NEW YORK — Every screen adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" takes liberties with Victor Hugo's great novel. But one advantage live-action versions have over Disney's new animation is the presence of real, physical performers scampering through real, physical settings - even if the former are covered with makeup and the latter are thrown together on studio stages.
No fewer than four flesh-and-blood renditions have been made, although two of these have largely faded from view: a 1957 version by Jean Delannoy with Anthony Quinn as Quasimodo and Gina Lollabrigida as Esmeralda, and a 1982 version by Michael Tuchner with Anthony Hopkins and Lesley-Anne Down heading the cast.
The other two adaptations, both recognized as classics, can be found on video without too much fuss. Of these, the more famous is the 1939 edition with Charles Laughton, definitely the makeup champion of all actors who count Quasimodo among their credits.
Anticipating the terribly awkward yet oddly touching appearance that John Hurt gave "The Elephant Man" four decades later, Laughton makes Quasimodo's humanity shine through a mountain of makeup covering his face and body. The key to this effect is his thoughtful yet energetic approach to the role, giving the bell ringer a fully rounded personality that carries a vigorous sense of life despite the many burdens life has heaped upon him. William Dieterle directed the picture, which also features Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda, the poker-faced Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Frollo, and Thomas Mitchell as Clopin, chief rascal at the Court of Miracles.
Equally impressive is the silent version made in 1923 with Lon Chaney, the most celebrated face-changer and shape-shifter in Hollywood history. Along with "The Phantom of the Opera," which he starred in two years later, this is one of the movies that put Chaney on the map - and deservedly so, since his portrayal is charged with so much agility and expression that even modern audiences may hardly notice the picture's lack of dialogue. The generously funded Universal Studios production ($1.25 million was real money in those days) was directed by Wallace Worsley and remains this obscure filmmaker's primary claim to fame.
Laughton's version is available on cassette from Turner Home Entertainment. Chaney's version is available from Kino International in a beautifully color-tinted edition with a full orchestral score.