Quasimodo will be played today by Hannibal Lecter

Two freaks, Quasimodo and Hannibal Lecter, who have nothing in common, except that they have both been portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

After reading “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” recently, I saw the 1982 television adaptation starring Hopkins as Quasimodo, Lesley-Ann Down as Esmeralda, Derek Jacobi as Claude Frollo, Robert Powell as Phoebus and John Gielgud as Charmolue.  I had great hopes but it was disappointing in a number of ways.  The ending was terrible and nonsensical.  The script seems careless at times: for example, when Phoebus is stabbed it makes no sense because he is no longer pushing himself on Esmeralda and she has rejected him. 

Jacobi is very good as Frollo.  He is not bald, and in fact is more good-looking than Phoebus.  However, these are changes to the novel that are not necessarily bad if they fit a new vision from the director.  I guess the idea was to humanize Frollo a little and to really drive home that Phoebus was an unsympathetic louse. 

Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins as Quasimodo and Lesley-Anne Down as Esmeralda in the film ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, aka ‘Hunchback’, 1982. Here she gives him a drink after he has suffered a public flogging. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)

Anthony Hopkins is great as Quasimodo.  The scene between him and Esmeralda after the “Sanctuary” rescue is the best in the movie, and the best work by each of these actors here. 

Even better is the same scene as depicted in 1997, between Mandy Patinkin and Salma Hayek:  just beautiful.

And an old classic:

Back to 1982: Hopkins’ Quasimodo looks old rather than merely misshapen, but that’s a problem with all the adaptations I’ve seen, and I think it’s a change to the novel that doesn’t really detract in any way.  It bothers me a little more that this hunchback doesn’t look particularly strong, but then again, a somewhat infirm-looking Quasimodo works in its own way.

Lesley Ann-Down’s turn as Esmeralda is quite dour, despite a few tender moments with Quasimodo. She’s not even given a lively dance to do, and that may be because in this version she is forced to dance, by none other than Clopin, who seems to use her for the money she earns.  All well and good as a new vision, but none of these new themes are especially explored after the initial setup. 

In the novel, Frollo says that the first time he saw Esmeralda she was dancing and singing, but here he first sees her merely standing in the square, detained by local guards – and it’s lust at first sight.  One of the themes in the novel is how Frollo, Esmeralda, and really all the major characters get “hooked” or obsessed with people that they know nothing about and never come to know.  This movie seems to take it one step further by making it plain that Frollo is obsessed with Esmeralda’s looks and nothing more – not her dancing, nothing of her compassionate character, nothing but her looks.  And I think because of her sullen portrayal here, she rarely looks more than beautiful in a static way, which leaves the impression that not only Frollo but all the other men are idealizing her because in some way they find her looks to be extraordinary.  With someone like Phoebus, this presents no problem, because Phoebus pursues countless women; but with Frollo, we don’t know what the “hook” is.  If it’s nothing to do with Esmeralda but her looks, then what is it in him that is causing this downfall in this character right now?  In this movie as in the book, his attraction to Esmeralda surprises both himself and others, and in the novel it’s the first time, at the age of 36, that he’s felt anything significant toward any woman.

Jacobi does a lot of things right as Frollo.  You see the torment quite clearly, rather than a merely black-hearted villain, as in some adaptations.  At times he seems too sensitive for this character, though he does show an edge of anger.

In the novel I pictured a harder and darker man.  Hugo is always dressing him in black, and covering up his face in robes and hoods, so I pictured someone like Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape, or Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. 

One commenter on YouTube suggested some great choices to play Frollo in a future film:  Ralph Fiennes or Daniel-Day Lewis.

I can just picture Lewis, combining Newland Archer’s sensitive obsession with the raw passion of Hawkeye and the ferocious badness of Bill the Butcher.

And Fiennes, well, when reading that scene where Frollo visits Esmeralda in the dungeon, confessing his love while making it clear that he considers it damnation to love someone like her, I couldn’t help thinking of a similar scene in “Schindler’s List” between Commandant Amon Goth and his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch.

The priest paused for a moment, overcome with emotion. Then he continued,—

“Already half fascinated, I tried to cling fast to something and hold myself back from falling. I recalled the snares which Satan had already set for me. The creature before my eyes possessed that superhuman beauty which can come only from heaven or hell. It was no simple girl made with a little of our earth, and dimly lighted within by the vacillating ray of a woman’s soul. It was an angel! but of shadows and flame, and not of light. At the moment when I was meditating thus, I beheld beside you a goat, a beast of witches, which smiled as it gazed at me. The midday sun gave him golden horns. Then I perceived the snare of the demon, and I no longer doubted that you had come from hell and that you had come thence for my perdition. I believed it.”

Here the priest looked the prisoner full in the face, and added, coldly,—

“I believe it still. Nevertheless, the charm operated little by little; your dancing whirled through my brain; I felt the mysterious spell working within me. All that should have awakened was lulled to sleep; and like those who die in the snow, I felt pleasure in allowing this sleep to draw on. All at once, you began to sing. What could I do, unhappy wretch? Your song was still more charming than your dancing. I tried to flee. Impossible. I was nailed, rooted to the spot. It seemed to me that the marble of the pavement had risen to my knees. I was forced to remain until the end. My feet were like ice, my head was on fire. At last you took pity on me, you ceased to sing, you disappeared. The reflection of the dazzling vision, the reverberation of the enchanting music disappeared by degrees from my eyes and my ears. Then I fell back into the embrasure of the window, more rigid, more feeble than a statue torn from its base. The vesper bell roused me. I drew myself up; I fled; but alas! something within me had fallen never to rise again, something had come upon me from which I could not flee.”

He made another pause and went on,—

“Yes, dating from that day, there was within me a man whom I did not know. I tried to make use of all my remedies. The cloister, the altar, work, books,—follies! Oh, how hollow does science sound when one in despair dashes against it a head full of passions! Do you know, young girl, what I saw thenceforth between my book and me? You, your shade, the image of the luminous apparition which had one day crossed the space before me. But this image had no longer the same color; it was sombre, funereal, gloomy as the black circle which long pursues the vision of the imprudent man who has gazed intently at the sun.

“Unable to rid myself of it, since I heard your song humming ever in my head, beheld your feet dancing always on my breviary, felt even at night, in my dreams, your form in contact with my own, I desired to see you again, to touch you, to know who you were, to see whether I should really find you like the ideal image which I had retained of you, to shatter my dream, perchance, with reality. At all events, I hoped that a new impression would efface the first, and the first had become insupportable. I sought you. I saw you once more. Calamity! When I had seen you twice, I wanted to see you a thousand times, I wanted to see you always. Then—how stop myself on that slope of hell?—then I no longer belonged to myself. The other end of the thread which the demon had attached to my wings he had fastened to his foot. I became vagrant and wandering like yourself. I waited for you under porches, I stood on the lookout for you at the street corners, I watched for you from the summit of my tower. Every evening I returned to myself more charmed, more despairing, more bewitched, more lost!

“I had learned who you were; an Egyptian, Bohemian, gypsy, zingara. How could I doubt the magic? Listen. I hoped that a trial would free me from the charm. A witch enchanted Bruno d’Ast; he had her burned, and was cured. I knew it. I wanted to try the remedy. First I tried to have you forbidden the square in front of Notre-Dame, hoping to forget you if you returned no more. You paid no heed to it. You returned. Then the idea of abducting you occurred to me. One night I made the attempt. There were two of us. We already had you in our power, when that miserable officer came up. He delivered you. Thus did he begin your unhappiness, mine, and his own. Finally, no longer knowing what to do, and what was to become of me, I denounced you to the official.

For a brief moment Frollo actually produces a rational self-reflective thought, when he recognizes that he has an obsession, different from reality.

But he also says to the girl that he regards her as something sent from hell, and tells her in detail about his plan to burn her as a witch.

This is chilling and brutal, and perhaps no movie can really do it justice.  At least, not in the Hollywood spirit.

Everyone thinks this book is entirely grim and dark, and that the movies leave out the darkest parts.  That’s true in a strict sense.  But after reading the novel, the movies seem darker to me.  By that I don’t mean to deny that the novel has the darkest passages.  What I mean is that when I think now of Hugo’s story, the movies strike me as depressing, and I think of the novel as something that actually has some light in it.

There are two reasons for that.

One, the novel contains wonderful discussions about history, art, architecture, buildings, and beautiful cities.  Movies, though they can capture the beautiful cathedral, just can’t approach what Hugo gives us here.

Two, only the novel has any humor.  The movies have almost none. 

And there are surprisingly funny scenes in the novel, usually involving the hapless, innocent, and clueless poet, Pierre Gringoire.  This post is not about him, but I do think that humor can be a saving virtue in a novel, and if you want to laugh, check out:

  • Gringoire’s lengthy interview with Frollo in the chapter, “A Priest And A Philosopher Are Two Different Things”
  • Gringoire begging the king to spare his life in “The Retreat In Which Monsieur Louis Of France Says His Prayers”

Gringoire’s “Wedding Night” with Esmeralda is also good.

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