The Rewritings of Notre-Dame de Paris

By Guillaume Goron

The first edition of Notre-Dame de Paris appeared in 1831, titled Notre-Dame de Paris. 1482. It followed a trend in France for historical novels inspired by the popular Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward of Sir Walter Scott. Thus, beginning in 1828, the publisher Gosselin commissioned a historical saga from a successful young writer, Victor Hugo, to be set in Paris at the time of Louis XI. Enticed by the offer of reissuing previous works and of future publications, Hugo hastened to accept but balked at complying; his time was already consumed by more ambitious projects: his play Hernani, his novel Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné and his collection of poems Les Orientales. As such, two years went by before he finally set about drafting Notre-Dame de Paris, which he broached from the perspective of a historian advocating against improvements to Paris’ timeless monuments. Referring to maps from the era and often paraphrasing historical accounts, he depicted in myriad details the streets and quarters of 15th-century Paris, as well as the socio-religious life of the time, in a sweeping novel enriched by boundless descriptions. Its great length, extended by costly engravings, would lead to a demand for abridged versions that focused more specifically on the novel’s plot.

An engraving depicting the gargoyles of Notre-Dame in the 1881 edition, following the cathedral’s restoration by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

The 27-year-old Matilda Feliksovna Kshesinskaia as Esmeralda (1899, Mariinsky Ballet)

Indeed, the plot itself is remarkable for its simplicity and guiding principle: inexorable fate, the ἀνάγκη which the author saw written in graffiti, inspiring both the story and the way its various protagonists are chiselled out and intertwine to move the story forward. In effect, if the tragedy is reduced to the cursed love of the Archdeacon of Notre-Dame, Claude Frollo, for the Roma dancer Esmeralda, the episodes of the key characters counterbalance each other, guiding them all toward an inevitable outcome. Desperately in love with Esmeralda, Frollo, with the help of the deformed sexton Quasimodo, organizes her abduction; the dancer is then rescued by Captain Phoebus, with whom she immediately falls in love. Arrested and tortured, Quasimodo’s heart is turned upside down by Esmeralda’s compassion. Meanwhile, Phoebus hopes to take advantage of the naive damsel’s affections; the jealous Frollo then stabs the soldier, leaving Esmeralda to be convicted in his stead. The Roma girl, now sentenced to death, owes her survival only to the redemption of Quasimodo, who offers her sanctuary within the walls of Notre-Dame. Alas, his protection is short-lived, as the cathedral is stormed to free Esmeralda, whom Frollo has resigned himself to extirpate and turn over to the authorities, and whom Phoebus keeps from exonerating to protect his new engagement. Thus, all is set up for a tragic outcome: Esmeralda is hanged; Quasimodo in utter despair pushes Frollo from the cathedral tower before reuniting with Esmeralda in the tomb (literally); and, as the author wrote, [Phoebus] “likewise came to a tragic end: he married.” There are many minor contributors to the plot, such as the poet Pierre Gringoire, who imperceptibly helped tip the scales on the wrong side of fate. But ultimately, it all comes down to the love triangle of the Frollo-Quasimodo binomial, Esmeralda, and the handsome stud Phoebus.

This storyline of exceptionally rich illuminations upon a very simple canvas has all the trappings of a narrative that would stand the test of time. The psychological depth of its characters, its many surprising twists, and the omnipresence of Fate combined to create an iconic work. Without interruption, since its initial publication, Notre-Dame de Paris—also immediately transposed to the theatre—has seen countless adaptations, all of which are strongly influenced by their geographical locations. European countries with Latin roots focus on the character of Esmeralda (in Italy, the work was initially titled La Zingara, “The Gypsy Girl”), featuring the dancer in ballets and operas. A first opera titled La Esmeralda composed by Louise Bertin to a libretto by Victor Hugo premiered in 1836, followed notably by the eponymous ballet of Jules Perrot and Cesare Pugni (1844). Until the early 20th century, this theme inspired numerous musical works, whose renditions gave way to film adaptations that prominently featured dance scenes: La Esmeralda by Alice Guy and Victorin Jasset (1905) through to Notre-Dame de Paris by Jean Delannoy (1956) in which Gina Lollobrigida stars alongside Anthony Quinn.

Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida in Jean Delannoy’s movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956)

English-speaking countries took to the character of Quasimodo, thus the title The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The need to bypass censorship and align with puritanism and propriety led to a thorough revisiting of the characters, to the detriment of Frollo, whose treasures of wickedness and perversion deprived him from a leading part. This man of the church could only be portrayed as exemplary; his brother Jehan, an intemperate student, replaces him as Esmeralda’s tormentor. Frollo is also at times portrayed as a judge, a profession whose moral corruptibility was far less questionable. Phoebus is recast as an honest lover, which opens up the possibility of a happy storybook ending. While the first (very loose) American adaptation in 1917 was Gordon Edwards’s The Darling of Paris, indeed The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by Wallace Worsley in 1923 with Lon Chaney in the role of Quasimodo established the archetype for future adaptations. Centred around the ambivalent character of the hunchback, whose sentiments are noble but whose ugliness challenged the ingenuity of accessories crews, it exalted the iconological canons of the “kindly monster,” a recurring theme in the output of Victor Hugo (Quasimodo, but also Triboulet in Le roi s’amuse and Gwynplaine in L’homme qui rit, and so on). A version by William Dieterle ensued in 1939, followed by several television series, and finally, the Walt Disney animated film of 1996.

While we might also mention a second life for the characters in new media (cartoons, video games), along with the musical produced by Robert Hossein in 1976, or the pastiche Quasimodo d’El Paris by actor-director Patrick Timsit in 1999, the most vivid adaptation in Quebec memory is by far the musical Notre-Dame de Paris by Luc Plamondon and Richard Cocciante (1998), in which the lead roles are held by Bruno Pelletier, Garou, Luck Mervil and the Franco-Manitoban Daniel Lavoie, alongside French actors Hélène Ségara, Julie Zenatti and Patrick Fiori. Moreover, how is it possible to deny that Bruno Pelletier’s performance of Temps des cathédrales is responsible for the majority of karaoke accidents documented in the past twenty years, not to mention the unforgettable trio Belle, which revolutionized the laws of vocal range? Still regularly touring, this musical offers a lively rendering Victor Hugo’s legend.

CD cover for the musical Notre-Dame de Paris (1998)

Finally, in a nod from within the story to a fervent defender of medieval architecture, Victor Hugo’s novel was also immortalized in stone, guiding Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral, the architect basing himself on descriptions in the novel to draw the neo-gothic chimeras of his design. Thus, after serving as a muse-like inspiration for the novel, the cathedral in turn drew its own revival from it. And today, while the cathedral’s reconstruction is in order, it is safe to say that Quasimodo’s antics will help direct the renovators of the most iconic monument of medieval Paris.