You know, back in the days before I started working in publishing, you really couldn’t get me to shut up online; I blogged with such frequency it was ridiculous. Now that I have actual substantive things to say, I can’t corral my undergrad expository paper-writing tendencies enough to distill my thoughts into short, byte-sized informative posts, so I often don’t bother. Not to mention I lack the time. So kudos to all the industry professionals like Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, and Kristin Nelson for blogging every day! (Although I haven’t yet read an editor who blogs everyday…maybe that in itself is quite telling…)
Anyway, I was going to review MAGIC UNDER GLASS, discuss storytelling and craft, dissect the idea of literary fiction with a commercial bent, and write about half a dozen other topics, but didn’t have time. So you know what? I’m going to blog about the first thing that comes to mind today.
And specifically the Disney version. Because I rewatched it last night. And I kind of love the movie and have developed a newfound appreciation for it.
It’s no secret that I love gothic fiction. From Ann Radcliffe (who shares my birthday–awesome!) to Gaston Leroux to Charlotte and Emily Brontë to William Faulkner et al. I love the creeping revulsion the twisted love stories inspire, the brooding atmosphere, the ambiguously fantastic elements, the triangle between the ingenue, the monster, and the man, everything. I would like to stress that I love gothic fiction but was never on-board with the paranormal genre, even though its roots may lie with my beloved category.
Why? It’s hard for me to articulate because so many of the tropes that bother me in paranormal romance (and specifically paranormal romance) are precisely what I adore about gothic fiction. A dangerous but strangely seductive monster. A virginal ingenue. A noble hero. I’ve written before that I loathe and detest love triangles, but the glaring exception happens to be romances in this genre. I think it’s because it’s one of the few romances in which the “good” guy wins over the “bad boy” because the “bad boy” is allowed to be scary and ACTUALLY dangerous, as opposed to “dangerous”.
Let us take one of my favourite gothic romances of all time: Le fantôme de l’opera by Gaston Leroux. Here you have a young, virginal heroine: the young Swedish ingenue Christine Daaé. Here you have her childhood friend and sweetheart Raoul, Le Vicomte de Chagny: something of a milquetoast perhaps, but innocent and noble-intentioned. And here you have the eponymous hero-villain Erik: the mysterious, brilliant, almost child-like and slightly deranged Opera Ghost. Their romance plays out against a backdrop of murder, seduction, and twisty, labyrinthine passageways that ends with purity triumphing over vice and a redemption of the beast.
This is an old, old story. Unlike Joseph Campbell’s Hero Myth, which is male-centric, linear, and quest/conquest driven, I would argue the gothic romance is a female story. (Note, I am not placing inherent value judgments on either type. I love both stories in their own ways, of course.) Why? Because the story is contained within itself and solipsistic (one can argue gothic settings are physical manifestations of a symbolic womb–closed in and enclosed) and centered around the female. Women drive gothic narratives. What was Jonathan Harker but an ineffectual clerk in DRACULA? What was Mina Murray but the person who led the group of vampire killers to Dracula? Christine Daaé is the axle around which the story turns, loved and desired by two men, who eventually saves countless and redeems a monster through her pity. What does Raoul do? He follows a Persian man down into the cellars and almost dies. Christine most certainly saves herself in this story, even though she is a physically passive character.
Women are either Madonnas or Whores in gothic fiction, which harkens back to the period on which gothic fiction was based: the medieval ages. It’s this old notion of morality that drives much of my fascination with this category: purity, virtue, vice, and sin are all concepts that are missing from modern paranormal romances and are in fact passé in contemporary society. In some ways, I miss this rigid sense of morality because not only are there physical stakes, but immortal ones as well. This is a world where Good and Evil can exist, yet still be shaded in grey. In Le fantôme de l’opera, the young virginal heroine is caught between “good” Raoul and “evil” Erik, who are neither Good nor Evil, but interestingly human. (I also use the word “virginal” in the context that Christine is a pure canvas who is intended to be neutral.) In the end, Christine affirms her “purity” by loving the “good” and pitying the “bad”.
This is the way I like my love triangles to go. Perhaps I have a medieval sense of morality, but I always want the girl to reject the “bad boy”. (This is also why I hate the ending of Susan Kay’s PHANTOM, even though I read this over and over as a girl. Because of this, something tells me that I will also hate The Phantom of the Opera musical sequel. It’s called Love Never Dies. Andrew Lloyd Webber, how could you do this to me? And my tender, budding adolescence? Don’t you realise my inner 12-year-old just died? In a bad way?) I would argue that a female still has agency within this old fashioned worldview and that finding strength in “traditional” female traits is something that is inherently more interesting (to me) than a female character aping “traditionally” masculine traits. Women are “traditionally” less direct and more subtle, and while this can translate to passivity, a good writer can make this an “active” trait.
Now back to Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame then. I don’t mind that this version departs rather significantly from Victor Hugo’s original text. I’m not a purist that way–the Disney version hits all the right emotional spots with me while still managing to tackle themes like the shunning of The Other, lust, desire, damnation, morality, vice, and sin. (Hey…) All the characters are slanted more firmly to the spectrum of Good or Evil, whereas the book characters were more ambiguous and/or sympathetic. For instance, I’m the most sympathetic towards Claude Frollo in the book, whom I see as a victim rather than a villain.
Also, Esmeralda. I love her in Disney’s version because she’s scrappy without being pugilistic, has a keen sense of justice without being sanctimonious, and a feminist heroine in a medieval story without seeming anachronistic. In the novel the poor girl is a victimized left, right, and centre–a Madonna treated like a Whore. What I love about Disney’s version is that she is a real character, a real person to whom we–as a modern audience–can relate while still being very much a product and a victim of the times. Is she punished for being sexy and being sexualized? Absolutely. But it makes sense within the context. And does it make her less three-dimensional or valid as a character? No, or at least I don’t think so.
Like all good gothic narratives, the men are somewhat peripheral to a central female catalyst in Hunchback. Esmeralda may not be the protagonist, but she’s the engine that drives the story. She’s also the person who ushers Quasimodo into the wider world at the end. While the movie certainly falls into the gothic genre, I think it also gently manages to subvert it while still maintaining its integrity in the form. Also, it is gorgeous. That and Pocahontas are two of Disney’s most beautiful films (and the most “adult”–sort of a “New Adult” to their earlier “Young Adult” but that may be a post for another day).
I would love to see a good gothic narrative fall onto my desk. And I don’t think a book can really be gothic without this medieval morality. The real challenge, of course, is making this palatable and relatable to a 21st century audience. I think The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a film did an excellent job with this. So writers, snap to it! Write me something like this. Thanks.
P.S. Why hasn’t Disney brought this musical to the States yet? Can’t you imagine how amazingly Andrew Lloyd Webber this musical could be? My inner 12-year-old is dying for it. Dying.
P.P.S. Also, why hasn’t this musical come here yet either?
P.P.P.S. I really love Tom Hulce. Except it’s sort of like that Family Guy episode. “Ooooh, Kathleen Turner, eh? Haven’t seen her in a while, let’s just take a peek here and-oh, that’s a shame.” Nevertheless, I adore you, Tom! (Now I’m in the mood to watch Amadeus again, dammit!)