Thursday, February 27, 2014

Meeting Mr. Hugo: Nothing Like Disney

Disney's adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favourite films of all time. It has everything: a sweeping score that sends chills up your spine, endearing protagonists, an epic villain, and absolutely breathtaking visuals. It's an animated film that appeals mostly to adults. It's dark, and while it has some cartoony, silly moments, it's often scary and brutal (I present the "Hellfire" scene as evidence).

But it's a Disney movie. It's written to appeal to kids, and to have a modern sensibility in its storytelling.

The book is nothing like it.

The movie starts with Quasimodo as a baby, being smuggled into the city by his gypsy mother. Claude Frollo chases her down, thinking her bundle is stolen goods, and ends up knocking her over, hitting her head, and killing her on the steps of Notre Dame. He then realizes she was carrying a baby, not something she'd stolen, and the baby is horrible disfigured. He's about to drop the baby down a well when he archdeacon of the church arrives, and charges Frollo with raising and caring for the child as a penance for what he did to the mother. Frollo reluctantly agrees, fearing for his soul, and says the baby must live in the bell tower of Notre Dame forever.

In the book? Well...

The real story starts with a single room. Hugo takes pages to describe the "Grand Salle" in the Palace of Justice, and the massive crowd of Parisians gathering in it on January 6th, 1482. It's a festival day, and there's going to be a presentation of a morality play, a popular form of entertainment in the Middle Ages. Parisians crowd around, waiting for hours and hours to ensure they have a good spot from which to watch the play. There are going to be a number of fancy people there to watch the play, including a lot of noblemen and a noblewoman from Flanders, who seems to be quite a big deal. The fancy people, including a cardinal who everyone is most eager to please, are late, so the play is delayed until they arrive. Everyone gets mad. The regular people start to bicker and grow restless.

The guy who wrote the play is lurking about in the shadows. His name is Pierre Gringoire, and he starts chatting up some girls who think he's really cool for having written this eagerly-anticipated play. Then the fancy people arrive, making a huge fuss, and finally the play gets underway. Pierre Gringoire, who suddenly becomes our main character, starts getting really annoyed when the fancy folk don't pay attention to his play, because the regular folk start paying attention to the fancies, who start gossiping and carrying on. The play is kind of awful, anyway, and everyone goes along with it when this super cool fancy guy suggests they get on with another festival event, the selection of the "Pape des Fous," which translates to "Pope of Fools" but which Disney changed to "King of Fools," because you can't be making fun of the church in a Disney movie apparently. Oh yeah, they also switched Claude Frollo from an archdeacon to a judge in the movie.

Anyway, the play is soundly ignored, and the people turn their attention to the people vying for the title of Pope of Fools. They have this puppet-stage like thing set up for people to pop their faces into and make scary faces at the crowd, hoping to awe and terrify them the most. Gringoire watches in disgust. He's so above them, being a super cool playwright and stuff. He watches as the crowd gasps when the ugliest face peers through the hole and becomes Pope of Fools.

In the Disney movie, everyone is horrified when it's revealed that Quasimodo's face isn't a mask, that he really is that disfigured. In the book, literally everyone already knows who Quasimodo is. The fancy guy who grants the title is amazed by this ape-like, mute, deaf hunchback (oh yeah, he's mute and deaf in the book, from ringing the bells so much -- that actually makes sense), but everyone else kind of shrugs and goes, "Oh, yeah, Quasimodo, that guy." The literal words out of one guy's mouth are "Bonjour, Quasimodo!" They carry him off for fun and games as the Pope of Fools.

At this point, I was like what. The. Literal. Fuck. Way to go, Disney, making the Medieval folk of Paris look like utter jerks for ostracizing poor Quasimodo when they really actually embraced him. And what the fuck, Victor Hugo, what is this? What a bizarre story.

And it's still only the beginning.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Meeting Mr. Hugo: the Beginning

Back in November (I think... was it really that long ago?) my boyfriend and I took a weekend trip to Victoria, BC. It's only about four hours away from home, but it feels like another place entirely. Just a nice place to spend a chill weekend, feeling like you've stepped back in time.

The highlight of the trip, for me, was Munro's Books. It's a really old, independent bookstore in the heart of the city, in a beautiful old building, resplendent with pillars and stained glass and fancy plaster. It's a book lover's dream. I swear I thought I'd died and ended up in heaven.

Needless to say, I busted the piggy bank and bought a sizeable stack of books. Like I usually do, I wandered the store, picking my purchase carefully. Shuffling them around, vetoing some, putting some back to acquire others. Making bargains with myself. Making Boyfriend carry some of my heavier selections. I was just about done when I rounded a corner and found myself face-to-face with a French fiction section, the biggest I've ever seen in a non-library.

I was in a French immersion program in school from age 10 to 17. After a few months of learning the language, 70-95% of my classes throughout that time were in French (minus English classes, of course) -- I even had French gym class. We played "le hockey" and "le basketball." But after graduation from high school, I have barely used my French besides reading cereal boxes and shampoo bottles.

So, as a booklover faced with a wall of books in a language I missed so much, I couldn't resist. I wanted to scoop up everything that looked even semi-interesting, but I settled on one: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, or Notre Dame de Paris, its French title. The Disney movie is among my favourites and I've always wanted to read the book and see how it compared.

It sat in my TBR pile for a while, as most books I read do, until I decided it was time. And so, for about a month now, I've been reading Hunchback for an hour or so every night. Sometimes it's slow-going. Sometimes I have my French dictionary open as often as I have the novel open. But sometimes it's fantastic. Sometimes I fly through chapters as easily as if they were English. It's exhilarating, relearning something you used to know by heart, flexing muscles that haven't been flexed in ages, and rediscovering that, hey, I'm damn good with French.

French isn't even the best part, though.

Hunchback is a really, really, really good book. I'm only a few hundred pages in, with a long way ahead of me, but damn. It doesn't get anywhere near the amount of praise it deserves.

And, also... it's fucking batshit insane.

Seriously. Victor Hugo's mind is just... ah! How? Why? WHAT IS GOING ON?

And so, I thought I'd start a bit of a blog series, hashing out this redonkulous book. Because I'm pretty sure Boyfriend is tired of hearing the words "Just guess what Victor Hugo fucking did in this fucking book, it's unbelievable!"

Let's start at the beginning.

But not the real beginning. Because it's hard to tell where exactly this book even starts. It certainly doesn't start in the first 54 pages -- that's just a huge long preface by some French scholar guy. I skipped that straight off the bat. But does it start in the next section, where Hugo writes about seeing some old word graffitied in Notre Dame by some Medieval delinquant. From there, he waxes poetic -- for seven pages -- about why he wrote the book. He wants you to appreciate Medieval architecture. That's his main point. The story isn't just a story, he says. It's meant to get his contemporary readers to look around their 19th century Parisian environment and stop valuing only the new and rejecting everything old. He straight-up admits that there are tons of extra chapters of Hunchback that are just about buildings and have nothing to do with the story. He freely admits that the book is bloated with extraneous information.

Try admitting that as a writer today. Today, Hugo would definitely be one of those writers.

And that's just one head-scratcher. The WTF starts pretty quickly after, in Book One.

To be continued...