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With a ‘Hunchback’ Remake, Disney Wants to Go Dark

Disney tells a socially conscious tale in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ that’s bound to inspire something more serious than their existing slate of live-action adaptations.
Hunchback Of Notre Dame
Walt Disney Pictures
By  · Published on January 17th, 2019

I don’t think anyone is particularly surprised anymore when Disney breaks the news of yet another live-action reimagining (well, semantics aside). This time, via Deadline, the Mouse House has announced their intention to remake The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the big screen, putting a real-life spin on the eponymous bell-ringer.

Simply titled Hunchback, Disney’s live-action take on the classic Victor Hugo novel Notre-Dame de Paris has landed the screenwriting talents of Tony Award-winning scribe David Henry Hwang. His lengthy credits as a playwright and librettist include M. Butterfly and the stage musical adaptation of Disney’s own Tarzan.

Meanwhile, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz — the original composer and lyricist for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, respectively — will write the music for the new film. Mandeville Films, the production company behind Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast redo, will produce Hunchback alongside actor Josh Gad (who also featured in the 2017 film). Deadline notes that the latter could be vying for the lead role of Quasimodo, although there aren’t actually any confirmed casting reports at this time.

The story of Quasimodo has actually been making waves in Hollywood in general. Hunchback marks the second adaptation in the works after Idris Elba announced plans to spearhead a modernized version of Hugo’s novel. Elba will be making the music and helming the feature… the whole mysterious shebang.

Disney seems to be cooking up something a little more straightforward. Hunchback is said to include elements from its source novel and the animated adaptation (notably leaving out the stage musical based on the latter that Menken and Schwartz eventually put together).

That said, there is reason to believe that Hunchback has more going for it than just run-of-the-mill nostalgia. Because considering how different Hugo’s novel and Disney’s animated film actually are, their purported amalgam making up the live-action update intrigues me.

The grit, tragedy, and detail of Notre-Dame de Paris inspired one of Disney’s darkest movies. Despite the fact that characters like the captivating Romani dancer Esmeralda, the fundamentalist villain Frollo, the supposed hero Captain Phoebus, and Quasimodo himself undergo huge makeovers for a significantly lighter narrative in the animated film, more serious themes remain.

In examining persecution, revolution, and sin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame viscerally hits home in exploring outcasts of all kinds. The film particularly leans into its depiction and criticism of racism and xenophobia, and we see this through the villainous Frollo. He plays a more nuanced if ultimately manipulative priest in the novel but instead manifests with an unrelenting, self-righteous god complex.

At the beginning of the movie, Frollo — a judge as opposed to an archdeacon in the film — is clearly prepared to enact infanticide to further his agenda against the Romani community. The role of religion in the character’s life is instead translated into unbending fanaticism. When condemned by someone in Notre-Dame Cathedral, Frollo only takes Quasimodo in out of fear of divine retribution. Otherwise, he only displays a sanctimonious outlook when attempting to “maintain order” in his town.

Thankfully, the trio of Quasimodo, Esmerelda, and Phoebus help to remedy Frollo’s outright evil, wherein the changes to their characters collectively emphasize the importance of friendship, camaraderie, and acceptance. I’m actually not at all mad that Esmerelda’s arc, in particular, has basically made a total 180, especially when she ends up being a superbly socially conscious Disney princess.

The naive, lovesick literary version of her — definitely more innocent than street-smart — meets a tragic end in Hugo’s novel. In contrast, Esmerelda acts as an agent for change in the film, empathizing with the less fortunate and committed to fighting for the underdog.

But I’d personally love to see what the remake does with Phoebus, who is truly uncomplicated and un-hateable in the animation. There isn’t even any prolonged love triangle drama for him to be a part of. But could the hedonistic philandering captain of Hugo’s creation find his way into the new film?

I pose this question not to necessarily undermine the feel-good nature of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and break up a formidable trio. However, Disney has been experimenting with the value of straightforward, redemptive romance in their recent films. Take Frozen and even Maleficent into account and think about what “an act of true love” means in both. Maybe Phoebus doesn’t have to be an antagonist in Hunchback, but adding a flaw or two could be on the cards.

Lastly, what of Quasimodo? Perhaps he won’t be as carefree this time around, and it’s easy to see why. Despite being cloistered in a tower for all of his life, Disney’s iteration of the character has found ways to remain impeccably chipper. He is optimistic to the point of naivete when his book counterpart is far more embittered. Now, no one really needs to see a brooding, exiled Quasimodo attempt to kidnap anyone (as he does in the book). Yet, it would make sense to bring more emotional depth and subtlety into the live-action film.

There are a ton more differences between Hugo’s novel and Disney’s animated movie to parse through — even spanning missing characters — but an important baseline of dark but morally conscious themes exists even in the simplified version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As one of Disney’s most overtly political films, there is already a suitable foundation from which a vital live-action remake could spawn. Hunchback hasn’t found its way onto the official schedule of upcoming redos just yet, but I’m waiting in bated breath for it.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)