Gaston’s Phantom

by wjw on July 9, 2009

I’ve seen most film adaptations of Phantom of the Opera, including the one in Chinese where the singer was a guy (The Phantom Lover, 1995), and I’ve seen no less than two musical theater adaptations, both of which sucked. So when I saw the original 1911 book by Gaston Leroux at the library, I picked it up out of curiosity. And d’you know what?

All the adaptations are better than the original. All of them.

This is kind of interesting. Cinema is known for destroying its original literary material, not improving it. And for a story that’s been filmed so often to be improved even by the crudest adaptations is probably something like unique.

The reasons why the adaptations are better is actually kind of instructive. So allow me to instruct.

Most of the novel’s problems have to do with plot. And Gaston shouldn’t be blamed for all of them— he was writing for serialization, which meant he was churning out the pages as quickly as possible, hurling ideas at the page, and because his pages were being serialized in a magazine, he couldn’t go back and fix the story’s problems, he had to fix them, as it were, on the fly.

There are other problems having to do with pacing. The progatonist doesn’t protag. Even the substitute protagonist doesn’t protag.

Let’s start with the Phantom’s name. It’s Erik. Now Erik may be a fine name, but it’s not a suitable name for a mysterious, murderous masked figure hanging out in the cellars of the Paris Opera. For that you want something more evocative, like Abelard or Alonzo or Geraldo or something with more sweep and dash.

And then there’s Erik’s job. He’s a contractor. He builds stuff. He was one of the contractors on the Opera, and so he built his hidden passages and his secret mansion on the far side of the lake. That’s pretty mundane.

There’s also Erik’s disfigurement. He was just born with it, and rejected by humanity, and became a bitter recluse. Beginning with the 1943 film, the disfigurement became something that was done to him, became a part of the action, and that made the disfigurement seem more like a part of the story.

Which brings us to the unmasking scene. Film versions sensibly save this for the end, to build maximum suspense, but the novel has it happen in the middle of the story and more or less throws it away.

The heroine is a problem. Christine Daae— who is Swedish, by the way— is beautiful and sings very well when her heart is in it, but let’s face it, she’s dumb as a stump. She thinks the Phantom is an angel sent by her dead father to teach her to sing. She knows that the Phantom exists, but doesn’t connect her Angel with the Phantom. D’oh!

By the way, Christine keeps getting kidnaped by the Phantom. At least three times. And she begs and begs, and eventually he lets her go.

Which brings us to Raoul, the hero, who is totally inadequate to the job. He is described in the novel as small, effeminate, pampered, and very young. He’s brave, and devoted to Christine, but he’s also hopelessly stupid. He’s so ridiculously unfit for the job of protagonist that, in one of those halfway-through-the-novel fixes demanded by the serialization schedule, Leroux provides a secondary hero known only as the Persian. The Persian is an old friend of Erik’s, and knows a lot of his tricks, and thus gets Raoul close enough to the Phantom to fall into a whole series of Fiendish Death Traps with which the Phantom has surrounded himself.

In the end, both Raoul and the Persian are hopeless enough to be caught in one of the traps, and they are both captured by the Phantom. But Christine begs and begs, and eventually our heroes are set free. But Christine isn’t done begging— eventually the Phantom relents and lets her go, too, after which he dies of a broken heart alone in his stronghold.

The Phantom is a softy that way, at least when the plot calls for it, but also a diabolical murderer (when the plot calls for it). There’s not a lot of consistency in any of the characters.

There’s a lot of good material here, and some very interesting characters I haven’t bothered to describe (like the Rat-Catcher), but it’s all pretty formless, and it needed the cinema to beat it into shape. The masked figure of the Phantom, disfigured, embittered, and so in love with Christine that he kills anyone close to her, is just wonderful, and Gaston deserves four stars for him, along with his moody descriptions of the Opera and its workings, the terrific scene on the roof, the unmasking scene, and the idea of great evocative fortress of solitude on the far side of the opera’s lake filled with fussy beaux-arts furnishings and a grand pipe organ . . . that’s all pretty great stuff, and the film versions have made a point of keeping all that.

Cinema can’t mess around. There’s no time for the story to wander. And cinema also demands a climax— you can’t have as magnificent an antagonist as the Phantom facing a little wimp like Raoul, you’ve got to have a protagonist that’s more capable, and that’s what all the movie versions provide.

Gaston Leroux almost certainly wrote many better books— his detective stories made him the Conan Doyle of France— but I’m not sure he ever had a better idea. It’s an idea that the movie’s haven’t forgotten.

Ralf the Dog July 9, 2009 at 6:23 am

Perhaps it is not properly understood. From reading your description it sounds like a comedy.

Ken Houghton July 9, 2009 at 6:25 am

I think I saw part of that one once on PBS. Couldn't pay enough attention to stay with it, and your review doesn't leave me thinking I missed much.

Still prefer Paul Williams's The Phantom of the Paradise; after the ALW adaptation, no one questions the virtue of being a short film.

Anonymous July 9, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Unfortunately, it seems that NO English translation of Leroux's novel is complete, unabridged and faithful.
See here for an essay about the most recent "adaptation":
I have fond memories of the book (which I've read in French, of course), but I've not read it in a long time.

idiotgrrl July 9, 2009 at 1:12 pm

There's a novel called Phantom by Susan Kay that does a much better job. It takes the original and fills in the blanks, including the time in Persia.

Also, Kay runs a timeline on what the Phantom did when and what was happening at the time and decides that in 1888, he'd be 55 years old. So he's not a young romantic; he's a middle-aged man at his last prayers. Can you say Midlife Crisis?

In my Phantom Phan days I also added two fairly obvious things: first, that during his last visit to the Persian he was very obviously having a heart attack. Second, the explanation of how someone with the crude and childish handwriting could have been an architect in the days when drawings were handwritten. It's actually obvious when you think about it.

In the 19th Century you wrote with your right hand, no exceptions, no excuses. But if he was left-handed had taught himself to draw with the hand he used best, there's no contradiction. I'll bet instead of handwriting the labels and descriptions on his plans, he drew them.

And in the Gaston Leroux novel he has a geek-kid streak several kilometers wide.

Oh – how did you like the totally overblown, Gothic-inspired Christine-viewpoint of when they passed the Opera's boiler room on the way to his lair? I burst out laughing at that part.

Ian McDowell July 9, 2009 at 2:54 pm

I disagree about the Phantom's origin. I've never read more than a few excerpts from Leroux (which didn't inspire me to track down the novel), but I've always found Lon Chaney's Erik to be a MUCH more compelling figure than the wimpy Composer with a Facial Scar that's been the norm from Claude Rains on. Lon's (and presumably Leroux's) Phantom is an even more powerful archetype than Fantomas or Fu Manchu, a Byronic supervillain who grew up estranged from humanity because he literally looks like Death. Rain's Eric Claudin, the Herbert Lom version, all the TV ones, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber character are all wussies in comparison.

tcastleb July 9, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Dude, I was obsessed, like TOTALLY obsessed with TPOTO in middle and high school. Saw both musicals. Saw all the movies I could get my hands on. Read every related book I could find (there's even one where Sherlock Holmes meets the Phantom.) And adored the Susan Kay book. And did every frigging creative writing project or French project I could to do with TPOTO. (Six pages of rhyming couplets about what happened after TPOTO let Christine go? Yes, sadly, I did that.)

And I wrote Phantom Phiction too, which was sort of a stepping stone in writing seriously . . . but I always sympathized with the Phantom. Yeah, Christine was a dope.

(Oh, and there was the Halloween I borrowed my friend's cape and dressed as TPOTO, and the acting class where I did a scene from Leroux, and, and . . .)

Zora July 9, 2009 at 10:12 pm

I've always thought that the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz was way better than the book.

dubjay July 10, 2009 at 1:10 am

I always thought that the MGM Oz was lovely, but a betrayal of the original message. Instead of saying that existence was full of wonder and adventure, especially for girls, the movie told us that "there's no place like home," and that girls should stay on the farm, eke out a hardscrabble existence, forget about going over the rainbow, and let the evil neighbor lady kill their dog (which of course happened about twenty minutes after the close of the film).

I don't know which translation I read— the library's online catalog doesn't list the translator— but I know it was one of the recent ones. The translation rendered Leroux' descriptive passages with considerable brio, including the great inferno scene in the basement and the ghoulish appearance of the Rat-Catcher.

dubjay July 10, 2009 at 1:19 am

As for the Phantom's origin, I agree with Ian insofar as the cinema gives us all sorts of negative examples when it comes to trying to give archetypes a character arc. (Captain Nemo? A character arc? And then you try to stuff him into the Hero's Journey? Oh please!)

Still, the Phantom's origin story is lacking. The 19th Century produced a lot of disfigured and downright ugly people, but only one became the Phantom, then chose to live in a cellar and build Death Traps and torture chambers for fun. It wasn't his twisted love that motivated all that, for Christine hadn't appeared on the scene. He just liked torturing people.

It seems to me that the character has to have some kind of grudge against the Opera, or the story doesn't quite work.

Anonymous July 10, 2009 at 1:13 pm

I've had a brief look at this translation:
Only a brief look, mind you–I've work to do (translating TINAG).
And I compared it to my French paperback from 1972. The translation is slightly cut. According to my wordcount, the French text is roughly 130,000 words long.

Tengl July 12, 2009 at 2:58 am

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit" is a much better story over the original book, "Who Censured Roger Rabbit" for many of the same reasons. And others.

Steve Stirling July 12, 2009 at 4:45 am

THE HUNGER is also a much better movie than the original book. It even has a better -ending-, fer Chrissake, which is the thing Hollywood usually butchers.

Of course, with a 19th-century novel like PHANTOM you've got the added disadvantage that certain tastes and expectations have changed.

In a thriller-action plot like PHANTOM, we just expect different things of the hero, heroine and villain.

For example, generally speaking a romantic villain of the 19th century will often want to use his ruthlessness and wickedness to -marry- the heroine, rather than just subject her to a fate worse than death.

They liked last-minute conversions after an appeal to the guy's better nature, too. And villains were supposed to be haunted by guilt. Even Simon Legree was. Your all-round sadistic sonofabitch is rarer in that period and genre, though not unknown.

Of course, in the late 19th century there were also people who preferred reading Henry James to watching paint dry, so go figure.

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