Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

This October, we're looking at Movie Churches in films of horror and suspense because, you know, Halloween and all. There are those who may say that "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" has no place here. After all, it's an adaptation of a classic novel by Victor Hugo and makes no more sense here than "Les Miserables." The Hunchback is just an unfortunate individual with a physical deformity; he's no monster.

With that last statement I must strenuously disagree. When I was a kid, I had a collection of models I received from my brother that had monsters from Universal films. I had Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolfman, Dracula AND the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I rest my case. Would my brother steer me wrong?

So we'll stipulate that the Hunchback is a monster, though also a really good guy. Note he shares the title with Notre Dame. It's a reference to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The story is set there. So "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is quite at home in Halloween Movie Churches. As Archbishop Walter Hampton says in one version of the film, "We extract pleasure from horror. We shrink from ugliness and then want to see it."

Because Hugo's novel has not been under copyright for a very long time there have been many film adaptations of the material. I watched the three most famous versions: the silent version starring Lon Chaney from 1923, the Charles Laughton version from 1939, and Disney's animated version from 1996. (I'm neglecting the 1956 version with Anthony Quinn, the 1982 version with Anthony Hopkins and quite a number of cheap animated knockouts that came out after the Disney version.)

That's a lot of film to cover in one post, so I'm going to focus on just two things: the clergy and the cathedral itself.

Though I said Quasimodo was the monster in the films (and the model kits back me up on this), he certainly isn't the villain. The chief villain in the novel and all the films is named Frollo. In the novel, Frollo has a scholarly position in the church and has taken vows of celibacy and is quite a complex character. He adopts Quasimodo as an infant out of compassion. But lust for the gypsy woman Esmeralda leads him to commit a number of villainous acts, including murder.An interesting thing is that the films, made at different times, seem to have varying levels of comfort in identifying Frollo as a clergyman.

In the 1923 version, "Jehan" Frollo lives in the Notre Dame cathedral, and the title cards make it clear he is a member of the clergy. But Esmeralda points out that he's taken on worldly dress rather than the dress of a priest. He does at one point in the film don a priest's robes to get past prison guards, but it seems the film makers aren't comfortable with him REALLY being a priest.

The 1939 version makes the villain "Judge Jean" Frollo. He is not a member of the clergy but a government magistrate. His brother is a clergyman (as he is in the book) and a drunkard. But his brother the priest has his heart in the right place.

The 1996 Disney version, with "Judge Claude" Frollo of the three films, presents the character most clearly as religious. Though a judge, he sings of his lust for Esmeralda in religious terms in the song "Hellfire". It's a pretty powerful indictment of religious hypocrisy (you know, for the kids).

As for the Notre Dame Cathedral itself, it's presented as a pretty wonderful place in all the films. The 1923 film describes it as, "A spiritual haven in a brutal age; a sanctuary where the persecuted could find protection, the enduring monument of a mighty faith." In the 1939 film a magistrate says of the building, "Cathedrals like this one triumphant monument to the past... Glorifying France." (The 1939 film is pretty big on progress. The Cathedral is the glory of France's past, but the printing press promises to be the glory of France's future.)

In all three films, the Cathedral is a place of great beauty, as is the actual Cathedral. The bells provide a beautiful song and the voice of the hunchback. The gargoyles are a unique architectural feature. In the animated feature, the statues sing, dance and crack wise. In the 1939 version, the rain spouts of the gargoyles are used to pour hot oil on attackers (frankly, the reason I loved this film as a kid).

But the word that best sums up the glory of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in all of the films is to be found in one word, "Sanctuary." Esmeralda finds hope in its walls. (In the latter two films, we see her pray to Mary for her people, while those around her pray for themselves.)

In the 1939 film, there is a great conflict over whether the church can stand in opposition to the government, protecting the accused within its wall. Laughton's cry of "Sanctuary" became a staple for impressionists, but it still it a powerful thing. Because one of the best things a church can do is provide hope, refreshment and safety from a corrupt and evil world.

That's why I'm giving the Cathedral of Notre Dame in all of these films Three Steeples. (It would be four if it wasn't for that darn Frollo.) 

No comments:

Post a Comment