Lon Chaney as the Phantom

Phantoms of the Opera: A Survey of Adaptations

An article by Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 1990-2005 Mark R. Leeper

Imagine a man born with the sort of genius and universal mind that Goethe had, but also born with a hideous face that sends people away screaming. Even Erik’s mother is terrified by the face of her own son. Erik spent his early years in a freak show, but still found time to develop his keen mind, perhaps more so because he could have no social life. He was by turns a sideshow freak, an artist, a master magician and ventriloquist, a great singer, and the assistant to the Shah-in-Shah of Persia. For a while he was the most powerful man in Persia. He became a political assassin, a great architect, an inventor, and finally he retreated into anonymity as a common stone mason. Finally he gets a chance to apply his genius in a positive way, the design portions of the Paris Opera House, a fantastically intricate building in fact as well as in the novel.

When the work in the opera house is completed, rather than returning to the unfeeling world, he forsakes the sunshine that shows up his deformity and decides to live in the dark suffused by the divine music of the opera. It is a Chinese puzzle world that only he knows the intricate secrets of because he designed many of them in. And knowing all its many secret passages he is its absolute ruler. It even has an underground lake (actually used to buoy up the stage in the real Paris opera house) and as a remembrance of his past he has built a torture chamber. Then Erik hears a voice in the chorus whose owner he realizes he can, with proper training, turn into a supreme singer. He dupes the naive girl, who hears his voice but never sees him, into thinking he is an angel sent from heaven by her dead father to teach her to become a great singer.

These are all bits and pieces of background you pick up in the novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Nobody has ever dramatized the story and done a sufficient justice to the tragedy of Erik. I am not claiming this is great literature, by any means. It is exaggerated, certainly. But it is melodramatic enough to be done really well in a dramatic medium. However, nobody has ever even attempted it except on the most superficial level. I do think that there is more of Erik in the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber than in the Chaney version which made him a lunatic escaped from Devil’s Island, but even the musical does not really do justice to the drama of the character.  My interpretation of the novel, though it is not explicit in the writing, is that Erik's interest in Christine is artistic rather than simply romantic or sexual.  Upon hearing a perfectable voice he becomes maniacal in his efforts to first perfect the voice and then to possess the source of that voice.  Audiences seem to find sexual motives more understandable than artistic ones.  In most dramatic adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Gray's professed reason for rejecting Sibyl Vane is similarly reduced from an artistic motive to a sexual one.

As the stage play gives the Andrew Lloyd Webber productions of this story continuing popularity, it is worthwhile to compare the various adaptations of the novel.

The novel can be found free and easily on-line.  Once such place is


The backstory of Erik's life can be found seven paragraphs into the Epilogue at the end of the novel.

1925 Lon Chaney

The silent 1925 silent version is certainly the one that made people aware of the story. It is very probably not only the most famous film version of the story but also is probably the most famous screen role of Lon Chaney. The only other screen role that he is remembered anywhere near as well for is as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I am not sure it is as true today, but when I was growing up if you thought of the Phantom you pictured Lon Chaney’s makeup. And kids of my generation thought of the Phantom a lot, particularly if they read Famous Monsters of Filmland which often ran stills from the film and fanciful paintings of the Chaney Phantom. Even now Chaney’s is the only Phantom that when I think of, I think first of how he looked unmasked. In fact, one rarely sees reproductions of how the Chaney Phantom looked masked. His hat seems wrong for the early 1900s and he looks sort of like a gangster wearing a party mask. We see him more often without his mask than with it.

For being faithful to the novel, this is certainly one of the better versions. Much of what we see on the screen really was from the novel, though the converse, unfortunately, cannot be said. Much of the novel is omitted from the film. Part of the reason for that is that the pace of storytelling very often had to be slow in the silent film due to the constraints of the medium. There could be only limited dialog in a scene because when a character said something of import the action had to stop while the dialog

was shown on the screen on a title card. Even then the rule of thumb was to figure how long it took the director to read the title card three times and that was how long it was left on the screen. Dialog had to be very terse. As a result the silent film was often a very inefficient way of telling a story. A sound film can tell reasonably well tell a story of about forty pages. Much longer than that and you have to start cutting material. For a silent film the story you can tell probably has to be closer to twenty pages. The Leroux novel is neither long nor complex, but most of it did not make it to the Lon Chaney film.

One element of the novel that was included in this version and is no other dramatic version (but the animated) is the presence of the Persian. In the book it is he who tells us most of what we eventually know of Erik. The Persian is in the Lon Chaney version, but what we learn of Erik is purely the invention of the film. There we are told that Erik is a maniac escaped from Devil’s Island. Where he learned what he must know about singing to teach Christine is never explained. A recent article by Scott McQueen in the September and October 1989 American Cinematographer suggests that it was originally intended to have a much more accurate background for Erik, but that the scenes set in Persia were cut to save expense and screen time. This is a serious shortcoming in that if Erik has any credibility. We should be told something of the source of his talents. To say that he is a maniac who once was tortured in this same building and who escaped from Devil’s Island does not reasonably account for his abilities.

McQueen’s article also recounts that there were strong personality conflicts between Chaney and director Rupert Julian. In fact, even for the standards of silent films (which were acted mostly in pantomime anyway) the acting is not very good in Chaney’s version. Mary Philbin’s acting as Christine is over the top with exaggerated facial expression. The director does not seem to take the character seriously and it is hard for the audience to either. To my taste there is entirely too much comic relief, particularly because most of it works so poorly. The ballerinas flit around in fear and react to the most terrifying revelations by turning pirouettes. There is too much slapstick with Florine Papillon (Snitz Edwards) popping in and out of trap doors. The only decent acting is from Chaney himself. It is perhaps part script and part his acting, but his threatening with sarcastic civility is chilling. Tracy would later use the same sarcastic civility, dripping with menace, to terrorize Ingrid Bergman in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In spite of serious flaws, this is the version that brought the story to the attention of American audiences and had it never been made the story would very likely have been forgotten. Until the Crawford version came along it was the version most firmly implanted in the public’s mind and likely will again be the best remembered version.

1937 Jin Shan

The Lon Chaney version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was shot as a silent film and then re-fitted to have some sound segments. All of those scenes, I believe were ones of the singing of opera. The earliest all-sound version of the story is one that until recently has not generally been known in the West. It is a 1937 film, made in China, which in English is called SONG AT MIDNIGHT. This film is considered a horror film. But with the exception of just one or two sequences it was for the most part more just a sad story than a horrific one. The Phantom's appearance is shocking, but the plot is much less so. The film is probably less interesting for itself than for comparison to other versions of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. There are some elements of the original story and not others. One can see what effect this subset of the original elements has.

 The story takes place in China and deals with a male opera singer Sung Dan-ping (Jin Shan), who is in love with Xia (Woo Ping), the daughter of a powerful warlord. The warlord suspects Dan-ping of having connections to his enemy the Kuomintang (or KMT--the rival political faction led by Chiang Kai-shek). For that reason and because he wants to separate Dan-ping from his daughter he has his minions beat and whip Dan-ping and then throw caustic acid in Dan- ping's face, horribly disfiguring him. Dan-ping does not want Xia's pity and does not want her to see his deformed face. He arranges that she be told he is dead, but instead he goes into hiding. To fill his time he writes operas and he sings. In the dark of night he creeps out and sings to the moon. Only a handful of people know who the mysterious phantom singer is.

 Now how is this different from the familiar versions of the story?

 -- Dan-ping is never the powerful avenging spirit that Erik is in the PHANTOM. He is much more a figure of pity and nobility than the western Phantom is. He really wants vengeance only against the man who disfigured him and separated him from his love.

 -- The Phantom's survival is not really secret. While it is not public knowledge apparently, multiple people seem to know the Phantom is Dan-ping and still alive. He just does not want Xia to know he is alive.

 -- He does not have a melodramatic appearance with cape and similar folderol.

 -- The story does not take place in the mysterious innards of a mysterious building like the opera house of the original. There is no dramatic chandelier sequence.

 -- The Phantom is reduced from a figure of horror into simply a sympathetic victim whose goal is to just protect the woman he loves.

Weibang Ma-Xu both wrote and directed, basing his script on The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. There are several touches of the film that seem to imply he based his style on Universal's horror films of the time or at the very least on the Lon Chaney version of story. The pace of most of the film is slow--it takes an hour before Dan-ping is deformed by the beating and the acid. We have a faster-paced climax with an angry mob of villagers with burning torches. Pieces of (Western) classical music create mood, as does shadowy, high-contrast photography. This is much Universal's style. However Universal may have returned the courtesy and taken an idea from SONG AT MIDNIGHT. In the Chinese film Dan-ping's face is deformed by caustic acid thrown in his face. The Lon Chaney version, accurate to the book, has the deformity a birth defect. However, when Universal remade THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA a second time, in 1943, Claude Rains became the Phantom when caustic acid is thrown in his face.

I cannot say that I feel entirely comfortable saying that this film really counts as a version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and that Brian DePalma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974) does not.  This version really invents more than it takes from the novel.  Still I would not feel right disqualifying this film and not the 1989 Richard Englund version with its time travel and its mixing in of Faust.  I have to draw the line somewhere.  This stays in.  As fun as the DePalma film is, I cannot fairly count it.

This film certainly counts as an adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel, and as far as Chinese films go it probably is a horror film. Still today it would probably be considered more melodrama than horror.   There is a downloadable version of this film at  http://www.archive.org/details/song_at_midnight. Sadly, this version has no subtitles. However, two very effective sequences do not need subtitles. One is the scene where the bandages are removed from Dan-ping's face and the horribly distorted face beneath is revealed. This can be found starting about 0:58:00 minutes into the film. Then in the last finale minutes of the film Weibang Ma-Xu tries to outdo Universal in an exciting finale, and he actually succeeds. Watch starting at about 1:45:00.

1943 Claude Rains

This was the first version of The Phantom of the Opera that I ever saw and it remains my favorite. I also believe that it is the most entertaining film version of the story. In spite of the fact that Erich Taylor’s greatly re-written story bears only minor similarities to the original story, this seems to be the pre-Lloyd-Webber version of the story that was most popular. I have come to call this version of the Phantom the "Erich Taylor" version. By the "Taylor Phantom" I mean the relatively normal composer whose music is stolen and in the course of his rage his face is burned, rather than having had a face that was deformed from birth. Erich Taylor adapted the novel to a screenplay for this version and probably invented this often-repeated plot variation. The Herbert Lom and Maximilian Schell versions of The Phantom of the Opera as well as the homage The Phantom of the Paradise are not based on the book to any noticeable degree but rather are remakes of the Taylor version of the story.

The Taylor Phantom is essentially different from the Leroux Phantom in that his anger is sharper and generally more focused. Rather than being angry at the world in general, Taylor Phantoms usually have the person who wronged them as a particular object of their anger. The Taylor Phantom is less misanthropic since he has been wronged by a smaller set of people. In fact in this version Erique Claudin, as the Phantom is named here, is actually a misguided altruist. His only motive is to do all he can to confer success on the young singer from his village in Provençe. Also he derives his power not from having helped design the opera house but because he has stolen a master key.

One of the ironies—and for once irony does not strengthen the story—is that most of Erique’s efforts were paying off. Had he only waited he never would have been disfigured. We are shown that his music has been discovered by Franz Liszt only moments before his rage in which he murders Pleyel and has his face burned. There seemed to be a general theme in Universal Films around this time that social injustice was being corrected, albeit slowly. In the remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame made four years earlier we were also told that society is changing and getting better. Injustices like the ones shown in the film would soon become impossible thanks to new inventions like the printing press. I seriously doubt that Victor Hugo, the author of Hunchback, would have found that theme in his own misanthropic novel. Oddly in Phantom as in Hunchback the force for society improving is played by Fritz Leiber, Sr. In Hunchback he played a benevolent king and in Phantom he plays Liszt, who has recognized Erique’s genius. Also, in keeping with the positive message, we are told that Erique’s suffering and madness will be forgotten but his music will live on. In fact, it is likely that Erique’s music would be remembered because of not in spite of the notoriety. Note that Antonio Salieri’s music was remembered by only a select few until a popular play linked him with the death of Mozart.

While being inaccurate to the novel this version does not have a bad script at all. This is true in spite of a bit too much comic relief and not enough of the drama or horror it is intended to relieve us from. Surprisingly enough this version is even topical today. Erique is, after all, a terrorist and there is a discussion of whether his terrorism should be given in to or resisted. The question is inherent in most versions of the story, but it is given most discussion here of any version. Still this version has the sort of light story wartime audiences would have craved. There is no romantic triangle of Christine caught between the Phantom and her lover—Erique is too nice for that. But there is a triangle of Christine caught between Anatole the baritone and Raoul the police inspector. Christine is also caught between romance in general and her career. And finally Anatole is caught between Christine, whom he wants, and Madame Biancarolli, who wants him.

The entire film was aimed at wartime audiences’ desire for escape. It was given a big budget production with splashy Technicolor and lots of intricate operatic production numbers. While these numbers may have been an inaccurate representation of what opera is really like, they are entertaining. And while the sets of the catacombs beneath the opera were more impressive in the Chaney version, here they occasionally appear to be just paintings and less than totally convincing. Still, even here the color serves the film very well. Ironically, while Claude Rains is nobody’s idea of an athletic actor, here he comes off as a dynamic swashbuckler. Through much of the film we see him only as a shadow with a big fedora and a grand sweeping cape. That, in fact, is how he is pictured in the ads. When we see him masked he had a dramatic gray mask and wavy hair like Liberace. As a matter of taste, I would say that while the unmasking scene is less dramatic than in the Chaney version (though the acid scars are probably fairly realistic), the chandelier sequence is the most dramatically successful of any film version of the story. It is as suspenseful as any scene Hitchcock ever directed. With scenes like that I can forgive the rather overly dramatic last scene we see below the opera house with Erique’s violin and the mask artfully placed on it. The picture looks like something from a perfume ad.

The Lon Chaney version is the greatest artistic success, but to my taste this is the film version that is the most enjoyably watchable.

1962 Herbert Lom

Of all the versions of The Phantom of the Opera that I watched in order to write this article, this one was the biggest revelation to me. This was a film I enjoyed a great deal as a teenager. I am a fan of Hammer Films of Britain and what they meant to the horror film. And this is reasonably good as a Hammer film goes. But as a version of The Phantom of the Opera it really is just awful.

There is no indication in the film that anyone involved has read the novel or even knew that there was

a novel. The credits say that the screenplay is by John Elder "based on a composition by Gaston Leroux." It seems unclear whether it was a novel, a story, a screenplay or something else. That is a quite justifiable ambiguity since this film was not based on the novel at all but on the Taylor Phantom. There is no evidence that anyone connected with the film saw even the Chaney version.

The film is full of embarrassing moments. The Phantom slaps Christine when she is not willing to put enough effort into her music, but his hand misses her by several inches, yet there is a resounding slap on the soundtrack. Michael Gough, who had been a credit to other Hammer productions, really chews up the scenery as the lecherous opera house owner and supposed composer. Rather than evoking any real emotion in the screenplay we are simply told how powerful the mystery is. One of the managers of the opera seems to have a speech impediment that makes him end each sentence with an exclamation point. "Parts of London are a lost world! We can never know what caverns and dungeons and labyrinths rest beneath us! Or what madmen and monsters inhabit them!" "Something evil is in this theater!" "Is it because any other explanation is just too incredible?!"

In fact, what is in the theater is a real letdown. Generally what makes the Phantom interesting is his combination of genius, pathos, and ruthless power. He is a Jekyll and Hyde figure. In this rendition they have split the Jekyll and Hyde into two characters, a good self who is the wronged composer, and the bad self who is a nameless knife-wielding hunchback. The result is that neither character has much depth or much interest value. Nor do the characters make much sense. Petrie is a starving composer who must sell his music for a pittance. He apparently has never taught. Yet after a while in a sewer he has become a great music teacher. But for a couple of slaps, he seems to be a gentle sort. The actual murders are committed by the crazed hunchback for who knows what motive. At no point do we see Petrie tell the hunchback to commit murders.

The film does real violence to the story, making at least an effort to fit in all the standard scenes, but in a weird combination. Screenwriter John Elder gets to the end of the film and apparently realizes that standard scenes like the unmasking and the falling chandelier are not present. Christine Charles has been too demure and respectful and—let’s face it—mousy to unmask the Phantom herself and Petrie is too nice a guy to drop a chandelier on anybody. Elder combines the two scenes in the Phantom seeing the chandelier falling on Christine, he pauses to rip off his mask for no really good reason, leaps to save Christine and is himself crushed by the chandelier. Also uncharacteristic of Hammer or of versions of The Phantom of the Opera, the chief villain remains totally unscathed. Presumably he will eventually lose his reputation if Harry, the hero, chooses to tell the world about the plagiarism, but earlier Harry had indicated that he probably would not do so.

Speaking of script problems, Elder wrote the screenplay to have us hear generous portions of a great and popular new opera. Then in the production somebody actually had to write these production scenes. Can you imagine poor Edwin Astley, who wrote the music, being confronted with the task of having to compose convincing portions of a popular opera? If he could write great opera, would he be writing for B films? What he gave them was a thoroughly unpleasant and truly awful piece of imitation opera that the audience supposedly just loves. Even the character Harry is exaggerating when he faintly calls it "a good tune."

The film is just chock full of things that should have been done better while not doing anything very good. But for the Richard Englund version, it is the worst English-language film of the story. It is certainly better than the Englund version, but that is faint praise indeed.

1982 Maximilian Schell

One ordinarily assumes that a made-for-television film will not be made to the standards of a theatrical film. The 1983 version of The Phantom of the Opera which starred Maximilian Schell and Jane Seymour is surprisingly a very watchable if somewhat revisionist telling of the story. In most ways it is probably superior to the later made-for-television Charles Dance version made with a higher budget. In fact this version is one of the better film versions.

This is one of the film versions not really based on the book but on the Erich Taylor 1943 screenplay with the setting shifted to Budapest. The Phantom is not born deformed but is disfigured in a fire brought about by his own rage. In this case his rage is not over his music but over how badly his wife, an aspiring singer, has been treated by critics. The critics were employed by the manager of the opera house after the wife spurned the manager’s advances. The manager need not have bothered, of course. The singing of the wife, as we hear in the film, really is abominable. The poor quality of her voice may have been exaggerated so that the viewer gets the point, but it is an unrealistic touch that any singer this bad would really get a leading role in an opera. In any case, the wife is demoralized by a bad review which appeared too soon after the performance not to have been written beforehand. Depressed, the wife commits suicide and her husband goes to confront the critic only to cause the fire that disfigures him.

Four years later the Phantom, whose real name in this version is Shandor Korvin, hears a young singer, Maria Gianelli, who looks very much like his dead wife. And the story goes from there. He does not tell her that he is the Angel of Music but calls himself Orpheus. That is, I suppose, a literate transformation. Orpheus was a great music maker who goes underground, much like the Phantom, though for a very different purpose. Some of the music in the opera sequences is very nice in this version, but as with the later Charles Dance version it is poorly matched to the singers’ lips.

Some mention should be made of the visual appearance of the Phantom. Schell’s Phantom when unmasked looks much like the original description in the Leroux book. In fact, of the live action versions only Chaney’s makeup is arguably closer to the book’s description of the skull-like face and no other version comes even close. In addition, Schell wears a variety of masks and for once they are as well thought out as his makeup. In the book we are given no description of the mask at all. One mask Schell wears is artistically detailed with renderings of facial features and one looks almost like a plastic version of Schell’s own face.

Finally there is the end of the Phantom. This may have been at once one of the more dramatic and one of the more foolish ends for the Phantom. It is based not on the book but apparently on the dramatic film poster for the Herbert Lom version. In that poster the Phantom is seen hanging on to the flaming chandelier as it plummets into a screaming audience. It is a very dramatic scene and one which the film it advertised totally fails to deliver. It is inaccurate to the Lom version in about five different ways and would have brightened the Hammer version considerably. The scene pictured in fact appears almost precisely as depicted, but in this later 1983 version of The Phantom of the Opera. The Phantom stands on the chandelier and cuts the suspending chain above his head. It is not apparently an act of suicide, though that is the effect. It appears to be just a very stupid mistake.

While there is little in this film that Gaston Leroux would recognize of his own book, it is a decent melodrama, explains the genius of the Phantom, and is of a quality at least comparable with any of the theatrical versions.

1987 Michael Crawford (Theatrical Version)

I review a lot of things and see or read a lot more. It is not all that unusual that I come away from some and consciously say that it is the best of a certain class I have ever seen, read, or whatever. I thought that the remake of Cat People was the best shape-changer horror film I had ever seen. But of course that is the best of a small class. It is far rarer that I would say something is the best play. But I will say that for me Phantom of the Opera was the best play. By artistic merits alone Amadeus was a better play, I suppose, but Phantom of the Opera was the most enjoyable and even the most meaningful play. It is a pot-boiler melodrama based on a pot-boiler melodramatic novel and I loved it. Sometimes even a pot-boiler can hit you squarely on target and you are absolutely floored. I hope Margaret Thatcher, who attended the same performance as I did, enjoyed it as much.

I really believe that the play may be more faithful to the novel than the Lon Chaney film. It certainly reveals more of the Phantom’s background and tragedy. The Phantom is shown to be the genius he was in the Gaston Leroux novel and the victim of an unfeeling world.

To fit as much of the plot into a musical of all play forms is incredible. They did eliminate the Persian, who is a major character of the novel, and many chapters from near the end of the novel, particularly those involving the torture chamber scenes which are telescoped to a few seconds on the stage, but I don’t think the impact has really been lost.

Most of this could be told from the record. What I could not have expected is the brilliance of the set design. When you are first sitting in the theater, the stage seems small. What they do with that tiny stage is hard to believe. Many effects are impressive but none so impressive as the descent to the lake below the opera house, which has to be seen to be appreciated.

It matches the scene in the film—no small feat for a stage play. Less impressive is the falling chandelier, which is much less convincing. But the moment when you first see the Phantom is a cold chill like nothing I remember seeing in any film or play. Phantom of the Opera is really a superb adaptation of a story I have loved for years.

Now for a few minor quibbles. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is spectacular as long as he is simply having his characters sing, but he does some funny things when he is representing other composers’ music. Presumably his song "Evergreen" is an aria from the opera Hannibal by Chalumeu. From the style of opera of the period, and from what we do hear of the opera, it is clear that the song simply would not fit in. It is not of an operatic style and Lloyd Webber did not want to take a chance on his audiences not appreciating the beauty of the operatic style. Further, it seems absurd that a musical genius like the Phantom would write an opera in which the music is just unappealing scales and with phrases like "Those who tangle with Don Juan...." That sounds like it came from a poverty-row Western rather than an opera written by a musical genius.

1987 ??? (Animated Version)

As is probably obvious by now I do like the novel of The Phantom of the Opera and I consider one of the most important virtues of an adaptation accuracy to the source material. One cinematic version of the story stands head and shoulders above the others as an adaptation faithful to the novel. That is its main and just about its only virtue.

A British company called Emerald City Productions provides to cable animated films that are sort of the equivalent of the old Classics Illustrated comic books. Like Classics Illustrated comics they are written close to the plot of the novel. They take some liberties with plots but on the whole their adaptations are generally pretty artless turn-the-crank affairs. Take the plot of the novel, transfer it to script form, then animate it. The adaptation does simplify things, perhaps too much. This version eliminates Carlotta and her rivalry with Christine. By doing that the fall of the chandelier is misplaced in the plot, and it is left ambiguous whether the fall is sabotage or accident. Also Erik has a violent death as he does in all versions but the novel and the Lloyd Webber play. On the other hand, the 1987 version includes the very important character of the Persian. Erik’s background is vastly simplified to being just a killer who has escaped from the Persian police. This denies us the possibility of considering siding with the Phantom. It was an unfortunate decision. But I guess for a young audience murderers must be made villains and they must die in the end.

The face of the Phantom as illustrated here is exactly as Leroux described it. It is more accurate than even the Chaney visualization. Since the artists are not limited by makeup effects they can make it look like anything they want and they use the text of the novel, taking it literally. This requires little imagination, I suppose. But the history of adaptations of this novel has been plagued with too much imagination and not enough trust in the source to be sufficiently compelling. Emerald City’s Phantom partially justifies that mistrust. It certainly is not a particularly compelling telling. Luckily the Lloyd Webber play, which is nearly as faithful, is also nearly as compelling as the book.

1989 Richard Englund

It is clear that somebody was serious about making a version of the semi-classic story and somebody else was not. Nominally Dwight Little is the director of the new film, though his name is pasted over somebody else’s on the posters. So what we get is an exquisitely clumsy cross between a lackluster but traditional telling of the story and an episode of "Freddy’s Nightmares."

Christine Daaé is an opera singer in modern-day Manhattan who finds an old piece of music by a forgotten composer who was also a serial killer. She decides to use it for an audition for an opera. During her audition she is coshed on the head by a sandbag and suddenly, with no apparent bewilderment, she is an opera singer from the chorus in 1884 London. The story that is then told is just barely recognizable as a version of The Phantom of the Opera. A great but unknown composer has made a pact with the Devil that if his music should become immortal he would sell his soul. The Devil adds his own little amendment by gouging pieces out of the composer’s face. The Phantom can make himself almost normal, but only by sewing pieces of live flesh into his face—so much for the romance of the mask. The Phantom now lives under the opera house and teaches his Christine, mercilessly torture-killing anyone who gets in his way. He skins two people alive and beheads two others. Meanwhile Christine is bewildered as to why she is able to remember the words to sing to the Phantom’s music—not remembering that she learned them in New York. Classic scenes such as the chandelier scene and the unmasking are dispensed with entirely—well, sort of. Later when the story returns to the present it turns more into a traditional supernatural molester story.

I cannot imagine how this film turned into such an unholy mess. Only part of the mess can be explained by saying they had a gory version of the traditional story and well into the shooting they decided they wanted to turn it into a totally different film. That would explain the change of directors. It would also explain the credits "Screenplay by Duke Sandefur, Based on a screenplay by Gerry O’Hara." Somebody must have decided they could not sell Robert Englund as anything but a supernatural, unstoppable killer like his Freddy Krueger. The result is a sort of a Peggy Sue Sings for the Phantom of Elm Street that is a crude hoax that will disappoint Phantom fans, Freddy fans, and everybody in between. I would like to say this film has no redeeming value and is not really an adaptation of the story at all. But for a little nice opera and a few scenes that were almost an okay adaptation of the story I will count it where I do not count only slightly more bastardized versions like Phantom of the Paradise.

1990 Charles Dance

The day that Tony Richardson’s made-for-television version of The Phantom of the Opera was due to be shown, my local newspaper did a feature on it quoting the writer Arthur Kopit as saying, "[After having read the novel] what struck me was that this story ... wasn’t very good. Still it captured the imagination of people. Why? What bothered me about [the previous dramatic] versions, what I thought they essentially missed, was that you never knew why the Phantom was in love with Christine."

I had very high hopes for this version. There were four announced film adaptations in the wake of the success of the Broadway play. One starred Richard Englund, whose most famous role was the razor-gloved Freddy Krueger; one was simply a film version of the musical; one was set in Nazi Germany. Of the four versions, the only one that sounded like a genuine new adaptation of the novel was the announced four-hour television version. Then I read Kopit’s quote.

What Kopit is saying is that he has no respect for the material itself, only for its ready-made market. He also thinks that the dramatic versions missed the point of why the story is popular. I could easily believe his comment if it really were the novel that people remember but, in fact, the book has not been what people have liked. For most of the years the story has been liked, Gaston Leroux’s novel has been hard to find. Andrew Lloyd Webber tells an anecdote about how difficult it was to find a copy of the novel when he wanted to read it. The dramatic adaptations that Kopit thinks missed the point of why the story is remembered are really what made the story popular. And here they cannot have missed the point. Actually I would contend that they have all missed what I like in the novel, but not what has made the story popular.

The novel is about a man with a great intellect and a horribly deformed face. All his life he was treated as a freak and just occasionally exploited for his genius. Eventually he finds the opportunity to build for himself an empire in the darkness beneath the Paris Opera House. There he can enjoy the music and can be seen only when he wants. This is Gaston Leroux’s Erik but he has never been done satisfactorily in a film or play. I had hoped that in the three and a half hours or so of story there would be time to show Erik’s history. In fact, this version did show Erik’s history but it bore little relation to anything in the novel.

Kopit missed the point entirely by making his Phantom a petulant young man (played by Charles Dance of The Jewel in the Crown), who is being shielded by a former manager of the opera house (over-played by Burt Lancaster).

Kopit’s screenplay intends this Erik to be likable and steers clear of the question in the novel of whether Erik might be psychotic. This Erik does not kill, at least in the course of the film. Oh, his face may startle and early on this causes a death, but that does not appear to be Erik’s fault. This Erik has lost the feel of the sinister and instead controls the fate of the opera house with practical jokes. Even the cutting down of the chandelier is not a murder attempt but an act of angry vandalism intended to vent rage and for which the audience was intentionally given time to get out of the way. Of course, this Erik had less reason for rage than the one in the book. The script claims that Erik’s mother at least found his face "flawlessly beautiful." In the book Erik’s mother gave him his first mask because she could not stand to look at his face.

There are a few nice touches to the script. One of them is the issue of how to handle the unmasking. Sort of independently of the quality of the rest of the production there is the question of how to shock audiences when they do see the Phantom’s face. The approach here was unusual and not badly done, though it was perhaps dictated by the screenplay’s efforts to keep Erik as a romantic Phantom. Less endearing is Erik’s unexpected forest beneath the ground. It isn’t like the metal forest of the novel but a real forest with live trees and unexplained sunlight. It appears that Erik must have built himself a holodeck.

Charles Dance is a little whiny for my tastes, as well as not being sufficiently sinister. Lancaster as the former manager is overripe and Teri Polo as Christine Daee. In the book Daaé is unmemorable. She and her lover Adam Storke as Phillipe, Comte de Chagney, are pretty people but boring actors. (Again, they got the name wrong on the Comte. The character’s name was Raoul. Phillipe is the name of Raoul’s brother, older by twenty years.)

The whole mediocre revision of the story is directed by Tony Richardson, who directed Tom Jones. I am not a fan of that film but it certainly was better directed than this slow-moving version. If I had never heard of the story before I would have liked this version better, but as it is, I would call it the better than only the Herbert Lom and Richard Englund versions.  Incidentally, Arthur Kopit has also adapted his version of the story as a stage musical.  The score is actually quite enjoyable, but the story is essentially the same as the television version.


1998 Julian Sands

I consider myself a fan of horror films and I know that Dario Argento is a cult horror director, but I have to admit that he is a taste in horror that I have somehow failed to acquire. His classic is considered SUSPERIA, and while it has a few good scenes, overall it does little for me. His other films do less. He in a big way goes in for sadistic stalker films. There had already been one bizarre adaptation of Phantom that played up the slasher aspect. It was the 1989 version starring Robert Englund, best known as Freddy Kruger. The Gaston Leroux novel probably was in public domain in 1998, so legally Argento could make a film of same story the then (and as of this writing) popular stage play was based on. The fact he could did not mean he should have, obviously. And it becomes more obvious when one sees the film. He was clearly not into adapting the novel, and though he uses much of the plot of the novel, his heart and his creativity is clearly more in the aspects that diverge from the original. Frequently the divergences are homages (spelled t-h-e-f-t-s) from better films.

The film starts with a sequence borrowed probably from BATMAN RETURNS. In Paris an unwanted baby is abandoned and cast adrift in an underground sewer. He is rescued and his floating basket is pulled to safety by hospitable rats who adopt and raise the boy. In 1877 the baby has grown to manhood under the Paris Opera House. Played now by Julian Sands, he is something more than a human man because he has mental powers to talk telepathically to others and even to possess a victim's arm here and there. Yet he still thinks of himself as a large rat. The phantom is not deformed and not so much repulsive as unkempt with stringy blond hair down to his breast. Sand possibly did not want to wear horror make-up.

The rat-man Phantom hears aspiring opera singer Christine (played by Argento's daughter Asia Argento) and begins to dominate her telepathically. Christine's main obstacle to stardom is Carlotta (Nadia Rinaldi) who is ugly, stupid, rude, bloated, selfish, gross, and untalented, but who is nonetheless the prima donna of the Paris Opera House. One wonders how they chose her. From there the story half-heartedly follows the story of the book with side trips involving child molesters, gratuitous nudity, hallucinogenic dreams, a visit to a fabulous bordello, a treasure hunt, and an overzealous rat catcher who collects rat tails jars and who is building a motorized, riding rat vacuum based on a riding snowplow. (This is 1877 remember.) It all sounds like more fun than it actually is.

The screenplay is by Gerard Brach and Dario Argento. It borrows not just from BATMAN RETURNS but also one sequence is taken, quite illogically, from X THE UNKNOWN. While the scene effectively creates tension and a curiosity as to what is going on, the scene is a cheat and never makes sense in the context of the film. Classic sequences from the novel are forced into the storyline as a matter of form. We have the unmasking scene with Christine sneaking up on the Phantom, though here there is no mask to remove. We have a chandelier scene. But this is much more the story of a mad killer, avenger of rats, who likes to bite body parts off his victims like rats do. The character of the never-named Phantom never makes sense either. Raised by rats he somehow learned not just to talk but to speak in poetry, he seems to know about the ocean's rolling, and know some of the terminology of physics.

An Italian opera house no doubt stands in for the Paris Opera House in this production. Argento, filming in Budapest, probably had no trouble finding one he could rent inexpensively. This opera house does not have the huge catacombs of the novel, but it does seem to be built over caverns that become a frequent setting. There are occasionally effective visuals, though looking down Carlotta's throat is not one of them. The musical score by Ennio Morricone, though non-memorable, is a definite plus. And Argento knows, perhaps because he is Italian, a few very beguiling pieces of opera to leaven the film.

This is one of the poorest adaptations of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though it is much preferable to the 1989 version. Argento could have diverged from the classic story if he had good ideas, but a riding rat vacuum is clearly not one of them.

2004 Gerard Butler

Most people I know of who like the story of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA were introduced to it by Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical version. I was not. I read the novel as a young teen because of its connection to horror film. It is a rare popular horror story that is not based on science fiction or the supernatural but on events that could happen. In fact, in the novel LE FANTOME DE L'OPERA Gaston Leroux purportedly wove together events that really did occur at the Paris Opera House. It is claimed that there was a vagrant dubbed "the opera ghost" living in the huge underground of the Paris Opera House, down where there was a near-lake that was used as part of the structure to support the stage. There supposedly was an incident where a chandelier improperly fastened came lose and fell on the audience. And the great diva of the opera house really was named La Carlotta.

Leroux wove from these incidents LE FANTOME DE L'OPERA, the story of Erik, a man who had a great genius, but whose face was nightmarishly disfigured from birth. (The 1943 version ignored the text and suggested the Phantom was scarred by acid, and most versions have taken to borrowing the idea that the disfigurement occurred later in a dramatic accident.) In the original text, after a distinguished but macabre career in Europe (where he was shown in a cage as a carnival freak) and Asia Minor (where he designed royal palaces with a multitude of secret passages) the mysterious Erik helped engineer the Paris Opera House. Then he secretly retreated from the ugliness of the world to live in the Opera House's lower levels so he could delight in the beauty of the music that filtered down from above. He is drawn to a chorus girl by the purity of her voice, which he thinks with his tutelage he can perfect. That is the backstory and that is where the narrative of novel begins. Leroux, incidentally, never tells us Erik is physically attracted to Christine, though of course the dramatic versions play up that possible interpretation just like they play up the possible the sexual frustration of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll. Sex sells tickets and may make the characters' motives simpler and more comprehensible to the audience. Erik seems instead to want to possess her only to perfect her voice.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage play, essentially an operetta, is actually the most accurate to the novel of any of the familiar dramatic versions. It is more so than even the Lon Chaney version which made Erik a mad escapee from Devil's Island. Leroux's Erik is not mad and not an escapee. He is, however, wholly unscrupulous and his knowledge of the baroque building of the Opera House makes him almost a super-villain. Lloyd Webber's telling of the story is good, but the success of the musical is probably more attributable to the splendor of the production and the approachability of the music. Lloyd Webber is no genius when it comes to writing a musical. He is just popular. His themes are pleasant and neither inventive nor demanding. He may be to musicals what McDonalds is to hamburgers. I never thought he was particularly consistent in where he reuses themes so they cannot be considered leitmotifs. Yet his music for a scene always comes out at least appropriate and usually effective. Here he adapted his stage script with director Joel Schumacher.

While the play did not go into Erik's background, the film does and gets it wrong. Apparently they wanted Erik (unnamed in the film and played by Gerard Butler) to be a romantic attraction so they have toned down his deformity. They have done what they could to make him handsome when the upper right of his face is covered. His face looks more like a man with scars from a fire than like Leroux's Erik. Lloyd Webber also takes about twenty years off his age. To do this they had to claim that after he was displayed in a carnival, a la the Elephant Man, he immediately fled to the cellars of the opera house. Without his experience of travel, his genius seems inexplicable. The script has the character Joseph Buquet give an eyewitness account of what the Phantom looks like and what he describes is the Lon Chaney phantom, not the Gerard Butler phantom. Butler's singing voice is not perfect, but it probably fits his character and the experiences the character has been through.

Further, for some reason, the events have been moved from the Paris Opera House to a fictional opera house, the "Theatre Opera Populaire." This makes little sense since the catacombs beneath, the incident of the chandelier falling, and the presence of La Carlotta all fit the real Paris Opera House. And Paris of the 1870s probably would not have two such luxurious opera houses. These changes and moving the chandelier incident were probably done to give the film more of a punch ending. Also the chandelier incident was filmed in a way to explain why in the staging of the play the chandelier seems to glide diagonally rather than simply fall.

Also playing in the film are Emmy Rossom (who played the dead daughter in MYSTIC RIVER) as Christine Daae in a performance that hits all the notes, but does not do anything special. Patrick Wilson plays a particularly bland Raoul who may be remembered only because he dresses like Lord Byron and has shoulder-length hair. Frequently he looks like something off the cover of a bodice- ripper paperback. Miranda Richardson and Simon Callow are underused while Minnie Driver does a surprisingly good turn as a vain and thoroughly unpleasant La Carlotta.

With production design by Anthony Pratt, art direction by John Fenner, and set decoration by Celia Bobak the film has almost too much to see. The garish sets have almost too much visual detail to take in and frequently are expressionistic. Perhaps taking an idea from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, the graveyard scene is commanded by two stone colossi. Taking another idea from Jean Cocteau, wall candelabra seem to be held in place by live arms in a scene that is almost a dream sequence. Minutes later we see candelabra emerge from under water already lit.

As he did with EVITA, Lloyd Webber wrote a new song for film version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. But at least this time it is under the end credits so it is not too jarring for an audience who knows the music of the stage play by heart. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is a film with some glaring faults, but it still is a magnificent production visually.

Comparing the Versions

Now that I have had my say about each of the versions individually, it would be a good idea to ladder them from my favorite to my least favorite. It should be fairly obvious from what I said above, but just to make it a matter of record.

  • The 1987 Michael Crawford (Theatrical) version—Amazingly well-staged and well-written. While being surprisingly accurate to the book it is also the most compelling rendition. Best point: Erik really is the tragic genius that Leroux wrote about. Worst point: Erik’s makeup is not at all accurate to the book and not really believable.
  • The 2004 Gerard Butler version is a bit of a revision of the play and lacks the immediacy of a stage play. the story has been somewhat "younged down" and some nonsense added. The production design is a little over-florid. It is not ideal, but it still is arguably the best dramatic adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel.  Best point: It is a lavish production that should please fans of the play.  Worst point: The duel in the graveyard scene seems to be taken from the cover of a "bodice-ripper" romance novel.
  • The 1925 Lon Chaney version—This remains the classic version and the most impressive makeup job of any version. I put it just a tad beneath the first remake because of script problems not giving enough plot and having too much comic relief. Best point: Some of the visuals are stunning and even haunting. This is a simply beautiful rendition. Worst point: There is not very much of the novel in this adaptation. The pacing of silent film is just not time-efficient enough to tell much of the story.
  • The 1943 Claude Rains version—A more engaging story than even the Chaney version. We never really sympathize with Chaney’s Phantom and with Rains we do. This version probably had more influence than Chaney’s version. The story is just a little over-sweet. Best point: For the first time you really sympathized with the Phantom and to some extent found him dashing, even with Claude Rains in the part. Worst point: What happened to the original story?
  • The 1987 Animated version—An animated comic book version, but it is an adaptation of the original novel; it is not based on any film version. Best point: generally the most faithful version to the novel. Worst point: dull acting that tells the story but is not at all involving.
  • The 1982 Maximilian Schell version—Unexpectedly watchable television version based on the ‘43 version, but still Schell makes an impressive phantom. Best point: Dramatic climax with Schell riding the chandelier into the audience. Worst point: The opera is not very convincing. Schell’s wife would never have sung on the stage.
  • The 1990 Charles Dance version—Not based on any other version or on the book. It does not always make sense. This version could have told the story in the novel but wasted it on an entirely different story. Lancaster forgot how to act years ago and in some scenes is really bad. Best point: This Erik, while not Leroux’s, is somewhat interesting on occasion. Sometimes whiny, sometime almost Byronic. Worst point: Totally absurd treatment of opera. There is no respect for opera as an art form. And operatic excellence, in part, is what the story should be all about. The book’s Erik is willing to murder for the perfection of the art form.
  • The 1962 Herbert Lom version—Hammer’s version does not work, is not Leroux, and at times is overripe. It is hard to generate any sympathy for the Phantom and the musical chords intending to generate it only make the effort seem the more pitiful. The villain is never punished more through oversight than plan, I think. Best point: The story does generate some suspense in spite of itself. Worst point: The malignant hunchback who does all the dirty work.
  • The 1998 Julian Sands version-- Dario Argento's take on the Phantom of the Opera is bizarre without being rewarding. Argento rejects the Phantom's deformity that is so central to Gaston Leroux's character and re-envisions the phantom as a sort of handsome Tarzan of the Rats. This film diverges from the original story whenever possible going into silly subplots. The Phantom himself is not deformed in this version and here he is the Phantom only because he is loyal to the rats who adopted and raised him.  Best point: The operatic setting and the music give it some nice texture.  Worst point: it tells an almost completely different story from the novel.
  • The 1989 Richard Englund version—Oh geez, where should I start? It mixes the Faust legend, and time travel and mostly is just an excuse to make an unkillable-killer film. It clearly had two different directors with different styles. Best point: It’s short. Worst point: It’s not nearly short enough.

(It would not be fair to include the 1937 Jin Shan version of the film.  Without a subtitled version it is impossible for me to understand most of the film.  It clearly takes very large liberties with the Leroux novel, but I am really not in a position to fairly judge the merits of a film in a language I do not speak or understand. )

There will almost certainly be more versions in the future. One never knows just where and when a phantom will appear.

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