Grab a baguette, put on your beret, and forget everything you know about the Disney movie, because we're about to get more French than Camembert. That's right, we're talking about one of the most famous French novel ever written, that book by Victor Hugo that isn't Les Misérables ("Wait, you mean Les Misérables is a book?"), the story that made gargoyles and gypsies cool.
We're talking, of course, about The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
Now, there aren't many people out there who haven't heard of the Hunchback, whether it's because one of the few dozen film and TV adaptations, or because of all those bell-ringing hunchbacks in pop culture, or because the book itself is très, très popular. But how many people can say that they've actually read the book? Like Moby-Dick, it's probably one of those books you feel like you've read without actually having read it.
But that so doesn't mean that you can curl up with your rewound Disney VHS and let it do the work for you. Most of the versions you'll see on the screen are totally sugarcoated. Watching one of those is like eating carob instead of chocolate or chowing down on Tofurkey for Thanksgiving.
We're not going to give anything away just yet, but we will say this: Disney will not prepare you for what's ahead.
And what exactly is ahead? Deformities. Thieves. Lecherous soldiers. Lecherous priests. Mobs. Murder. Mayhem. Misdeeds. A questionable relationship with a goat. What's not to love?
Oh, and there is this little tidbit that usually gets left out about the book: it's also really funny. Les Misérables may be about the Miserable Ones, but the Hunchback, for all of its darkness, is witty, sarcastic, and always aware of the weird stuff it puts in front of us.
Here's what you need to know about the book's history: Victor Hugo published the Hunchback in 1831: that's about 40 years after the French Revolution and about 15 years after Napoleon. Definitely a weird time for France. But the story takes place in 1482, during the Middle Ages. Kind of odd, don't you think? All that stuff about Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, then all of a sudden this short man with a big hat declares himself emperor, and Victor Hugo decides to write a novel about a medieval cathedral? Sounds like a recipe for crazy awesomeness.
When you were younger, the stories you read probably had good guys and bad guys. It was probably pretty clear which were the good guys and which were the bad guys. In fact, there was probably one real good guy, and one real bad guy.
This novel is totally not interested in neat and tidy stories where the hero gets the princess in the end and good always triumphs over evil.
Now, you're probably thinking, "But wait, isn't this a story about Quasimodo getting Esmeralda and something about that evil guy dying?" What if we told you that the original French title of this novel is actually Notre-Dame de Paris? That means that in English, this novel should be called Notre-Dame of Paris. None of this hunchback business. That's because Quasimodo actually isn't really the main character of this novel; the novel is about a whole slew of characters whose lives end up all revolving around the cathedral itself.
This is where you, the reader, come in. Your instinct might be to take these characters and start sorting out the good guys from the bad guys. Well, about a quarter of the way through the novel, you're going to need to do some serious reorganization. And then guess what? Make it halfway through, and you're going to need to do it again.
Seriously, the characters in this book flip-flop sides like it's election season.
You see, these characters are not your standard tropes: they are complex, they have different motivations, they are morally ambiguous, and they are not simply good or evil. You won't find any mustached men tying blond women to train tracks here. Because guess what? Life is not so black and white.
Sure, we might not encounter a bell-ringing hunchback or a weirdly intelligent goat every day; but we do do things like let a person's looks deceive us, or fall for someone we know we shouldn't fall for, or misunderstand a person based on a preconceived stereotype, or do terrible things as a result of our lust, envy, despair, or pride. Maybe our lives don't normally get as catastrophic and melodramatic as these characters' lives do, but that's just all the more reason to read the novel, right?
The Cathedral Has a Website
Time to book that flight to France.
Learn About the Man Behind the Beard
He's the most famous French writer ever. Or at least in the top five.
This famous adaptation is silent, in black and white, and stars the famous early film actor Lon Chaney, who was known for his ability to transform himself into grotesque characters using make-up.
A bit more Hollywood (still in black and white), this film version of the novel starts old-timey stars like Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton.
Want to see it en français? Here you go.
Before he played Hannibal Lector, Anthony Hopkins tried his hand at being Quasimodo in this TV movie from the 80's.
Who could forget the version made by Disney? Its legacy of un-nuancing the characters, simplifying the plot, and cheesing up the ending lives on. But the songs are pretty great.
One more entry, this one starring Mandy Patinkin, Richard Harris, and Salma Hayek.
OMG, You Guys. Quasimodo May Have Been Real.
Well, kind of. There may have been a hunchbacked sculptor working on the restoration of Notre-Dame that was going on around the time Hugo wrote his novel.
Medievalism and Modernity in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
This article talks about the history behind the novel, the medieval city of Paris, and the things Hugo decided to up and change about both in his novel.
"Sanctuary" Clip from the 1938 Film
Get your cheesy on.
Some Scenes from the 1923 Film with Lon Chaney
Be careful around those statues, Quasimodo. They need to last a while.
Notre-Dame Got Some New Bells in 2013 for Its 850th Anniversary
Apparently the old ones were off key.
Check Out the Organ Player at Notre-Dame Doing His Thing During Mass
Olivier Latry, everybody.
Victor Hugo Thinks, or Has a Migraine
Why does he always have a hand to his head?
Victor Hugo Thinks, or Has a Migraine, Take 2
See what we mean?
Every Paris Postcard Ever.
Well, here it is.
Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in the 1923 Silent Film
Maybe that's just an unflattering angle.