213 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Theatrical Poster
Source: Wikipedia
Here is another film that I watched a month ago and have left as a scheduled post! Not only that, but it is actually one from the Empire 5-star 500!

As with most people in this day and age, my only experience of Victor Hugo's classic is through the bright and colourful version Disney released in 1996 and featuring talking gargoyles. While Disney was lauded for exploring darker source material than normal it still comes nowhere near the original story.

Even this version, made in 1939, tones down the story a bit but it is clear that Disney drew inspiration for Quasimodo's appearance from Charles Laughton's striking character representation and I can't help but compare the two for just that reason alone.

The story is similar - in 15th Century Paris the gypsies are being persecuted. One - Esmerelda (Maureen O'Hara) - manages to sneak into the city where she attracts the attention of many local men, including the Judge Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) and Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien), a failing poet. Quasimodo is a reclusive hunchback who is made deaf by his bell-ringing in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and is legally cared for Frollo.

Noone had the heart to tell Quasimodo his hair dye was running
What I never realised about the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the brutality of it. Victor Hugo's tale isn't a pleasant one, and this version exposes much of the gritty nature of the book - obviously far more so than Disney's colourful version. That being said, the book kills off both Esmerelda and leaves Quasimodo presumed dead which is a radically different ending than most people are aware of, so it could be argued that this film influenced Disney far more so than Hugo.

To back up this claim, Disney's Quasimodo even shares the same squint, wonky teeth and ruffled hair as Charles Laughton's heavily made up hunchback. Because Laughton has changed his physical appearance so much, the only thing that gives away the fact that it is the actor playing Quasimodo is that his podgy nose is identical which, again, is another trait that Disney copied.

In conclusion then, if you are interested in Victor Hugo's original text (probably translated), then this would be the perfect stepping stone. There are plenty of recognisable scenes from Disney's film, right down to the less-colourful Fool's Parade, but the added sense of realism will bring a whole new perspective on that story you saw as a child.


  1. After seeing Notre Dame in person, I think this tale takes on a more ominous tone. That cathedral has seen a lot of social history!

    I like some of these old classics - thanks for highlighting this movie.


Post a Comment