Classics Corner: Notre Dame De Paris

William Dieterle ~ Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1939 [1]

Adaption choices. A necessary evil when bringing something from page to screen. I tend to fall into the camp that a book is a book and a movie is a movie and both require very different approaches. Adaptations can sometimes elevate source material (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or be head-scratchingly different (The Hobbit Trilogy). However, when anything beloved is put on the big screen you can bet your bottom that someone will be in your face with sentences such as, “The book was SO much better than the movie” or “Ugh! They left out so many details! I’m going to be angry for three days now!” or “I CAME TO THIS PREMIER DRESSED AS TOM BOMBADIL AND HE’S NOT EVEN IN THE GODDAMN MOVIE! TIME TO START PUNCHING THINGS!” All of these arguments should be answered with a swift bop on the nose and the word “hush.” A movie’s a movie and a book’s a book. Deal with it. Personally, I recommend at least a month between seeing a movie after reading a book or vice versa, so one isn’t fresh in your head when you’re trying to enjoy the other.

Sometimes however, two versions of a story work together so well that you have no choice but to experience them back to back as if they’re old college pals telling you the same tale. I’m here to tell you about one of these occasions.

In 1996 the Disney company decided it would be a good idea to turn Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame De Paris, a dark novel about a sexually aggressive Archdeacon who adopts a deformed child and gives him a job in a bell tower where he quickly blows out his eardrums, before they both fall in love with a gypsy (albeit different kinds of love) so hard that almost everybody involved dies horrifically, into a children’s movie about a down on his luck hunchback who learns about the power of beauty on the inside from his talking gargoyle friends right before setting up the gypsy he has an enormous crush on with the most handsome captain in Paris because, while beauty on the inside is good and all, the gypsy and the captain are totally going to bang and hunchbacks are gross. But it’s cool because afterwards all of Paris has a pizza party AND THE HUNCHBACK’S TOTALLY INVITED YOU GUYS! I had the pleasure to read the classic novel and then immediately watch the Disney film within minutes. The results were epic.

For starters let me give a primer on the novel. Released in 1831, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a classic in Gothic fiction. A major impetus for the writing of the novel was the fact that the cathedral Notre-Dame had been badly damaged during the French Revolution. Hugo, an avid fan of the art of architecture, used the novel as an opportunity to voice his concerns about the beauty of Paris in the 15th century (when the book takes place) by taking up large chunks of the novel describing various parts of the city, while also condemning modern day French officials for allowing the monument to go into decay. The book is also epic as fuck.

It opens in 1482, with Quasimodo being crowned the pope of fools at the festival of fools where he is quickly celebritised for the fact that his ugliness isn’t the result of facial contortion from his own doing, but of facial contortion of God’s. Yes. Quasimodo is ugly. Insanely, insatiably, crazily ugly and it was worse back in those days before world pretended that real beauty was on the inside like they do now. Back then if you were ugly that’s just what you were: Ugly.


We later learn that Quasimodo is the bastard spawn of a gypsy, and was left on the steps of Notre-Dame as an unwanted monster until he was picked up the stern Archdeacon Claude Frollo, a senior clergyman at Notre-Dame, who allows Quasimodo to live and grow in the bell tower. Frollo, we come to find, spent his entire life seeking further knowledge and while doing so violently rejected any distractions onceover, which is a reason he seemingly hates women. To him they are one big distraction. If you’ve seen the Disney adaption, you know he is the villain of the story. In the movie he is turned into the head judge of Paris, instead of an Archdeacon. Evidently someone at Disney read the book, and decided that making the bad guy of their kids’ movie a sexually frustrated leader of the Catholic Church probably wasn’t a good idea.

The events concerning the pope of fools are interrupted by news of the dancing gypsy, Esmeralda, who is performing tambourine twirls outside and because boobs are cool, everyone goes and decides to watch that instead. The world back then was not so different from the world now.

Claude Frollo has an immediate lust for the gypsy to the point where he orders Quasimodo to kidnap her so she will be out of his life. Instead Quasimodo is captured red-handed and ordered to be whipped at the pillory in the middle of the city. Apparently medieval Paris LOVES the flogging of a freak so much that the crowd watching is akin to an NFL football game. The only one who comes to help him is Esmeralda herself offering a drink of water to the poor, tortured hunchback. This makes Quasimodo insanely loyal to Esmeralda for helping him while simultaneously remaining loyal to Claude Frollo who is a pseudo sexual psycho to whom Quasimodo owes his life. That’s what I like to call some drama y’all!

There’s one character I should introduce before I skip to the end where all the badassery happens: Captain Phoebus. You may remember him in the movie as the dreamboat who teams up with Quasimodo to save Esmeralda and attempt to make the world a better place. Well in the book he’s kind of a dick. He saves Esmeralda from Quasimodo in the early chapter of the book which causes her to have an insane crush on this captain of the city watch. He puts up a front that he’s in love with her too, but all he really wants to do is sex her (Esmeralda is a sixteen year old virgin too. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned her boobs earlier).

This is a problem for Claude Frollo who, while he thinks Esmeralda is an evil temptress, also doesn’t want anyone else having her. Jealousy is a thing guys have trouble with to this day. He follows Phoebus to a meeting place the captain has arranged to swoon Esmeralda and stabs him during what was about to be an awesome bone-sesh. Esmeralda faints and wakes up to find her hottie presumed dead on the floor and herself accused of murder.

The Boot

When Esmerelda won’t confess to the murder she is tortured with a device called The Boot (see above). Frollo sneaks into her chambers and offers to help her escape if she will end his misery and have sex with him which she refuses immediately. She gets sentenced to the gallows, but on her way there Quasimodo socks her two escorts in the noggin, and carries her back to the cathedral where he famously yells “SANCTUARY! SANCTUARY!” meaning that no one was allowed to prosecute because she is now under the protection of a church, because back then laws were super silly. After a short stay Esmereldas truand friends from the Court of Miracles (the criminal underground of the city) form a mob to rescue her and get her safely out of Paris.

This poses a small problem for our deaf, hunchbacked hero, because I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a giant angry mob dear reader, but they’re sort of super scary. Not to mention Quasimodo thinks that the reason they’ve come is to hang Esmerelda instead of rescue her. What a classic misunderstanding! It could really be an episode of Three’s Company. Except for the fact that Quasimodo’s first plan of action is to drop a GIANT FUCKING BEAM OF WOOD from the top of the highest tower into the sea of people below. Mr. Hugo deserves kudos for the incredibly gory way he describes it severing a man in half at the stomach. The version I read was one of many translations to English and it still made George R.R. Martin seem like a huge wuss.

The battle rages on with ladders soon being brought up to the balcony level and the hunchback casually pushing truands off to their death like brushing off ants after a super annoying picnic. Eventually the king sends his army to stop the mob and while they’re at it he decides, screw it, he’s just going to invade the cathedral and get the wench to be hanged while he’s there. The king is quite literally above the law. Quasimodo thinks that that group is here to rescue her and jumps for joy, except there’s one problem, Esmeralda isn’t in the tower. She’s gone missing.

Claude Frollo couldn’t bear seeing her get pillaged and rescues her sneaky style with the help of her truand husband (a subplot that I’m not getting into. His name is Pierre Gringoire. That’s the last we’ll mention it. Go read the book). He gets her to the river but once he realizes she still won’t put out, he immediately turns her in. So of course Quasimodo comes to rescue her with Captain Phoebus (who it turns out didn’t die) and they ride off into the sunset.

Just kidding! Esmeralda is hung brutally, with the cherry on top being a guard that climbs up the gallows and jumps on her shoulders as soon as she starts hanging. Right before she died, she finds out her long lost mother (who is featured in another subplot I didn’t mention) has been in Paris the whole time as an old recluse and her head is bashed open on the stone street in front of her daughter who is about to be hung. Quasimodo pushes Frollo off the top of the tower out of anger (Disney got that one right) and then disappears. Years later, in the mass grave of people hung at the gallows, next to the skeleton of Esmeralda lies a skeleton with a distorted spine laying with her that clearly didn’t die of hanging. As soon as they try to move it, it turns to dust. Fade to black. The credits start to the theme of Death Cab for Cutie’s Soul Meets Body. Or at least that’s what happened in my head.

Some poor shmo at Disney had to take that and make it fun for kids, which personally I find incredible. Like I said earlier, I watched the Disney movie immediately after finishing the book. As in the same day. The notable increase of inspiring songs and wise-cracking gargoyles was my first observation. There was also the addition of the aforementioned acceptance pizza party that took the place of the parade of gruesome death that the story originally ends with. Overall I’d recommend the experience. Going from something dark to the exact same thing, except the good guys win and everything turns out great is a trip.


I finished the book on a Monday morning during a sick day. I just sort of sat in my bed for a while when I was done. I went to my living room and watched the same story unfold and end like a ten year old would want it to. Later on I bought a sandwich at Subway, sat in my room again, and thought about life, mostly about how I’m not sure yet if mine will end with everyone I know getting what they want and learning a valuable lesson, or with a gruesome bloodbath.

As I mentioned, it’s annoying when people try to argue what adaption of a work is better. Granted the two I experienced were so drastically different that it is downright silly to compare them, plus there have been several adaptations that more closely follow the book that I didn’t make the effort to watch, primarily because of Netflix availability. But I don’t care about any of that. A movie’s a movie and a book’s a book, and we should all unclench our butts a bit when comparing the two (I’m looking at you A Song of Ice and Fire book readers).

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