DUUHHH!! DUN DUN DUN DUN DUUUUUN…
The opening strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera are likely the most famous aspect of this work based on Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same name. This gothic story grasps our imaginations because of its secretive and murderous villain, dramatic love story, innocent victim, “ghost stories”, and flair for the dramatic. While Lloyd Webber’s musical transforms these aspects into an entertaining musical, the same cannot be said for Gaston Leroux’s original novel which, although darker, is too melodramatic for modern audiences and features unrelatable characters and an unbelievable romance.
The Phantom of the Opera
Originally published: 1910 (1909-1910 serialized; 1911 in English), France
Rating: 2 – At Your Own Risk
Christine Daáe is an up-and-coming opera singer who gets her big break at a performance at the Paris Opera. In the audience is her childhood friend Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny who falls in love with her. But, upon visiting Christine’s dressing room after the show he finds a nervous, scared girl who laughs at the childhood memory he brings up. What has brought about such a change in her? Through his observations of Christine, Raoul suspects that the “Angel of Music” who has been tutoring her is related to the rumored “Opera Ghost” who has been causing havoc at the Paris Opera. As Raoul dives headlong into this mystery, blinded by his love for Christine, he faces the dangers of the opera house, meets an ally, comes face-to-face with the Opera Ghost, and tries to escape with his own life as well as Christine’s freedom.
Gothic to the core
Although it is melodramatic, Leroux has crafted an interesting gothic novel, in which he holds to many of the classic elements of gothic fiction. The setting, though not a castle or religious building per se, is the Paris Opera House, and it serves much the same function by being a character in itself. The opera house is home to Erik, the Opera Ghost, and has secret passageways, rooms, and traps. As the Opera Ghost, Erik also fulfills the haunted nature of this gothic and even gives instructions to other characters in his ghost capacity. There are strange happenings that are attributed to the ghost like the “suicide” of a man and the grand chandelier falling during a performance. Christine is the innocent, virginal girl who Erik, the villain, wants to possess. Erik himself has a tragic back story, which even includes a foreigner (bonus points!) known only as the Persian. Raoul takes the role of the valiant hero who wants to save the girl, and there are even some comical characters in the bumbling opera managers and policemen. All of these elements are wrapped up in the dark, gloomy, and sometimes horrifying setting of the opera house which includes in its walls a torture chamber, lending the novel the important aspect of terror. While I may have other issues with this novel, there is no denying that it firmly belongs in the gothic genre with its blend of horror and romance.
I mentioned the Persian, and he is easily my favorite character (though I would have liked to know Erik better, also). The Persian knew Erik before the opera; after Erik was disowned by his family and ran away with the gypsies, he ended up in Persia. While there, Erik spent time in the company of the sultana and created the architecture of the torture chamber. With this history, the Persian knew how dangerous Erik could be as well as some of his tricks. By including the character of the Persian, Leroux was able to explain some of Erik’s backstory, making him a more three-dimensional character. This effect was helped along by Leroux’s choice to have the Persian narrate five chapters of the book. The tone of his chapters are more even and explanatory rather than overly emotional. These chapters were the easiest to read as well. Overall, it was easier to relate to character who is a foreigner in a strange land (a bit like the reader in this sea of melodrama) who is trying to make everything work out with the fewest number of deaths, like the reader wants it to. Without the Persian, the last part of the book may have become unbearable.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel for me was Erik’s torture chamber. An architect, Erik designed and built this chamber that showcased real evil. While the novel is full of threats, pranks, kidnapping, and some murder, the torture chamber is the most sinister, well-described, and truly evil aspect of the novel. It is not melodrama. The torture chamber is based on a design that was familiar to the reader at the time in exhibitions: a hexagonal room lined entirely with mirrors. Often an object, like a column, was placed in the room to create the illusion of hundreds of columns surrounding anyone standing in the room. Erik took this concept but replaced the column with an iron tree—to create the illusion of an iron forest—and he added a hatch for viewing in the high ceiling. The victim, or victims, would be shut up in the room as Erik would adjust the temperature and create noises. The idea was that eventually the victim would hallucinate, go mad, and take advantage of a length of rope left on the ground near the iron tree. Pretty evil, right? There is another torture crafted for Christine where she must choose between statutes of a grasshopper and a scorpion, but the torture chamber is by far more evil and brilliant.
What Didn’t Work:
No relatable character
While an argument could be made that the Persian is relatable, there are no other characters in the novel for the reader to get into. Raoul and Christine are either in ecstasy or abject misery throughout the entire novel, with no real middle ground. The reader starts out with hope that Christine will be relatable since she is an aspiring opera star who finally gets her big break, but when she actually speaks it is obvious that she is paranoid and manipulated by her invisible Angel of Music. Raoul, as the hero-lover, is madly in love all of the time and fluctuates between righteous indignation, brash “heroic” gestures, and melancholy. Even finding out some about Christine and Raoul’s childhood friendship does not help to make them any more likable. Erik is at least a well-rounded character—thanks largely to the Persian’s stories—but he’s really too evil and obsessive to be someone the reader truly understands (plus, he’s clearly the villain). Phillipe, Raoul’s brother, is someone the reader barely gets to know but who they can feel sympathy for; however, he is not really relatable either. Although, Phillipe may be the most accurate stand-in for the reader as he watches Raoul basically lose it, attempts to be a voice of reason, and ends up dead by accident.
Difficult romance to get behind
Along with unrealtable characters, the central romance of the novel is difficult to understand or really appreciate. While the childhood relationship of Raoul and Christine is straight forward, what is their adult relationship based on? Raoul happens to see Christine perform and they begin talking again, but the big shadow of Erik’s influence on Christine makes it difficult for them to continue to meet. When she finally does open up to Raoul in a scene on the opera house roof, Christine appears more rational than anywhere else in the novel, but there is not enough information for the reader to understand the relationship. They play at being engaged—when Christine has already pretty much been forced into an engagement with Erik—with their “play” consisting of writing each other overly sentimental letters and whispering sweet nothings into one another’s ears. Their engagement play is most like children playing house: a sham of something real and deeply important. With all of the melodrama, it is difficult to know what Raoul and Christine really mean to each other. Is she just something for him to possess? Is he simply a way out of her desperate situation? Whatever it is, it doesn’t feel like true love.
A Note about Adaptations:
The two most popular adaptations (at least for now) are the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and the 2004 film version of that musical. Both stick to roughly the same adaptation of the novel, so I’ll talk about them together.
Trailer for the 2004 film The Phantom of the Opera:
The adaptations have a lighter tone. While still solidly gothic, they have removed the torture chamber and Christine’s choice with the insect statues, which were probably too outright evil for the audience. The basic plot and main events of the novel are kept intact, though the plot is flattened, of course. The adjusted plot removes some of the weird coincidences and focuses less on the opera managers and policemen. Some aspects are certainly added like the monkey music box and the frame story with an aging Raoul at an opera house auction. Overall, I think it is easier for audiences to put up with all of the melodrama of the novel when it is presented in musical form. We’ll forgive more in a musical where singing characters create a sense of fantasy anyway. And, with Erik’s evil downgraded, the audience can feel more sympathy for him. Raoul and Christine’s romance also seems more believable when they are singing about their love in beautiful ballads.
If you have some desire to read the original text (or just love gothic novels), go ahead and read it; otherwise, stick to the musical and film adaptations to be entertained by this melodramatic gothic love story.