Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

You may have noticed (if you ever happen to glance over at my Goodreads widget) that I was reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo, for a good long time. No, I didn't simply forget that it was there (although that wouldn't be a bad guess). I actually was spending several weeks on end immersed in this classic tale.

Okay, "immersed" might not be the right word. It was more like I dipped a toe into it every once in a while. Hence, the embarrassingly long time it took me to finish. I kept it off my summer reading challenge list because I was already a good way into it before the start date of the challenge. (Ahem. Yep, it took me a while.)

I started reading it with absolutely no intention of finishing it, by the way. In my English class, my teacher put us in groups of three, and we were supposed to help each other out with topics and material. We each chose  a book for the project (if you haven't already heard, mine was Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell). Whitney's was Pride and Prejudice, which I had already read, but Holly chose The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I had never so much as considered cracking open. Lately, I've been trying to branch out and read lots of different authors rather than lots of books by the same author, and having read Les Miserables, I had an unspoken agreement with myself that I would keep Hugo on the back burner. But Holly's passion for the book was contagious, so I hopped on over to the library and picked myself up a copy.

I almost considered trying to read the thing in French. After my common sense came to the rescue, I chose a small, lightweight English copy, bound in plain green hardback, probably published in the late 19th or early 20th century. The pages were old and delicate and carried the smell of a different time.

I planned on just reading a few portions, for Holly's sake, so I would understand her project a little better and be a better group member. My first mistake was to start from the beginning (although not from the true beginning, because the first page was unfortunately ripped out). I read 90 pages the first day (despite having other homework to do). After that, I was hooked.

But the unfortunate truth was that I didn't have time to bury myself in a thick tome, no matter how classic, and still keep up with school and the whole social thing. (No man is an island, they say--apparently, I'm a buzzing metropolis, whether I like it or not.) So I started a kind of strange habit: reading while walking to campus.

Maybe it's silly, but it's a 20-minute walk to campus, each way. That's forty minutes I could be reading. Once I realized this, Hunchback started getting read, little by little, a few pages a day.

By ell brown on flickr.com
After the story had become weaved into my day, it started to embroider itself into the edges of my life, in such a tiny way that I hardly noticed it. Instead of walking home on cracked sidewalks in the sunny, dry Utah heat, I was treading through the streets of Paris in the rain, watching La Esmeralda dance, in the imposing shadow of Notre Dame. For the first time in a long time, I really felt the meaning of getting lost in a book. The first day I walked to campus after finishing Hunchback, I felt useless and empty without it. I realized how big a part of my life it had been.

Such is the beauty of Hugo's writing. I had the same sort of experience with Les Miserables. Even though the lives of the characters couldn't be further from my own, they were still totally ingrained into my life somehow.

So it didn't quite feel right to write a review of the book. Actually, I wasn't sure I could produce an entirely adequate review, being that I can hardly remember the beginning of the book now. I had some thoughts I wanted to write about, but seeing as this post is already beginning to be pretty long, I'll leave most of it for another day. But reading the book made me realize how little our society actually knows about Hugo's original work.

The original version of Hugo's book is called Notre Dame de Paris--which, it's not too hard to tell, translates to "Our Lady of Paris," not "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Notre Dame, of course, is the name of the cathedral. The book is about a cathedral, not a hunchback. Apparently, the translator decided that Quasimodo, the hunchback, is the main character, which he most thoroughly is not. Quasimodo is a supporting character; Esmeralda is the main character.

Now, for those of us who learned everything we know about the book from the Disney version (I was once one of you), this is already startling enough. But that's not even the biggest difference between the Disney movie and the original story. For one thing, in the book, several key characters die. (If you're familiar with Hugo's writing, this probably won't surprise you.) Some characters that were heroic in the movie, I absolutely hated in the book. Some characters that were positively frightening in the movie were, I thought, simply pathetic scum of the earth in the book. (You might be able to guess which characters these are.) And almost every single event that happened in the book was absolutely MIA in the movie, and vice versa.

Several times as I was reading the book, I had a sort of vision of the writers for Disney. In said vision, the writers were sitting at their desks, doing their job. Maybe one was writing a movie about puppies and kittens. Maybe another was writing one about a girl who sacrifices her entire identity and mutilates her body through black magic in order to get a man (oh, wait--was The Little Mermaid before or after The Hunchback of Notre Dame?). Then some random guy bursts into the room, waving his copy of Notre Dame de Paris, and exclaims, "You know what would be just great? If we made this book into a children's movie!"

Wait...do you hear that? I think Victor Hugo just rolled in his grave.

By advencap on flickr.com
So unfortunately, my friends, the Disney version is really only good for singalongs and frightening small children, not familiarizing you with classic literature. Sorry.

Okay, okay. That was way too far to go on that tangent. But the point of it (the original point, anyway) was that this story has gone through way too many changes in our modern world. First its title, then pretty much everything else about it. This illustrates an important point that we are completely losing touch with classic literature. I mean, if someone wants to rewrite the entire thing to make it into an animated movie, fine, but that doesn't give us all license to do what I did, which was assume I knew the basic outline of the story just because I had seen the Disney version.

I think we need to go back to the classics. Remixing is fine, but let's not forget the literature that tells the story of our society.

Rest in peace, Victor Hugo.


  1. At least it's not as bad as Pocahontas, because that was actually a true story! But yes, Disney totally makes over the stories they steal. (Actually, I thought The Little Mermaid was an improvement, though.)

    I hope you look up when you cross the street!

    1. I agree. Yes, The Little Mermaid was probably an improvement--but I still think it's kind of sick that somebody read the story and decided it would be appropriate for children in any form.

      Don't worry, I do look up when crossing the street. ;)