The Hunchback (1997)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop


Victor Hugo was single-handedly responsible for the salvation of Notre Dame from being torn down through public awareness due to his novel about the charismatic gypsy girl, the lustful archdeacon, and the deformed bell ringer. This version, filmed in 1997 and premiering on TNT is extremely well filmed and worthwhile to viewers seeking something beyond mere entertainment.


It is the height of Catholicism, when the government bends to the will of the Church. Paris lives beneath a strict regime that desires to keep them illiterate by banning German printing presses from public use. In one such destruction of a machine, Claude Frollo (Richard Harris) comes across a child left to die on the church steps. The baby is taken into his keeping and raised within the sanctity of Notre Dame. Horribly deformed and hunchbacked, Quasimodo (Mandy Patinkin) dreams of life outside the stone walls. He slips into the crowd to observe more closely the revelry surrounding the annual Feast of Fools. The highlight of the day's entertainment is the provocative dancing of the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda (Salma Hayek).


Her impassioned dance catches the eye of Frollo, observing the studies of his fellow priests high in the church tower. It enthralls a local visionary (Gringoire, played by Edward Atterton). Quasimodo also ventures too close and is discovered by the gypsy king, who pronounces him the "King of Fools," the title given to the most disfigured face in the city. Not long thereafter, Frollo sends the hunchback into the sanctity of the church and tells him that if he ventures out again, Frollo will not be responsible for the consequences. Quasimodo has had a taste of the world, and it leads him to abandon the confines of the bell tower. He inadvertently stumbles across the two men paid by Frollo to kidnap Esmeralda and fights them off. The king's guard assumes that he was responsible for assaulting her, and throw him into prison. The beautiful gypsy manages to escape, but will be pitted against king and archdeacon for the release of Quasimodo. In the meantime, his feelings of desire for the woman he saw dancing in the street, lead Frollo down a dangerous path that involves deception, murder, and betrayal.


The film does seem to move at too rapid of a pace, and there are numerous similarities to the Disney production released a year before, right down to the ultimate climax atop the church, but I found it to be very good. The dialogue is well written and contains deep truths for discerning audiences. Frollo deals with his feelings of inadequacy, and ultimately comes to the wrong conclusions. Rather that confessing that he is fallible and prone to temptation, he places all of the blame on Esmeralda. Quasimodo, meanwhile, believes in personal responsibility and kindness. He is willing to give up his life for anyone who shows even the smallest amount of compassion for him. The audience will feel empathy for his plight, which includes concealing with shame the right side of his face, so that Esmeralda won't have to behold his disfigurement. The storyline is rather hard on the medieval Catholic Church and all its attempts to prevent mankind from knowledge that might lead to questions against them, but the soldiers do respect Catholicism enough to refrain from an all-out assault against the doors of Notre Dame. Readers of the novel will find them vastly different. There's no mention of the lustful captain of the guard, Phoebus, and most of the characters meet endings varied from those in the book. It does have a bittersweet conclusion, but this is made up by outstanding performances.


I have always liked the story for its exploration of human insecurities and those that reach out to one another in kindness, despite appearances. Quasimodo and his sad plight remains an emotional appeal to modern readers, just as profound as it was so long ago when it first came into print. One thing makes me enjoy this representation it almost more than my beloved Disney adaptation... the fact that there are no talking gargoyles!



Sexual Content:

Frollo wants to have Esmeralda and propositions her on one occasion; he attempts to bargain with her on another. There are discussions about the temptations of women, and pursuits of the flesh. Esmeralda marries Gringoire to preserve his life, but they have a non-intimate marriage. Her dance in the courtyard is not overly provocative or immodest.



None noted.



A priest twice flogs himself for impure thoughts, then turns the whip on the hunchback. Quasimodo is given fifty lashes for "assaulting" a woman in the street, then allowed to face public humiliation. The crowds jeer and throw rotting food at him. Several characters are threatened with being hanged; two men are stabbed with knives (bloody results) and another is dropped to his death from the tower.