That’s not a typo.
I like to talk about seeing stories from a different point of view. This is not something I came up with, of course. Two books I read and fell in love with when I was much younger are John Gardner’s Grendel and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and the George.
And even when I was un piccolo bambino I found myself copying examples of switched viewpoints such as this classic Peanuts cartoon.
All of this has been in the forefront of the offices in my head because I’m writing a second draft of my version of a Disney story, one that is a relatively straightforward adaptation of a classic fairy tale. What surprised me while I was writing that story was that it really was a straightforward adaptation. That is not exactly par for the course for Disney movies anymore. Not that the classic Disney versions of other fairy tales were ever close to the source material (check out the Talking Cricket’s role in the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi… perhaps he should have wished upon that star a little harder, eh?) I remember being vaguely disquieted as a child when I read the original fairy tales and stories that Disney bowdlerized and sanitized, but since they occasionally produced a quality work of art (such as The Little Mermaid) I lived with it. All of this ended when The Hunchback of Notre-Dame came out in the mid-nineties.
The original novel by Victor Hugo is not as well-known in the US as Les Miserables, which is a shame since it’s just as moving and thrilling as that book, and at 500 pages, about the size of just one of the descriptions of what people shouted at The Battle of Waterloo (in the abridged Les Mis, of course…) Most of us these days only know the story from the various movie versions, and while many of them are well-done, they don’t quite capture the power and pathos of the source material. Particularly misrepresented in many versions is the character of Phoebus. The novel has, of course, the hero, Quasimodo (who is also deaf, as were all bellringers in the days before ear protection), the villain, Claude Frollo (who is possibly one of the most despicable characters in French literature I’ve come across) and the beautiful wronged Gypsy woman, Esmeralda. And then there’s Phoebus.
In the book, Phoebus is best described as a weasel. Like Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, he doesn’t have the cojones to truly be a bad guy. He does bad things in a moment of weakness and either doesn’t own up to them, or blames his weaknesses, or blames other people for not taking his weaknesses into account. Phoebus, however, is so much more painfully well-wrought than Dimmesdale is. No other character in literature filled me with such pathetic disgust like he did. When people talk about what they would do if they could magically travel inside one of their favourite books and meet its characters, I don’t think of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, or Winter’s Tale, or any of the “Black Company” books, or even hanging out in a tavern in Lankhmar with the Grey Mouser and his companion. I think of how sweet it would be to step inside 15th Century Paris, find Captain Phoebus, and just smack the everloving shit out of him. No character deserves it more than he does.
So fast-forward to the mid-nineties, when I see a trailer for the Disney movie. True, I’d been a little disappointed with Pocahontas, (who wasn’t?) but the movies that Disney had been putting out since 1989 (The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) were stunning enough for me to look forward to what they were going to do with perhaps my favourite French Gothic novel. And then I saw a toy commercial for the movie, and amidst the other plasticized characters, the announcer pointed out “Brave Phoebus.”
This was a character that perhaps caused most of the bad things in the novel to happen, was too weaselly to do anything about it, and still somehow came out ahead in the end.
Of course, the little cynic that I keep locked in a trunk in the back of my head piped up, “Well, of course they had to make him the hero. God Forbid they make a hero out of the ugly deaf guy. I mean, really… what would that teach our children?”
I’ve never seen any direct evidence that that was the direct cause of Phoebus’ transformation but everything else that Disney’s done since then (like Merida‘s makeover from self-sufficient warrior tomboy to glamourized, sexualized, properly keeping to her own place Disney Princess) hasn’t disproved my hypothesis.
This is why us writers and artists and creators need to produce quality stories about quality people, adults and children. Real people. Warts and body odor and clumsiness, along with accidental good deeds, kind eyes, and a way of occasionally doing the right thing. (The cynical movement in literature and film is just as naïve and detached from reality as the Polyanna-esque ‘everything is sunshine and rainbows and unicorn farts movement.) Even though it may be one day Disneyfuc’d into something barely resembling its origin, the stories need to be there. And once the story’s out there, flip it over and tell it from another point of view. Or tell it backwards. Or tell a realistic version of a magical tale or vice-versa. The slippery plastic sheen of homogenous popular culture may always be more visible, but people are always willing to dip beneath it for the good stuff, if you give them a reason to.