In 1831, Victor Hugo wrote what would be considered one of his most memorable literary works, Notre-Dame de Paris. When it was translated in 1883, it became known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the title by which it and most subsequent adaptations are known by. The first film adaptation was a French short in 1905, Esmeralda, named after the main character of the story. Despite being named in the title of the English translation, the hunchback Quasimodo was often considered a secondary character. This remained true for three more silent film adaptations but changed forever when Universal released their adaptation, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1923. The credit for Quasimodo’s rise to prominence rests completely on the legendary skills of make-up artist and actor Lon Chaney.
By the time Lon Chaney was hired for the role of Quasimodo, he was an accomplished actor on the verge of the prime of his career. At age 40, he had been acting in films since 1912 and while he had numerous successes, such as The Penalty, Oliver Twist and The Shock, The Hunchback of Notre Dame would elevate his career to new heights. There are countless reasons why this version remains such a timeless classic but the make-up work of Lon Chaney clearly stands out. He was the favorite to play the role from the beginning and Chaney himself was highly interested in playing Quasimodo. While the expansive sets were astounding and the large cast gave an epic feel to the production, Chaney owned the film from his first few seconds on screen.
While the character of Quasimodo is often considered a horror character alongside such true monsters as Dracula or the Mummy, he’s actually a very sad and tragic human being. Chaney’s make-up work is perhaps the most horrific version of Quasimodo and adds to the desire for many to place him in a rogue’s gallery of monsters. But Chaney also gave life to Quasimodo through his sympathetic performance, amplified by his acrobatic skills. Yet, there is no denying that when his shirt is ripped off and his hairy humped back and disfigured body is displayed for the first time, audiences will openly gasp. While Patsy Ruth Miller is good as Esmeralda and Brandon Hurst is truly evil as Jehan, Quasimodo’s master, Chaney’s performance outshines them all. The audience is engaged in his story from his first moment on screen to his unfortunate end in the final moments of the film.
Chaney would go on to make another 20 films over the next seven years, including many of his most famous roles, including that of the lead in The Phantom of the Opera in 1925. Sadly, the world would lose Chaney in 1930 to lung cancer. Thankfully, many of his films remain with us, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was restored in 2007 and released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in 2014.
While Chaney’s portrayal of Quasimodo was legendary, RKO Pictures would attempt to make their own fortune with the character some nine years after Chaney’s death. Charles Laughton would be the primary star for this version with make-up work by Perc Westmore. This Quasimodo is nowhere near as horrific, which may have helped in him being more appealing to the audience. However, with less acrobatics and over-the-top theatrics, Laughton just never comes close to stealing the film as Chaney did. Furthermore, the script really shifts the focus to Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) and is much more of a romantic tale than one of adventure as seen in the 1923 version.
The characters of Claude and Jehan Frollo were once again changed from the original novel due to concerns about having the main villain being a priest. In the novel, Claude was a villainous archdeacon while here he is the almost saintly archbishop. Likewise, Jehan was portrayed as a drunken teenage student in the novel but here he is the middle-aged villain. Another key change is the stronger focus on the plight of the gypsies, which may have been in direct reference to what was happening to the Jewish people in Germany at the time. Despite these changes, both versions of the story don’t suffer and, perhaps, are even improved by the revisions.
However, the 1939 version does make one key change to the plot that greatly changes the ending of the story. Quasimodo’s death in the 1923 version is powerful but RKO opted for a happy ending to the story and allowed Quasimodo to live. Granted, the image of him atop Notre Dame commenting on how he wished he was made of stone is somewhat sad, the fact that he lived is a drastic departure from the original story. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the film but it did take away what I feel was a more impactful ending as seen in 1923. You can judge for yourself as the 1939 version is currently available on Blu-ray from Warner Brothers for less than $15.
Ultimately, I feel the 1939 version is a watered-down adaptation when compared to the 1923 Chaney film. While the RKO production is more polished, it was almost too clean at times, a feeling I often have whenever I watch MGM’s 1938 adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Personally, a grittier presentation is much more appealing and, when considering the softer and more romantic ending seen in 1939, I ultimately feel the Lon Chaney adaptation is superior. Both are lavish productions but it comes down to personal preference. However, with personal opinions aside, each has something to offer that many modern films are lacking…heart and compassion. No matter how monstrous Quasimodo may appear, you cannot help but feel for him as the world around him spins out of control.
There have been many other adaptations throughout the decades. From Anthony Quinn in 1956 to Anthony Hopkins in 1982, the tale of the gypsy girl Esmeralda and the hunchback Quasimodo remains timeless. With Disney announcing a live-action remake of their 1996 animated version, it appears as if Quasimodo will continue to ring the bells of Notre Dame for many years to come.