, he’s less effective.
“Let me eat cake!”
This leads into my theory of Conservation of Activity. While Quasimodo gets all active, Esmerelda becomes a wilting flower of inactivity. I mean, she barely even reacts. What happens to her? She dances in the streets and gets arrested, then granted freedom by Frollo. She gets bullied into dancing again, then tricked into a relationship with the pervy Phoebus, then accused of murder, then pronounced guilty, then saved by some menfolk. The only thing she does for herself is propose a marriage — for the express purpose of saving a dude’s life. This makes her a lump in the story, a catalyst for action, but not much more.
If any of Hugo’s characters have retained their complexity, it’s Frollo. Of course, the man has such a fucking great internal crisis that not even Disney could stand (or were capable of) watering him down. The problem here being that all the complexity of the battle between faith and flesh gets slanted here — as in many other reductive portrayals — toward villainy. On top of that, he’s not portrayed as a broken man, who has carried himself beyond redemption; he’s more pathetic, a victim of his own libido and pharisaical ways, and acting on both out of desperation.
If that’s a gypsy on the right, then that’s a hoagie on the left.
Weaving these altered characters together results in a story that wouldn’t make much of a splash if it weren’t for its pedigree. The script is free of ambiguity, and allows every human connection to be consummated in one way or another. Quasimodo gets to kiss Esmerelda’s hand; Gringoire gets to have a future with his bride; Frollo makes an attack on his ward’s life and loses his own in consequence. It’s dull drama, and unfulfilling precisely because events resolve so neatly.
Still, Derek Jacobi is always a treat to watch, and his Frollo retains the most complexity out of any of the characters.
It’s a made-for-Hallmark special. You get nothing.