The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

4 Stars

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

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A 1939 film version of Victor Hugo's classic novel about a deformed hunchback, Quasimodo, who serves Claude Frollo, the evil archdeacon of Notre Dame in 15th Century France.


As with most people in this day and age, my only experience of Victor Hugo's classic is through the bright and colourful version Disney released in 1996 which featuring talking gargoyles. While Disney was lauded for exploring darker source material than normal it still comes nowhere near the original story.

Even this version, made in 1939, tones down the 1831 novel a bit but, as Disney clearly drew inspiration for Quasimodo's appearance from Charles Laughton's striking character representation, I can't help but compare the two for just that reason alone.

The story is similar - in 15th Century Paris the gypsies are being persecuted. One - Esmerelda (Maureen O'Hara) - manages to sneak into the city where she attracts the attention of many local men, including the Judge Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) and Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien), a failing poet. Quasimodo is a reclusive hunchback who is made deaf by his bell-ringing in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and is legally cared for by Frollo.

While researching for this review, I came to realise that the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is exceptionally brutal. For those who were also brought up on the Disney version, this take exposes much of the gritty nature of the book. That being said, the source text kills off both Esmerelda and leaves Quasimodo presumed dead which is a radically different ending than most people are aware of, so it could be argued that this film influenced Disney far more so than Hugo.

To back up this claim, Disney's Quasimodo even shares the same squint, wonky teeth and ruffled hair as Charles Laughton's heavily made up hunchback. Because Laughton has changed his physical appearance so much, the only thing that gives away the fact that it is the actor playing Quasimodo is that his podgy nose is identical which, again, is another trait that Disney copied.

In conclusion then, if you have seen Disney's version and are interested in Victor Hugo's original text, then this would be the perfect stepping stone. There are plenty of recognisable scenes from Disney's film, right down to the less-colourful Fool's Parade, but the added sense of realism will bring a whole new perspective on that story you saw as a child.

Review by on . Film Rating: 4/5