Read the book

February 15, 2010



I turned on a TV yesterday morning — an unlikely thing for me to do — and wound up watching part of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on Turner Classic Movies. It was the 1939 version starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. It is one of at least 14 movie and television adaptations of Victor Hugo’s novel “Notre Dame de Paris” — the formal name of the cathedral in Paris — and is generally accepted as the best of the lot. Among silent films, the 1923 version starring Lon Chaney was a benchmark achievement on several accounts — the sets recreating 15th century Paris, Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the deformed bell ringer, and the box office receipts of more than $3 million, Universal’s highest gross in the silent era.

I was pretty young when I first read Hugo’s novel, which is always marketed under the misleading title used on most of the films — misleading in that while Quasimodo might, ironically, be the most attractive figure in the story, he is not more important to the story than Esmeralda or Claude Frollo. Although the story has been retold 14 times on film TV, none of the re-tellings are entirely true to the original. Writers and directors have departed in many ways from Hugo’s plot and characters.


It is central to the tragedy of Hugo’s story that Esmeralda is executed and Quasimodo vanishes after her death, and Hugo leads his readers to believe that the bell ringer died in his grief, embracing Esmeralda’s body in a cemetery for social castoffs.  In the Laughton version both characters are alive at the end of the film; in the Chaney version Quasimodo dies, but Esmeralda lives. These are not details; they are significant deviations from Hugo’s intent.

Among the other actors who have played Quasimodo are men as different as Anthony Quinn, Anthony Hopkins, and Mandy Patinkin — the latter in a TNT cable production in 1997. Quinn was paired with Sophia Loren in a 1956 French production in which he and Loren were the only actors who spoke English. The rest of the dialogue had to be dubbed over the French.


That was the first color film based on the novel. Whereas Patinkin tried to duplicate as closely as possible Laughton’s image of Quasimodo, Quinn’s makeup was mild, not coming close to the grotesque features that Hugo describes and that constitute the context for the bell ringer’s place in — or, rather, outside of — society. In that version, Esmeralda is killed accidentally which, of course, dilutes the injustice inherent in the story. But who would want to execute Sophia Loren?

Walt Disney Productions

There have also been a couple of attempts to stray so far from Hugo’s work as to turn Quasimodo into a huggable cutie — as in Walt Disney’s 1996 animated feature — or even a comic figure, as in the 1999 French romp, “Quasimodo d’El Paris.”

I hope that folks who have seen even the best of these films don’t think they’ve experienced what Victor Hugo created in his novel. On the other hand, who has the patience to read classical novels in the Twitter age?

Incidentally, the bell ringer was named Quasimodo because, as an infant, he was abandoned at  the cathedral by his mother and found on Quasimodo Sunday — the first Sunday after Easter. The Introit of the Mass for that day is taken from the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. That passage is often translated, As newborn infants do, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, for you have tasted that the Lord is good.


I have read what I consider to be a spurious explanation that Quasimodo’s name was a play on words — an idea that depends on translating quasi modo to mean “partly made” — meaning that Quasimodo was born incomplete. I can’t find my Cassell’s Latin Dictionary right now, but if memory serves me right, the literal translation of the first two words of  the passage is not “partly made” but “in a similar way.”


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