The rise of The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the top of France’s bestseller list shows how much the spirit of the cathedral still matters
Victor Hugo was not enamoured with the title of Frederic Shoberl’s English translation of his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. For the future “great man” of French literature, the book’s main attraction was the gothic cathedral itself, not its hunchbacked bell-ringer. Hugo thought that Notre Dame’s sublime features could take us to new heights, both physical and spiritual, from which we could sense a fervent connection to our world and to one another. Nearly two centuries later, his words still compel us to consider the cathedral with awe.
This is not to discount the Hunchback of Notre Dame’s importance. Proving that a monster can still be a man, Quasimodo’s awakening humanity is integral to the novel’s pathos and to its many adaptations on stage and screen, from 19th-century theatre and opera to the 1996 Disney animated film and the hit French musical. Moving performances from actors such as Charles Laughton and Anthony Hopkins have helped to solidify Quasimodo’s place at the story’s centre (even if they were more than twice as old as a character who’s barely in his 20s), and no less than three different versions using the “Hunchback” title have been announced by Netflix, Disney, and ITV over the past year alone.
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