Straightening out “Hunchback”

Disney’s myths and Victor Hugo (DeDisneyfication, Part 1)

Reading Barthes’ Mythologies helped me put my finger on what bothers me about the Disneyfication of fairy tales and other works. His definition of “myth” is nonstandard—here it is the creation of symbols. I almost always find the book misfiled in used bookstores and quietly repair their error. I jotted some notes about the systematic appropriation of the cultures represented by these tales and how they have been turned into bourgeois myths. But writing a piece so purely critical, though it might provide some entertaining venting of my spleen, seemed somewhat pointless and ultimately unlikely to win me any friends. And indeed, later in the book, Barthes himself cautions:¹

But when a myth reaches the entire community, it is from the latter that the mythologist must become estranged if he wants to liberate the myth.

And ultimately, he came to question the relevance of his work still further when corporations began to approach him to create such myths for them as well.

But then I encountered the excellent article, “Moana and Resistance Spectating”,² and realized this is what I had been doing to some extent and the taking back that I’ve tried to do with Norse esoterica would be a much more constructive approach to Disneyfication than a vitriolic rant.

I’d also like to acknowledge a positive aspect to these Disney films—they expose a broad audience to works they might otherwise know nothing about. My hope is this fosters curiosity about the source material, rather than simple acceptance of the symbols the studio has created.

First, let’s define our terms: Disneyfication, as I’ve already noted, involves cultural appropriation and the creation of bourgeois myths. It is one of the most aggressive forms of Hollywoodization, part of which involves a nearly fetishistic focus on the redux, and another is the culture of the final cut which, if it encounters a work of art, seeks to render it into entertainment instead.

A classic example of both comes in the Hollywoodization of the 1985 German film Zuckerbaby into 1989’s horrifically saccharine Baby Cakes: The award-winning German film has the main character, Marianne (Marianne Sägebrecht), throw herself under the wheels of the train being driven by the lover (Eisi Gulp) who has spurned her. Whereas in the nearly unknown US version, the protagonist, renamed Grace (Ricki Lake), decides to quit being afraid of what the world thinks of her and to follow her dreams, becoming a beautician, while Rob (her lover, Craig Sheffer) realizes his girlfriend (Cynthia Dale) will never accept him as he is and he really loves Grace.

Please don’t imagine for a single second the first one is regressive and horrible and the second is empowering—go watch them (if you can even stomach the latter version) and you’ll see a lion whose teeth have been extracted. But as they say in Hollywoodese, “That one wasn’t going to sell a lot of popcorn.”

So now to the task—first up: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

This infinitely forgettable mid-’90s mediocrity derives from a Victor Hugo novel, so it differs a bit from typical Disney fare. As with nearly everything Disney, there are numerous redux from which they have drawn and adapted this version, including 10 films, nine theatrical versions, three ballets, two TV miniseries, and two musical retellings, to say nothing of all the translations into various languages over the years. The 1939 version, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in particular seems to have been the basis for the Disney film. Rather than breaking down the entire plot structures of the Hugo and Disney versions, I’ll focus on a few key differences.

Let’s begin with the title: the original was called Notre-Dame de Paris, placing the focus not on the characters, but on the cathedral itself, as the book was ultimately about the architecture of Paris. Hugo hated the English title, which shifted this emphasis and prompted filmic adaptations criticized as vulgar freak shows. If anything, the double meaning of the title was a reference to Esmeralda, as the dame—“lady” of the cathedral she claims sanctuary in, and who, ultimately, is the main character rather than Quasimodo.

The hunchback is another metaphor for the cathedral that is his home, which in turn is one for Parisian architecture, and even that of every city of significant age: though its features can be seen as monstrous (or at least asymmetrical), ultimately they are a part of a character with a heart of gold. This theme of the majestic messiness of reality runs through the whole work, encompassing, in particular, the relationships among the characters. The book is largely a response to a movement to renovate the city afoot in Hugo’s time,time, of which he was not a fan:³

Thus it is that the wondrous art of the Middle Ages has been treated in almost every country, and especially in France. In its ruin three sorts of inroads are distinguishable, having marred it to different depths; first, Time, which has insensibly made breaches here and there, and rusted its whole surface; then, religious and political revolutions, which, blind and furious in their nature, have tumultuously wreaked their wrath upon it, torn its rich garment of sculpture and carving, shivered its rose windows, shattered its necklaces of arabesques and quaint figures, torn down its statues, here for their mitre, there for their crown; and lastly, changing fashion, growing ever more grotesque and absurd, commencing with the anarchical yet splendid deviations of the Renaissance, have succeeded one another in the unavoidable decline of architecture.

Nonetheless, as implied here, he is willing to accept the changes made, but feels these should stop, leaving the cathedral, the city, the world in this imperfect yet glorious state.

It’s easy to see why Disney would not have been comfortable with this message even if this amount of nuance was anywhere near their wheelhouse, as their stock in trade involves creating sterile consumerist utopias on swampland. Rather than dealing with these metaphors, we are left instead with an empty shell.

Next, let’s move to “Quasi’s” cutesy gargoyle sidekicks, Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. Disney always likes to insert characters like these, as well as, in this film, a horse named Achilles (apparently entirely to set up the laff line “Achilles, heel!”). Certainly, I understand their thinking; many of the dialogues that are internal in novels and fairy tales become conversations between these creatures and the people they are associated with—not to mention the toy sales. But this trio is particularly weird and unneeded, and while the names of the first two form a dubious homage to the author from whose work the film is drawn, the last one is “wackily” named after one of the Andrews sisters.

On to the Cour des miracles: Disney’s Esmeralda entrusts Quasi with a pendant containing a map to the gypsies’ hideout, the Court of Miracles, which proves problematic when it falls into the wrong hands. This is simply ridiculous. While the many slums of Paris were known by this collective name, the film implies there is one such place, and its location is somehow secret. Some claimed these were simply squalid cesspits of lawless villainy, while others held guilds of thieves and beggars organized their trades, and, in order to be exempt from “taxes” to the Grand Coësre, archissupots provided lessons on argot to new recruits. The Grand Coësre is the head of the thieves’ and beggar’s guild and an archissupot is a scholarly rogue—both themselves argot terms.

These areas, which inspired both Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables, were cleared, an effort that began in 1667, and was finally completed by the Haussmannization of Paris in the late 19th century. Georges-Eugène Hausmann’s renovation of Paris occurred between 1853 and 1870, following the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris, so even though his work was celebrated, Hugo’s warnings were not heeded. Ironically, one of the areas on the Rive Droite created in this effort was Place Victor Hugo.

Finally, the endings of the two works differ the most dramatically: In the animated film, Frollo “accidentally” falls to his death in the molten lead-flooded streets surrounding the cathedral, Esmeralda marries Phoebus, the Captain of Frollo’s guard (Captain of the Archers in the novel). and in a Baby Cakes-esque turn of events, Quasi is accepted by society.

Hugo, on the other hand, has Frollo turn Esmeralda, condemned of attempting to murder Phoebus, over to the troops, and when he laughs during her hanging, Quasimodo pushes him from the top of the cathedral to his death. The hunchback later finds Esmeralda’s dead body at the mass grave for criminals at Montfaucon and remains there to eventually perish of starvation. Their intertwined skeletons are found some time later, which, when an attempt is made to separate them, crumble into dust.

In closing, I actually doff my hat to Disney for embracing one dark element of the original in particular: Frollo’s mixture of lust and loathing for Esmeralda, treatment of which, mainly embodied in the musical number, “Hellfire”, garnered the flick an unheard of (for Disney) PG rating. It would have been easy to leave out, but the creative team seems to have successfully fought the studio execs to keep it in. As it’s ultimately a commentary on the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy, it’s a fairly charged theme to have made it into such an otherwise vanilla effort.

Read subsequent articles in the DeDisneyfication series

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than


  1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1957.
  2. Richard Wolfgramm, “Moana and Resistance Spectating”, November 2016.
  3. Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris), 1831. This is from J. Carroll Beckwith’s 1892 translation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: