“The Opera Ghost really existed…” Such are the opening lines of Gaston Leroux’s Edwardian homage to the Belle Epoque. Pregnant with mystery, romance, and intrigue, these words usher us into a world as fantastical as one of Hans Christian Andersen’s frosty fairy tales, as decadent as one of Oscar Wilde’s indulgent novellas, as Gothic as Jane Eyre, as romantic as Jane Austen.
A classic from the beginning, the story has a telescopic quality, starting with the 1907 burial of phonographic records in the cellars of the Opéra Garnier (a historical fact) and the discovery of a lonely skeleton wearing a gold ring (a fictitious invention), before plunging decades back into the winter of 1880-1881, and further back even into the narcotic reveries of mid-century Persia. By the time we are drawn back into the posh tedium of pre-war Paris, we are left as stunned and dreamy as an opium-eater wakening from a pipe dream.
The novel has been adapted to stage and screen countless times, most famously in 1925 and 1986. While we have discussed the historical, literary, and psychoanalytical contexts of this story in another post, the focus of this one will be the seven best (or at least most influential) of those screen adaptations...
1925: LON CHANEY SR./ MARY PHILBIN/ NORMAN KERRY.
The first screen adaptation was the silent film starring Lon Chaney Sr. – an adaptation which, despite being almost a century old, remains the most accurate of any interpretation. Chaney’s famous makeup has continued to be unsurpassed in its depiction of Erik’s skullish deformity, and may have been designed to resemble actual sufferers of porphyria. The film’s most noteworthy feature, the makeup was designed by Chaney himself and was – like Karloff’s in “Frankenstein” – a secret until the film was released. Skeletal with bulging eyes, a receded nose, jutting teeth, and thin, stringy hair and an expression which swings from misery to demonic rage, Chaney’s visual interpretation of Erik is en pointe, even if the plot portrays him as an unredeemable fiend.
Modern audiences may struggle to appreciate this (partially) black and white silent masterpiece, but it cannot fail to communicate the mood of Leroux’s source material: the glamour which is a façade; the elegance which hides a horror; the beauty on the stage who acts as a transmitter for the beast in the shadows.
No film version since 1925 has so effectively expressed the core irony of Leroux’s novel, and it remains the closest adaptation to date. Although the ending – complete with a chase scene, torch-wielding mob, and a last minute rescue – is more melodramatic than need be, it follows the characterization, plot, and mood of the novel more accurately than any other adaptation.
1943: CLAUDE RAINS/ SUSANNA FOSTER/ NELSON EDDY.
The next version that attracts notice – one of the last Universal monster films – was released in 1943 and starred Claude Rains. An absolute scrambling of the plot, it introduced the oft-repeated misconception that Erik was disfigured by acid: a brilliant violinist is going blind but hopes to publish a concerto before he is fired from the Paris Opera orchestra.
In a moment of nearly slapstick confusion, he accuses a publisher of trying to steal his manuscript (he isn’t; it’s being played by Franz Liszt in the other room), kills the man, and is attack with etching acid by the publisher’s mistress. Crawling back to the opera, he plots his revenge. At the same time, he continues to pay for expensive singing lessons for a young soprano who is heavily implied to be his illegitimate daughter (introducing some touches of incest).
This version remains influential but is not terribly good: rushed, clumsy, unbelievable, and dull, it has too much 1940s glitz and not enough Gothicism. A wartime film, it is simply too “nice”: a humorous subplot involves a policeman and tenor vying unsuccessfully for the career-minded Christine, a grandfatherly Franz Liszt adds nothing to the plot, Erique’s transition from dark seducer to secret father make him needlessly pathetic, and the whole sparkly look of the film makes it feel more like a Technicolor musical than a tale of erotic horror.
1962: HERBERT LOM/ HEATHER SEARS/ MICHAEL GOUGH.
This was corrected powerfully twenty years later by the gritty, grisly Hammer Film version starring Herbert Lom. While it also perpetuates the idea that Erik was disfigured by an acid accident in his adulthood (and makes a great deal of bizarre tweaks to the plot), it is successful in conveying the Gothic glamour of Leroux’s novel.
Set in Victorian London, it follows the gruesome revenge of Professor Petrie, who was thought to be killed in the fire that destroyed his musical manuscript. During the conflagration, the composer attempted to douse the fire in water, but accidentally threw etching acid into his face. Gruesomely disfigured, he is rescued from the sewers by a psychopathic dwarf who acts as his lackey and enforcer. This version also introduced the idea of an asymmetrical mask: although it covers his whole face, it is only pierced by one eyehole (his left eye being destroyed).
A grisly study in class, corruption, and evil, the film is typical of Hammer productions in all the best ways: queasily gory, scandalously sensual, and decadently Gothic, where Claude Rains took Leroux’s source material to the level of candy-coated musical, Herbert Lom sinks it (literally) into the dank sewers of decay and corruption.
1986: MICHAEL CRAWFORD/ SARAH BRIGHTMAN/ STEVE BARTON.
Almost fifteen years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber introduced the most influential adaptation since Lon Chaney. His 1986 musical was written with Sarah Brightman in mind (his wife at the time), and starred Michael Crawford in the title role.
Luscious, Gothic, sensual, and psychologically complex, it downplayed the horror by introducing the iconic half-mask, but succeeded in sounding Erik’s notoriously complex psychology in a manner more effective than any previous adaptation. While it may be accused of hyping up the physical sexiness that clearly never existed between Leroux’s characters, it succeeds translating their spiritual eroticism into a visual and lyrical medium.
Perhaps the greatest criticism – from a purist standpoint – is Lloyd Webber’s lionization of “the Phantom” (he is given no name) into a sort of emo genius who is clearly better for Christine than the foppish Raoul, but who is abandoned in an emotionally conflicted moment of coquettish betrayal. Readers of the novel understand that Erik is a genius, but also a tremendously manipulative sociopath, and that while Raoul is hardly less emotionally stable, Christine’s choice is natural.
But the musical is truly a different animal, and although it may boost the eroticism a wee much, it is only working with the very genuine sexual subtexts that Leroux planted in his novel. Thirty years later, the musical remains the novel’s most influential adaptation.
1989: ROBERT ENGLUND/ JILL SCHOELEN/ ALEX HYDE-WHITE.
The next notable version takes the imaginative, Grand-Guginol-style horror of Hammer to whole new levels of exploitation – probably to its detriment. Released in 1989, the Robert "Freddy Kruger" Englund version combines elements of “Faust,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and other slasher films to make the goriest interpretation of Leroux’s novel ever produced.
A modern day New York singer is transported back to the 19th century by a falling sandbag after reciting an aria written by the long-dead Phantom. It seems that she is the reincarnation of the historical Christine, who is libidinously pursued by the psychopathic composer whose song she was singing. This is no fatherly Claude Rains: Englund plays a fanatic musician who sells his soul to the devil for Robert Johnson-esque talent. The devil, however, takes his face away as his due, leading the grotesquely mutilated Erik to commit a series of murders by which he constructs a mask of human flesh in the vein of Ed Gein.
Stomach-churning gore, narcotic nightmares, and clichéd atrocities ensue. If you enjoy 80s and 90s style slasher films, this might work for you, but it is stripped of the sublimity, sensuality, and redemption that have kept Leroux’s novel in print for over a century.
1990: CHARLES DANCE/ TERI POLO/ BURT LANCASTER.
The following year, a miniseries starring Charles Dance reeled the tone way, way back to something even less Gothic than the Rains version: a sort of fey, Baroque, romantic treatment that plays up the story’s “Beauty and the Beast” origins (taking particular inspiration from the 1987 Gothic romance/fantasy show of the same name). If the 1989 version was the most horrific adaptation ever made, the 1990 miniseries is among the least horrific.
For one thing, we are never shown Erik’s face (although the grey-green makeup around his eyes leads us to suspect that it is somehow lizard-like). His love for Christine (admittedly, one of the more faithful Christines out there: a competent, melancholy, motherly blonde rather than the usual impressionable, submissive brunette) is primarily motivated by her resemblance to his mother (who died in childbirth, but not before smiling at him – the only time he received a smile without his mask on).
Released while Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” was in production and in the same year that the eponymous TV series was on its final season, this “Phantom of the Opera” is more Harlequin fairy tale than Gothic melodrama (at one point, he even makes an cringe-inducing appearance in a puffy-sleeved shirt, silk vest, and -- sigh -- a straw boater hat).
Although he does commit a murder off-screen, the emphasis is on his maudlin memories of his dead mother, his complicated relationship with his withholding father (Burt Lancaster), and his crushing need to be loved. It is an interesting and genuinely touching (but somewhat impotent) rendition that stands at the opposite extreme of Englund’s needlessly brutal version.
2004: GERARD BUTLER/ EMMY ROSSUM/ PATRICK WILSON.
The most recent adaptation worth mentioning shares its reputation with its source material: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical. The film has proven to be divisive in the “Phantom” community, attracting strong opinions from both sides. Directed by Joel Schumacher, the 2004 production starred Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum and received Lloyd Webber’s blessing and collaboration.
If the Broadway/West End musical was criticized for sexing up the story of a 60-something sociopath stricken by a festering skin disease, Schumacher’s version raised even more eyebrows with the lantern-jawed Phantom whose deformity attracted comparisons to a bad sunburn and had the feeling of being an afterthought. Indeed, Schumacher gleefully emphasized the campy glitz and glamour of the Belle Epoque while downplaying many of the darker, Gothic elements, and many fans objected to the leads’ vocal prowess.
This being said, few have had the gall to critique the spectacular vision of the film – a visual feast with a sensual appetite – or its ambitious imagination. Lavish and gilded, it reminds one of an intricate, antique Valentine -- delivered, of course with an ornate box of dark chocolate and a crimson rose tied with a black, satin ribbon. It is rich, luscious, and sexy -- possibly (like the overpowering respective flavors of the 1989 and 1990 adaptations) to its own detriment. Unquestionably the most influential film adaptation since 1925, Butler’s dapper, muscular Phantom will remain second only to Chaney’s for the foreseeable future of cinema.