Friday, July 6, 2007

My Phantom's Sexier Than Your Phantom

Some time ago, someone asked me if I'd read the original Phantom of the Opera by Leroux. I did. I have. And said person asked if I followed the book when I wrote my--ahem--dirty version of it, and what I thought about it.

And, well, my answer is: sorta. I didn't love the book as much as I loved the Webber musical (that's the romantic in me)...and here's sort of a comparison for the curious-minded.

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 eighteen 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 impossible for me to write any objective 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 as I did my final run-through of the book.

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.

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.


Kalen Hughes said...

Perhaps it really does come down to which version you experienced first . . . I adore the novel, but I've always found the Webber version fatuous and overblown (but then that’s pretty much how I’ve felt about all of Webber’s work). It just doesn’t speak to me.

That said, I’m eager to read your version and become a convert to the cult of Erik!

Colette Gale said...

Kalen, I look forward to seeing you again at National and maybe having a chance to chat about the book v. movie/musical! (And to start working on your conversion...)

Jane Lockwood said...

Terry Pratchett does a pretty good version too, in "Masquerade."
I'm really looking forward to this one, Colette!