Though Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been adapted on many occasions over the years, almost everyone has shied away from the novel's relentlessly dark nature. Hugo's novel is a profound, complex meditation on the nature of prejudice that builds to a heartbreaking series of horrific tragedies. The film versions inevitably find a way to soften this material, sparing the lives of likable characters and finding gentler variations on the novel's harsh plot twists. William Dieterle's 1939 adaptation of the tale is no exception, but still manages to retain much of the novel's sobering power.
As the film begins, the citizens of Paris are preparing for their annual Festival of Fools (it's a cheerful celebration of foolishness, which is to say it's a fairly typical celebration). Each year, those in attendance at the festival choose a new King of Fools – inevitably the ugliest-looking person they can find. This time around, the winner is immediately obvious: Quasimodo (Charles Laughton, The Mutiny on the Bounty), a hunchback with a horribly disfigured face. Quasimodo is the bellringer at the Notre Dame Cathedral, and he has lost his hearing a result of his profession. His looks alone would make him an outcast, but his inability to understand others further damages his chances of connecting with other human beings. Even so, he is pleased to be name King of Fools, and enjoys himself until his master Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, The Ten Commandments) – the King's Chief Justice of Paris – puts a swift halt to the proceedings.
It's during this same festival that a gypsy woman named Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara, Miracle on 34th Street) arrives in town, and is quickly chased by guards intent on arresting her (mostly because she's an attractive, free-spirited young woman, and that sort of thing can't be seen in public). Esmeralda seeks refuge in Notre Dame Cathedral, where the Archdeacon (Walter Hampden, Sabrina) grants her sanctuary. Consequently, Esmeralda is eventually introduced to Quasimodo, who frightens the young gypsy at first but eventually begins to form an unusual bond with her.
It could be argued that this two-hour film attempts to stuff too many of the novel's plot threads into the mix – Esmeralda ends up at the center of a love quadrangle, which is more than the film is really equipped to deal with – but the central story threads and fundamental ideas still resonate. There are moments when the film compensates for its compressed nature by simply having characters spell out the should-be-underlying themes. To modern viewers, these scenes may suggest a lack of faith in the audience. Considering that the film was made in 1939, I think there's a different way to look at it: the filmmakers wanted to ensure that the story's relatively progressive ideas – ideas that stood in contrast to certain cultural norms - couldn't be ignored by moviegoers of the era.
The film improves on and/or falls short of various adaptations of this story in various ways, but I don't think there's any question that Charles Laughton delivers a version of Quasimodo that's nothing short of definitive. It's a beautifully empathetic performance that never feels like a caricaturization; a performance that captures the character's humanity without being condescending or overtly sentimental. Buried under layers of prosthetics and makeup, Laughton captures the confusion, rage, tenderness and joy of the character without missing a beat.
There other virtues worthy of praise. O'Hara manages to successfully embody Esmeralda's radiance and basic decency, while Hardwicke's Frollo offers an impressively subdued, nuanced take on the character's self-serving, self-righteous villainy. The film pulls no punches in emphasizing organized religion's tendency to abuse its power, humanity's tendency to succumb to mob mentality and the consequences of social inequality. The sheer level of spectacle is particularly impressive, as thousands of extras create a 15th century Paris that feels truly alive. Still, it's Laughton's tortured visage and pleading voice that lingers with you long after the film concludes. In his eyes, there is a hunger for the sort of love his appearance will never permit him to find.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Year: 1939