From Novel to Screen to Stage

by Cathleen Myers

First time readers of Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel Le Fantome de L’Opera often find it "disappointing." This is not surprising. Leroux’s essential plot concept is wonderful: What could be a more romantic and frightening setting for a Gothic horror story than a "haunted" opera house? The juxtaposition of glamour and horror is irresistible, and at least five other authors (including Nicholas Meyer and Suzy McKee Charnas) have written their own Phantom of the Opera novels. Indeed, Leroux’s description of backstage life and politics at the opera is extremely entertaining and true-to-life. Even the climactic chandelier scene is based on a real incident in 1906 when parts of a central chandelier broke off and began falling on a terrified opera audience. The central story of Erik the Phantom’s obsessive love for his gifted young protégé Christine and her ambivalent feelings for her mysterious music master is moving and believable. Less satisfactory is Christine’s romance with the feckless Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, who makes Jonathon Harker and Lord Godalming in Dracula look like rocket scientists.

As a Gothic romance and a good airplane "read," the novel succeeds. As a Gothic mystery, however, it fails badly. Leroux, who was actually an investigative reporter and experienced mystery writer, breaks two cardinal rules of detective fiction: (1) "Never introduce a major character (like the mysterious Persian) in the latter half of the novel" and (2) "Never leave a ghost unexplained." The novel is badly constructed, with a rushed and unconvincing denouement in which the great mystery of the Phantom is explained away in dry second-hand narration.

Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Leroux’s novel attempts to gain verisimilitude by pretending that the story is reconstructed from different sources - archives, newspaper articles, interviews with eye-witnesses, and memoirs. This is a neat idea and actually captures our attention from the very beginning, as the narrator pretends to take a journalistic approach to the story and promises to unravel the mystery for us. However, unlike Dracula, where the "evidence" is presented to the reader from various sources, we never get to see Leroux’s "sources." Most of the story is told by an omniscient narrator - with occasional comments from the journalist-narrator. This just doesn’t work. Unlike Collins and Stoker, Leroux never for a minute succeeds in achieving real suspension of disbelief.

But what a spectacular plot concept for film and stage! Not surprisingly, there have been at least five film adaptations, an animated version, a rock film version (Phantom of the Paradise), two ballets, a "Phantom on Ice" and four stage musical versions of Leroux’s novel.

The first screen version of "Phantom," a three-reeler silent film released in 1925, is the most faithful adaptation of Leroux’s original novel. Starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin, the film’s use of chiaroscuro is still effective. Though we’ve all seen the famous unmasking scene, it must have been shocking indeed to its first-time audiences; Leroux’s novel was not well-known in 1925 so the skull-faced horror beneath the mask was completely unexpected! As the film is pre-Hays Code, there is no attempt to soften the erotic attraction between the Phantom and Christine or the sadomasochistic overtones in the dressing room and dungeon scenes, and there are lots of titillating shots of the ballet girls. The orgiastic masquerade ball scene, with its hand-colored frames, is a striking contrast to the stark black and white of the rest of the film, and both Christine’s silver ballgown and the Phantom’s scarlet Masque of the Red Death costume are effective. Devotees of the original novel may not approve of the film’s melodramatic chase scene ending with the Phantom pursued by a torch-bearing mob through the streets of Paris. Some viewers also find the acting melodramatic even by silent movie standards, but Chaney’s achievement in being able to convey emotion even through the Phantom’s mask has been justly lauded.

The second film version of Phantom of the Opera was a 1943 Universal technicolor musical extravaganza starring Claude Rains as a tragic but dangerous Phantom, coloratura soprano Susanna Foster as a vivacious Christine, and baritone Nelson Eddy as the swashbuckling opera star Anatole. Anatole’s rival for Christine’s affections is "Raoul," a rising young Surété detective. The script is a complete rewrite of the Gaston Leroux novel but, as a thriller, it works much better than the original. The story moves swiftly and the well-constructed plot is more convincing than Leroux’s, without its melodramatic coincidences. While Rains’ Phantom violinist/composer is a homicidal maniac more violent than Leroux’s Erik ( the film was, after all, intended for the horror movie crowd), the motivation for his mental breakdown is clearly delineated. What will disappoint fans of the novel and Webber’s musical is that Rains’ Phantom has only platonic feelings for Christine. While romantics will object to the comic relief and to the wry, ironic ending, feminists will applaud Christine’s final choice!

The film’s operatic scenes are simply gorgeous and, with the exception of the opening scenes from Von Flotow’s "Martha," are completely ersatz, thus setting a trend for most subsequent Phantom adaptations. Opera News’ term for such fictitious opera excerpts is "Shadow Opera." The first is from a Napoleonic "opera" called Amour et Gloire, with exquisite music by Chopin (and a G above higher C for Christine). The film’s climactic Chandelier Crash happens in the middle of a wonderful pseudo-Russian opera scene based on tunes from Tchiakovsky’s Fourth Symphony, with Nelson Eddy as a whip-cracking Cossack chieftain and lots of athletic "cossack" dancing from the corps de ballet. The film score also makes heavy use of leitmotifs (including the moving central theme of the Phantom’s romantic piano concerto), a technique later used in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. With a "tighter" script and an even prettier score than Webber’s, this is a fun film.

So successful was the film that Universal soon made another Gothic horror movie musical called something like Mask of Terror with Ms. Foster as an aspiring young soprano, Boris Karloff as a Phantom-like villain, lots of pretty Shadow Operetta scenes, a jealous prima donna and a gay baritone who wishes a composer would write an operetta with an all-male cast. (I’m not making this up, you know!). With enough popcorn, it’s not a bad movie.

Hammer Films, of course, had to do a remake of Phantom but the 1962 Hammer version lacks the usual expert acting, colorful production values and flashes of wit that made these well-directed low-budget British horror films so enjoyable, with popcorn, on a Friday night. Unfortunately, neither of Hammer’s demigod stars - Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing - is in the cast. The film’s tone and setting (London rather than Paris) are solemn and somber. The Phantom (Herbert Lom) is a rather tame fellow unmanned by a script that doesn’t allow him to do any of his own dirty work (His murders are committed by a dwarf accomplice). The rather weak villain of the piece is "Ambrose Darcy" (Michael Gough), the lecherous director of the opera who has been passing off the Phantom’s compositions as his own; the Raoul figure is a colorless young producer named Harry. Christine (Heather Sears) is pretty enough and looks cute in her St. Joan costume but the Phantom’s interest in her is purely professional. Worst of all are the scenes from Joan of Arc, the Phantom’s anachronistic 12-tone opera, which one critic called "the only genuinely horrific part of the movie!" (I remember Joan singing, in sprechstimme, "Noooo, I am NOT a her-e-tic!" but have blessedly forgotten the rest).

To give Hammer’s gifted director Terence Fisher his due, he was trying his best to achieve a somber consistency of tone which no other "Phantom" has achieved; hence the elimination of all comic relief. Fisher allows only one wryly amusing scene as Darcy’s mistress - a pretty but incompetent soprano who has replaced Christine - struggles vainly to master the complexities of St. Joan’s 12-tone music, a joke that Webber uses in his musical version as dim-witted tenor Pianghi struggles vainly to sing a quarter-tone interval in the Phantom’s difficult 12-tone opera Don Juan Triumphant.

Does anyone remember the entertaining TV movie remake of "Phantom" in the 1980’s with Jane Seymour as an unscrupulous, calculating Christine who’ll do just about anything for a good part and Anthony Andrews as the skeptical young conductor who falls in love with her and her voice in spite of himself? In an early scene, Christine sucks up to the handsome conductor, telling him how much she loves the opera Faust and how much she’d love to sing it under his direction. Andrews replies that she must either be insincere or have deplorable taste in music.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is not the only musical adaptation of Leroux’s novel. At least three other composer/lyricists have written "Phantom" musicals. I know nothing about the Grigal/Anderson version but Webber himself was inspired by Ken Hill’s Phantom musical, which enjoyed a good East End run in London in 1984. Hill’s slightly tongue-in-cheek version uses only authentic opera excerpts.

The best known of the non-Webber "Phantom" musicals, featuring a score by Maury Yeston and book by Arthur Kopit, has had some favorable press. Unfortunately for the unwitting authors, Webber’s version was completed and staged first. The Yeston/Kopit musical is very much an original story and has an intriguing plot twist: The Phantom turns out to be the natural son of one of the Paris Opera’s managers. I’ve actually heard good things about the score and about the development of the love story between the Phantom and Christine. I have heard only one excerpt from the score - the scene in which the manager acknowledges Erik as his son. It’s an operatic moment - very grand in style.

In 1986, with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenally successful musical stage version, we come full circle: Returning to the original Leroux novel for inspiration, Webber and co-author Richard Stilgoe strive to be faithful to it in storyline and spirit while removing some of the obvious flaws (including the superfluous Persian), tightening some loose ends, and giving the story an emotional depth Leroux strove for but never achieved.

A common criticism of Phantom is that, like most other Webber musicals, it substitutes spectacle for genuine emotion, basely pandering to the Philistines’ desire to be dazzled instead of moved and enlightened for their $65.00 ticket price. But all criticism melts away amid the sheer melodic loveliness, dramatic power and orchestral richness of Webber’s score. I don’t know if the show enlightens the Philistines but I’ve rarely seen a theater audience so visibly moved. Thanks to the musical’s skillful use of leitmotifs, the tunes haunt us weeks after we’ve left the theatre.

Yes, Phantom is certainly an operatic spectacle worthy of Giacomo Meyerbeer himself. Both of the famous chandelier scenes still work and, yes, the audience still shudders at the second act chandelier crash - which appears to be falling right into our midst. Eventually, the audience realizes that they, too, are characters in the story. Even at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre - exquisitely Victorian in decor but far too small to accommodate all the special effects and the enormous nightly crowds - the effects are breathtaking.

Phantom is an opera lovers’ dream musical, with its hilarious operatic parodies, in-jokes and vignettes of backstage politics. Webber’s opera and opera ballet parodies are alone worth the price of admission. In his sublimely silly Meyerbeer parody "Hannibal" Webber captures every cliché of early 19th century grand opera: The Carthaginian queen in the ‘antique’ bustle gown, the scantily clad ballet girls dancing the slave girls’ ballet with ‘antique’ gestures to pseudo-oriental music, the tenor-without-a-clue, the mechanical elephant! In the 18th century-style opera buffa, "Il Muto," (written á la Salieri), we get sparkling rococo music and a girl playing a cross-dressing boy pretending to be a girl. And the Phantom’s own opera, Don Juan Triumphant, dares to retell Mozart’s Don Giovanni from Don Juan’s point of view!

As in most grand opera, Phantom’s music transfigures its very flaws. We don’t worry about the faulty scansion of some of Charles Hart’s lyrics or about the minor gaps in the plot’s logic. We are instead transported by the sheer beauty of the music, which, in turn, elevates the stock characters to the level of three-dimensional human beings we care about. Instead of wondering just how "cosmically stupid" Christine must be not to have realized sooner that her Angel of Music is really the Phantom of the Opera, we are deeply moved by their strange love story and come to understand the combination of fascination, awe, terror and pity that she feels for her Phantom "master." Instead of ridiculing Raoul’s sheer incompetence as an amateur detective, we feel his anguish and his adoration of Christine. And instead of remembering that the Phantom is a remorseless murderer, extortionist, and "stalker," we fall in love with him and remember not his crimes but the extraordinary poignancy of his farewell scene.

Such is the elevating power of music. Such is the elevating power of love.

Return to Film Reviews

PEERS Home Page.