Friday, September 08, 2006

The Phantom of the Opera: Leroux v. Webber

"The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge. Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade."

--The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux
Before I go any further, I just want to state this disclaimer: my first experience with The Phantom of the Opera was Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, which I saw in Toronto seventeen years ago. I had never watched a movie version or read the book or knew anything about it other than what the title told me before I saw the Webber musical.

I immediately fell in love with it. The music. The costumes. The set. The story!

Which is why it's probably not fair for me to write a review of Leroux's book, which I read twice: once for research for my own version of Phantom, and second, as I finished up the book, I reread parts of it so I'd qualify for Carl's Readers In Peril fall reading challenge.

But, Dance Chica asked me to, so I'm going to give it a try. Really, what I'm going to do more than review the book is to compare the two versions: the original, and what is arguably the most well-known version of the story of Christine Daae, Raoul, and Erik (the Phantom).

Before I do that, let me give a very brief synopsis of the story for those who haven't read the book or seen the movie or play (Zeek!).

The story is about Christine Daae, an orphan who performs spectacularly at the Opera House in Paris, upstaging the reigning prima donna La Carlotta, and becomes the obsession of not one, but two men. Erik, also known as the Phantom of the Opera, and Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, one of the gentry.

Raoul is a childhood friend who comes back into her life at the beginning of the story, and Erik is a man with a deformed face who hides beneath the Opera House in his lair, and "haunts" the theater. Erik becomes Christine's singing tutor, under the guise of pretending he is an angel sent to her by her father, who died several years earlier. That's the crux of the story. As to how it ends, well, I'm trying not to give away spoilers.

So, on to the comparison.

First, let me say that Webber was quite faithful to Leroux's original story in many ways, some of which surprised me.

For example, Christine does call the Phantom her "Angel of Music," which I had wondered about. And the Opera Ghost (Erik) does send letters to the managers of the theater, asking for his salary. There is a masquerade ball in both versions. There is a graveyard scene in both versions where Christine visits her father's grave and the Phantom is there, trying to lure her to him. Erik does write an opera called "Don Juan Triumphant." Lots of basic similarities.

In the film version of the Webber musical, there's an additional scene: of Raoul in the circular room with mirrors, trying to fight the Phantom. That, too, is taken from the book.

There are some things that Webber left out, understandably so, due to the constraints of his choice of medium.

In the book, the Vicomte de Chagny (Raoul) has an older brother, the Comte. The Comte actually is the so-called villain in the original book, along with the Phantom, in that he does not want Raoul to marry beneath him--he tries to obstruct any possibility of marriage between Christine and Raoul.

Also, in the book, there is this mysterious character known only as The Persian. He comes in about halfway through the book and is a device used, through his conversations with Raoul, to fill us in on Erik's (the Phantom's) backstory--where he was before he was in Paris, how he comes to know so much about torture chambers and engineering, and how to navigate from under the theater to the Phantom's underground lair.

After being immersed in the Webber version (I've owned the soundtrack since I first saw the musical, have seen the musical a dozen times, and also own the movie), I must admit I found the book to be a disappointment to my romantic's heart. The main reason is that the book is not the love story that Webber turned it into; it's more of a mystery, told in what I would call a dry precursor to our popular police procedural novels.

I didn't find it particularly suspenseful or creepy. It's not really a thriller. It has a gothic feel to it, but in a removed sort of fashion.

It is a love story between Raoul and Christine. And the story of Erik's obsessive love for Christine, although in the book, there's very little sympathy built in for Erik. Webber romanticized Erik and his passion for Christine, and I'm not ashamed to say that I prefer his version.

And, I am sorry to say, there is no scene in the book that even slightly relates to the famous Point of No Return scene from the film/musical.

I think Leroux must be given his due, however. He wrote a novel with a storyline that has fascinated us for over a century now, inspiring the creation of many different movie versions, and the most lucrative entertainment enterprise of all time (src: Wikipedia). He wrote a type of novel with a unique (at that time) structure in which the story is told mainly through a series of interviews with the characters, as in a police procedural.

I expected more suspense, and more of a ghostly feel to the book. But, as I said right off, I know my expectations have been colored by my first exposure to the book. It would be impossible for me to judge the book based on its own merit, unfortunately.

So. For those of you who have read the book, what do you think? What did you like about it? Dislike? The phone lines are open.


Blogger Dance Chica soliloquized...

You should've known I'd be the first one over here! :-P

See, I haven't seen the movie, play or read the book version but I want to read the book soon.

I'm glad you explained the difference between how the romance was portrayed in the book v.s. the musical versions because when you think PotO you tend to think romance. But I'm still looking forward to reading it even more so now that I know to keep my expectations in the right place. Great post!

Friday, September 08, 2006 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Janice Lynn soliloquized...

I've never read the book and after reading your post I'm not sure I'll ever spend my valuable reading time doing so. Enjoyed your comparison. :)

Friday, September 08, 2006 8:03:00 PM  
Blogger Diana Peterfreund soliloquized...

In the special features of the movie's DVD there's a whole documentary about the writing of the musical. Apparently, Weber was married to the woman for whom he wrote Christine (Sarah Birghtman?) and identified not a little with the idea of the Phantom, a COMPOSER, being in love with this young, incredibly gifted soprano.

Seen through this filter, the sympathy for the phantom's character because much clearer.

Saturday, September 09, 2006 8:00:00 AM  
Blogger Colleen Gleason soliloquized...

Thanks, Janice. As you could probably tell, I didn't really *love* the book.

Diana! I have seen those special features--thanks for reminding me of Webber's affinity for the Phantom. And in the film, moreso even than the play, the romance between Erik and Christine is more developed.

That's part of the reason they didn't want to use Michael Crawford as the Phantom when they made the movie--he was too old to be a convincing love interest for Christine.

Saturday, September 09, 2006 8:13:00 AM  
Blogger Carl V. soliloquized...

See I had the completely opposite reaction. First off, love the musical. Have seen it on Broadway and several times on the off-Broadway tour in various cities. My second favorite musical...just barely behind Les Miserables. That being said, I think the book is fantastic. I actually do see the romance in the book but maybe I just read that into it because of my experience with the musical. I think the Phantom is both a more villanous and more well rounded character in the novel. I thought many of the things alluded to in the musical...the whole 'hand at the level of your eye' stuff...and the rats and other things that had to do with the enormity of the levels below the opera house were very creepy. I honestly feel it is one of the best of the classic horror novels (Dracula being number one of course!) and feel it should definitely be read. Again, that's just me. I also like how you get the sense at the end of the novel that the Phantom didn't just disappear but actually was a protector of Rauol and Christine's relationship after he disappeared from the opera house.

I respect your opinion of course, the book probably wouldn't appeal to everyone, especially the larger contingent of those who love the musical but for me it deepens my appreciation for the story whenever I watch the musical or hear the music.

And Sarah Brightman is the shiznit! ;)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 11:53:00 PM  

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