I have always wondered what went through the minds of the Disney executives the day they decided to adapt Victor Hugo’s classic novel about the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame into an animated film. How do you adapt a story of cruelty, alienation, ambition, power, lust, and death into a venue in which you can market a Barbie doll? Granted, they revised Hamlet into The Lion King (… my favorite Disney film for a variety of reasons but that mostly revolve around the awesomeness of Scar and the fact that it’s about a bunch of big cats… how can you not love it?) and gave The Little Mermaid a happy ending (… much better than the original, I might add — talk about a downer…). And then there was Beauty & the Beast, their masterpiece — the religious symbolism of that film is incredible, even if I doubt it was intentional.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those films you either love or hate — few seem to be indifferent to it. Those who love it do so for the artistry involved (truly, the background matte paintings of Notre Dame are breathtaking) and quite possibly the message in it, while those who hate it either do so for being so significantly different from the novel (which let’s face it, is not a kid-safe story) or being so controversial for its time. I remember my sister taking her son to see it, not realizing what they were in for, and coming out shocked at the elements of darkness and lust. But since that is kind of the pivot of the central plot, you cannot very much leave it out — just water it down enough that kids won’t comprehend truly what Frollo is actually singing about in “Hellfire” — or at least, their dumbstruck parents hope they don’t understand.
The original is not for the fainthearted, since Victor Hugo was not one for happy endings; the moral struggles and temptations that ultimately lead to despair and death are either going to tug on your heartstrings or make you want to chuck the book at the far wall and scream. Disney changed a great deal. Their interpretation of Esmeralda in my opinion was a tremendous improvement, since she’s more street-smart than Hugo’s foolish gypsy girl (then again, if his point was how the men in her life abused her, she had to be relatively innocent) — but they made Frollo much more of a villain and changed him from an archdeacon to a judge, presumably to avoid being accused of including anti-Catholic undercurrents.
One could say much about this film, but what strikes me as the most interesting thing about it is the intentional symbolism and Frollo’s perception of God. I actually suspect that, either subconsciously or intentionally, the writers drew from another of Hugo’s works when creating the “new” Frollo — Inspector Javert from Les Miserables. Like Javert, their Frollo is single-minded in his belief that criminals must be punished. Javert pursued Valjean, a reformed thief, for more than thirty years in his absolute conviction that Valjean could never truly be reformed; Frollo meanwhile is obsessed with ridding Paris of the gypsies — criminals. Never mind that some of them may not be thieves and prostitutes; some of them are, and thus it is his moral responsibility to clean up the streets of Paris and prevent them from corrupting the innocent. The film opens with him in pursuit of a band of gypsies that include Quasimodo’s parents. Frollo chases the mother down on horseback, believing the bundle she holds to be stolen property, and is responsible for her death when he kicks her down the cathedral stairs. Discovering it was a child in her arms and finding it a deformed monster, Frollo is about to drown the baby when the Archdeacon warns him that God will not look kindly on it, and if he fears for his mortal soul, he will raise the child as his own.
Thus, out of terror for his immortal soul, Frollo is left to bring up a child he does not want and who represents a race he despises — not out of conviction for wrongdoing, but out of fear that he will be punished. He does his duty but not without resentment and contempt for the boy, who grows up under the perception that he is unworthy of love and must remain in the bell tower for his own safety. Frollo is by his own standard a “righteous man” (much like Javert) but his self-importance begins to crumble when he meets the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda. Suddenly, he is faced with the horrific realization that he desires her — a moment of crisis that leads him to pray for strength, only to choose to give in instead — in “Hellfire,” he rages against her existence and his own weaknesses, only to turn around and accuse God of having made “the devil so much stronger than a man,” thus placing the responsibility for his future actions on the very Force he most desires to appease.
When he ascends to the top of Notre Dame to fight Quasimodo for Esmeralda, any respect he once held for the Church and God is gone — he is unyielding in his determination to kill them both, believing if she is the source of his lust and refuses to give in to him, it is she who must perish. From the moment he enters Notre Dame, his appearance alters just enough that we no longer see a rational man, but one driven with hellish ambition. His intention to murder Esmeralda is illuminated in the dancing flames reflecting in his eyes — he looks like the devil rising out of hell to smite the innocent. But then one of the gargoyles comes to life and he plunges along with it to his fiery death.
Throughout the story, the animators play with concepts of symbolizing the Church of the Middle Ages. It is clearly not a condemnation of faith because of its portrayal of Notre Dame — again and again, it is referred to as a “Sanctuary,” as the eyes of God in Paris, and it possesses a gentle, quiet, and reassuring presence much different from the city streets. Even Esmeralda becomes reverent standing in the midst of the cathedral and is moved to pray for the survival of her people — her appeals a direct contrast with the more selfish prayers of others (“I ask for wealth… I ask for love… I ask for glory to shine on my name!”). Esmeralda has grown up in the sewers and the streets, so for her to enter the beautiful sanctity of the Church, she sees only its wonders, like a new believer discovering the glories of God for the first time. It is all so evident to them because their eyes have been opened and their spirit renewed. Esmeralda can see what Quasimodo cannot, that the Church (Christianity) is beautiful and comforting.
But the cold, cruel Frollo (a religious zealot) has tainted Notre Dame (God) for Quasimodo and prevents him from grasping its beauty. Frollo to me is a perfect example of religion without conviction — like Javert, he is all about the punishment rather than remembering the compassion that accompanied Jesus’ message of salvation. During different times in Church history (on both sides, so I am not assaulting Catholicism here), it has been more about power and force than a message of hope and peace. Martin Luther rebelled against a Church more concerned with building a new Vatican than caring for its starving congregations; it was so concerned with power, influence, and greed, accompanied by corruption, that it forgot the God it served. The message was essentially a tyrannical view of God, prepared to smite down all who did not bend wholly to the will of the Church. (Which never was Jesus’ message; if they reject what you have to offer, turn and let them alone.)
Interestingly, it is this God that Frollo is associated with in his personal beliefs — his concept of God is a reflection of tainted teaching; He attempts to serve not out of conviction but out of fear and prejudice. He believes in a vengeful God and in the end, that is the God that confronts him and presumably sends him plummeting literally into Hell. Many have said that Notre Dame stands in place of God, but I would venture to suggest it is symbolic of God. To Esmeralda, it is welcoming and tranquil, moving her to spirituality. To Quasimodo, in the end it becomes a safe place to claim sanctuary for his friends as well as protecting him against Frollo. And to Frollo, it becomes terrifying — alive. It is, after all, the watchful eyes of the statues on Notre Dame that prevent him from drowning the baby at the beginning, and one of the gargoyles at the end that brings about his eternal damnation as it breaks and sends him plunging into the flames below.
Ultimately, what I have drawn from it as an adult is that God shelters all who need Him, is a sanctuary for those who seek Him, and does not look kindly on those who use His name or His Church to pursue their own evil ends.
Maybe not the message Victor Hugo intended… or maybe it is.