Top 7 Film and Stage Adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera
“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.