I'm not going to be one of those people who starts out my review by saying things such as, I now see the light! Why did I ever watch the Disney movie adaption?, or, I knew going into this that Disney probably ruined the story and I was right. I will say the opposite. I still really love the Disney movie and consider it one of their best films. There, I said it. Now the literary internet community will start to throw pitch forks at me and stone me which equates to nasty GoodReads comments and lots of thumbs down on my review. I will state right away that I am aware that I am a walking oxymoron sometimes and this may be one of those times. How many English majors say they love Disney? In my experience, not many. But I digress. I will come back to Disney's adaption later in this review.
I went into this book knowing I was in over my head. I knew the writing would be magnificent but challenging. I knew all my previous experiences with the story wouldn't match the original text. And I knew I would be reading this book for a long time! It took me exactly two months to read this book. You can probably say I was leaping for joy when I finished the book. It's not that I didn't enjoy it. On the contrary, I found the book to be very beautiful. The writing was impeccable and the story was haunting. Victor Hugo attacks this story with a grace that no other writer could have accomplished. He fleshes out Notre Dame until it becomes overkill, yet you still want to read more of his amazing descriptions.
The story centers on an array of characters, each who has a tie to the gypsy La Esmerelda. There is the obvious character we all know, Quasimodo the abandoned Hunchback who becomes the bell ringer in the cathedral of Notre Dame. Then there is his rescuer, Archdeacon Claude Frollo who descends into wickedness after failing to properly raise his orphaned brother and Quasimodo as he envisioned. He is also known for his lust for La Esmerelda. Then there is La Esmerelda herself, a beautiful gypsy girl who performs with her goat Djali. Then we have Pierre Gringoire, a philosopher and playwright who is saved by La Esmerelda and is her "husband." Next we have Phoebus, the handsome captain who saves La Esmerelda but doesn't truly love her. And there are many other characters I will name but not flesh out like Sister Gudule, Jehan Frollo, Clopin Trouillefou, and Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier. All the characters have one thing that unites them and that is the cathedral of Notre Dame. The ancient and historical structure is a character unto itself. In fact, Hugo spends an entire section (at least 40 pages) describing the cathedral and the land surrounding it. It was one of my favorite sections of the book though I had to read it twice.
The story itself starts out slow and doesn't really move until the last hundred pages...maybe last two hundred, give or take. The plot excelled before that but was constantly interrupted by back story. Hugo would often insert little sentences to say something along the line of, I don't need to tell you this but I am telling you anyway. That got a bit old but for the most part, I admired him for his brave narrative style. I don't know much about French literature so perhaps his style was similar to others of his time.
Another part of the novel I loved was a chapter titled This Will Kill That. Over ten pages full this chapter and the entire focus is Frollo's observations on the power of the printing press. Many of us don't think of books or printing as technology but the printing press was a technology for it's time. "The book will kill the edifice," Frollo states. What amazes me about this book is Hugo's ability to describe Notre Dame the way he does. As I previously stated, he spent an entire 40 pages describing the city and the cathedral. He states that the cathedral is not simply one type of architecture but several as there have been many "improvements" made by other generations. This, according to Hugo, is the decline of architecture and modern fashions are more silly and grotesque. This ties into the chapter about the printing press as it comments on modern amenities substituting the original and therefore defacing it. Frollo speaks of the written word and claims this new technology will kill the Church. He then goes on to say that the printing press will kill the power of the architecture which ties back to the 40 pages I previously described to you. I read an awesome blog about this chapter so if you are interested in learning more, click here. Anyway, my point is that Hugo, like many classic novelists, seems to be way ahead of his time and is asking questions similar to what we ask today. Just look at how people question the power of cell phones or e-readers vs. the physical book. Hell I participate in those debates! It is really fascinating.
I now want to talk about the title of this book and tie it back to the Disney film. You may have noticed that I did not title this review with the English translated title but the original French title. On the back of my copy of the book it stated the original French title of the book and apparently Hugo hated the English translation and I personally don't blame him. The tile The Hunchback of Notre Dame suggests that the book is a story that focuses on Quasimodo, the hunchback. But that is not the case in this novel. Quasimodo is a focus but not the main focus. I would argue that La Esmerelda is the main character but I also could say each character is a side character and the main character is the cathedral. For this reason I believe the French title should have remained because it suggests a story about the cathedral. The English title, however, does suite the Disney film because in the adaption Quasimodo is the main character. Disney took a lot of liberty with this film which they tend to do with every one of their movies. But what I love about Disney is their ability to change something and make it good not just as a story but through the music and animation and color choice, voice actors, etc. Hunchback is by far the darkest Disney film ever made and they have never attempted to go as dark since then. I won't go too deep into why I love the movie (I will save that for my Disney podcast) but I do want to mention my favorite aspect of the film and that is the theme that questions monster vs. man. This is a brilliant example of ring composition being used in Disney movies. In the
opening song, The Bells of Notre Dame, the narrator Clopin sings "who is the monster and who is the man?" and the movie ends with the Reprise of the same track and Clopin sings, "What makes a monster and what makes a man?" to tie the story up and also ask a really important question. This question is continually asked throughout the movie, most specifically when (La) Esmerelda sings God Help the Outcasts and sings, "Still I see your face and wonder, were you [Jesus] just an outcast too...I thought we all were the children of God." The movie is questioning organized religion in the most beautiful way and I love it! Plus, the music is incredible! After reading the book, I can understand why some would be upset with the Disney movie but I view the two works as two separate entities. Many are mad because they fear people will watch the film and think that is how it happens in the book and sure, people may think that but that isn't Disney's fault. If people care enough they will pick up the book themselves.
So I am not going to hate on the Disney movie nor will I hate on the book. I think both are ruch and beautiful in two different ways. But now let's move back to the book. As I have already said, the story and characters and writing are brilliant. The book was a tough read but a good one. I do have one complaint about the narration though. There were times during heavy description when Hugo would say things on the lines of, "I don't need to say this but I'm going to," or, "I know you won't want to hear this but I'm going to tell you anyway," and he would then continue with his thoughts. That was a bit of an annoyance. It didn't bother me to the point where I was super annoyed every time but it did stand out to me. Other than that, I don't really have anymore major complaints. It was a great read and definitely challenged me which is always welcomed. I would recommend this book 100% even if you love the Disney movie (and vice versa) and I will give it 4 out of 5 stars.