It's not the definitive version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but then again, I'm not sure there is such a thing.

James Plath's picture

It's a small fraternity, those who've played Quasimodo in live-action film or television adaptations of Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame": Lon Chaney, Charles Laughton, Anthony Quinn, Warren Clarke, Anthony Hopkins, and Mandy Patinkin. And of those, only Hopkins received a Best Actor nomination.

This made-for-TV movie earned an Emmy nod for Hopkins, who does a nice job playing both the fool and the King of Fools in this Michael Tuchner production. No one has followed Hugo's novel to the letter, but his one comes close . . . at least until the end.

I don't think the make-up people did Hopkins any favors, though. With his snaggle tooth, one eye squeezed shut by a cluster of warts, and a shaggy mane of bright red hair, he looks like he could be a parody of Quasimodo, a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker version ready to pounce on all the tropes and clichés that this classic has to offer. It looks way overdone, and that's my chief character complaint about this 1982 TV production. A secondary complaint is that the character of Phoebus (Robert Powell) is played like a fop rather than a dashing soldier, and so it's hard to see what the gypsy Esmeralda (Lesley-Anne Down) sees in him. But if you kick aside those annoyances, this version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is a satisfying one.

For that, partially credit the set and costume designers, who create a convincing 15th-century village around the famed Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. But also credit the casting department for giving the role of the Archdeacon of Notre Dame to Claude Frollo to Derek Jacobi ("I, Claudius"). Jacobi brings complexity to the character who adopts the abandoned baby that the nuns proclaim a "monster," and who finds himself lusting after the gypsy who was arrested for lewd dancing. He's not just a monster himself, but a human who falls for the dancer (a sixteen year old in the original novel, but never in Hollywood!) just the same as a poet named Pierre (Gerry Sundquist) and the head of the king's archers. Medieval folk were fond of puzzlements and this production portrays the four men who want Esmeralda in varying degrees. The poet is smitten by her beauty and readily accepts his role as "friend" only, after she marries him to save him after he errantly ends up in the den of thieves. The hunchback, Quasimodo, who has gone deaf from being housed in the bell tower and charged with ringing the bells since he was old enough to pull a rope, is smitten by her kindness. After he obeys his master's command and tries to bring the gypsy girl back to Notre Dame. but is caught and whipped on a public pillory, she gives him water. On the lust side of desire falls Phoebus, captain of the archers who saves her from being abducted and tries to capitalize on her infatuation with him, though he's a married man--and Phoebus has a reputation for dalliances. Then there's Frollo, who, despite his vows of celibacy, finds himself driven to make Esmeralda an offer she can't refuse--sanctuary in exchange for sexual favors.

TV journeyman John Gay made a decent living by adapting the classics for television movies, having done scripts for Captains Courageous, Les miserable, and A Tale of Two Cities before this production, and Ivanhoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Around the World in 80 Days after it. With good source materials to work from, his screenplays are just good enough to sustain interest and the dialogue stops short of being hokey.

As I said, the plot stays fairly close to the original 1831 novel. We're introduced to Frollo and his taking in of the misshapen Quasimodo (whom he names because it means "almost human"), and then we fast forward to Quasimodo turning up missing from the tower on the day of the Festival of Fools. In the novel, the bell ringer is crowned Pope of Fools, but in the movies it's always King, and a clueless and deaf Quasimodo is paraded through town on a throne. Meanwhile, Esmeralda has already been arrested once for lewd dancing but released by order of Frollo, and Pierre has been "claimed" by Esmeralda as her husband for three years. When Quasimodo is ordered to bring her back to his master and caught, then whipped, Esmeralda brings him water. Later, he will repay the kindness when she's with Phoebus and an enraged Frollo rushes in, stabs Phoebus, and flees, leaving her to take the fall. Sentenced to be hanged, Esmeralda is rescued by the hunchback, who cries "Sanctuary." And from here on out, nothing resembles what happens in the novel. Then again, Hollywood hasn't really known what to do with the last part of Hugo's novel.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the quality is quite good for a TV movie. There's only a minimum of grain, and colors are bright and true without skewing flesh tones. Even dark scenes reveal plenty of detail too, for a DVD.

The sound is less impressive, just a functional Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono spread across the front mains. But there's no distortion, and the dialogue, effects, and background music are appropriately modulated.

There are no bonus features.

Bottom Line:
Those who like period films will find this appropriately escapist, with colorful jugglers and street people milling about believably, along with generally solid acting. It's not the definitive version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," but then again, I'm not sure there is such a thing.


Film Value