Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

4. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), dir. William Dieterle

This was the latest Cottage Classic, seen with ms_siobhan and planet_andy. I read the book 13 years ago, during my DPhil when I was living in a tiny studio apartment in Paris and researching Roman urban peripheries each day at the Bibliothèque Nationale, but I've actually never seen a film adaptation of it at all. This one seemed good, though. Charles Laughton's performance as the hunchback is excellent, and makes me all the sadder that the 1937 film of I, Claudius, in which he would of course have played a similar character (misunderstood, disabled), was never completed.

It doesn't follow the novel exactly - in particular, it gives the story a happy ending, in which Esmeralda is not executed but goes off happily with the young poet Gringoire (who reminded me a lot of [ profile] Juvelad), and Quasimodo lives on in his bell-tower. But I felt it captured the atmosphere of the novel well, including some of the thematic stuff which I remember being struck by when I read it. For example, the book places a great emphasis on the difference between the interior and exterior of the medieval walls of Paris (which had obvious resonances for me when I was reading it because of my work on Roman urban peripheries) and includes long passages about how cathedrals and their sculptural programmes are the equivalents of texts for a society without printing presses (which also relates closely to the role of Roman public buildings). Both of these came up in the film too - especially the cathedrals-as-texts thing.

I don't remember Louis IX being quite so prominent in the book, though - or so progressive. In the film, he is a great advocate of the new-fangled printing press, which he thinks is a miracle. I missed the character of Gudule, an old woman who lives in a cell off a public square lamenting her past, and whom I felt added a lot to the brutal / ascetic medieval atmosphere of the book. And in the novel it seems plausible that Esmeralda might have some interest in Phoebus, but the film didn't really convince on that point. Meanwhile, some of the themes of the film - inner vs. outer beauty and superstition vs. rationalism - felt a bit heavy-handed sometimes. But the sets were good - especially Quasimodo's bell tower, but also the streets of 15th-century Paris, which were all purpose-built for the film.

Definitely another film I'm glad I've seen, anyway, especially on the big screen.

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Tags: films, films watched 2013, reviews

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