Wednesday, July 24, 1996
I must admit to a certain Schadenfreude at newspaper reports that the Hunchback of Notre Dame is not doing all that great at the box office. It's not that I don't like Disney shtick--I loved Aladdin and can't wait for Return of the Genie and The Sultan Strikes Back. But I was ticked off--offended to the core is more like it--at having the great tragic novel I grew up with turned into a feel-good love fest. Where is Oliver Stone when you need him?
I do believe in artistic freedom, and I realize that every classic, from Oedipus Rex to The Great Gatsby, is fair game. But there's a fine line between freedom and license, between interpretation and demolition. Disney's Hunchback doesn't awkwardly shuffle over that line--it sings and dances its way across it. The essence of Hunchback--the real one--is hardness, cruelty, injustice, and hopelessness. These are not edifying concepts, but they're part of the human condition and Victor Hugo does a masterful job of capturing them on paper.
Through the power of Hugo's writing, Quasimodo has become a part of our culture, tragedy personified. (Contrast the cheesy characters in Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, which more aptly should have been named Peyton Place Builds a Great Big Church.) Will children who grow up with Quasi, the McDonald's Happy Meal action figure, be able to see and understand Quasimodo, the tragic figure? And if they cannot, if the ability of an entire generation to enjoy and learn from the novel is undermined by early exposure to the bastardized version, will Quasimodo, the symbol, be lost to our culture?
I do hope not. Perhaps the movie's relative lack of success--the fact that Hunchback merchandise goes begging on store shelves--is a sign that the whole smarmy enterprise will leave no permanent scar. And perhaps it will be a lesson to Hollywood that if you want a real feel-good movie, you have to go to the trouble of doing the creative work from scratch