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.

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