There are three basic problems with the plot the 1923 version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame; its strong adherence to parts that don’t make any sense in the scope of the movie, the changes that had to be made to appease the almighty censors, and Lon Chaney.
The last problem really isn’t a problem but if you watch the opening scene you can see what I mean. The opening scene starts with the Feast of Fool and then it cuts away to Lon Chaney as Quasimodo basically mocking people from atop Notre Dame. I do appreciate that this is the only version to have Quasimodo that has a basic dislike for people like he does in the book which this scene shows nicely but to just an awkward way to introduce Lon Chaney as Quasimodo to the viewers and it ruins the pacing and makes the beginning boring.
The second issue has to do with censorship laws of the time. The law that pertains to Hunchback is a movie couldn’t cast a priest in a negative light, meaning we can’t have a Priest lusting after a women. So much like the 1939 the role of the Frollo sinner is cast on the “Jehan” character the “Claude” character is the saintly priest. Unlike the 1939 version Jehan in this version has no reason why he can’t make a straight up move on Esmeralda. Nothing is stopping him; no conflict of her being a Gypsy or no implied religious morality getting in the way. He’s just a coward with no real personality or motivation.
There is no confliction for this Jehan so there is no interest. The plot of the book is hinged on Frollo’s obsession with Esmeralda so if there is no torment where does the interest to the plot lie? Well in this case the interest to the plot is Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo, so back to that issue, remember this film started the “Quasimodo is main character” mentality that the many of the films buy in to .
The finally issue is a weird one to be an issue because when we compare movies to book there is a part of us that wishes that the movie would follow the book perfectly and we get up annoy by what the movie misses or adds. However it is hard to make a movie follow the book perfectly as they are two different median for story telling. One aspect of the book that I wish made into more movies is the Sister Gudule sub-plot. Sister Gudule is Esmeralda’s mother. The 1923 version is one of the few version to have this sub-plot however it goes no where. We get the back story of how Esmeralda was taken and we see Gudule curse her and then as Esmeralda is about to die Gudule realizes Esmeralda is her child and then I guess she dies. So Esmeralda doesn’t learn this, it amounts to nothing. It was just there because it was in the book but if Esmeralda doesn’t learns this and where is the emotion in the end what was the point?
Another sub-plot that was added was this division of the nobel and the poor. Now this was a bigger point in the 1939 version here’s it amount to one scene where Phoebus brings Esmeralda to a party and he dresses up and tries to pass her off as a Princess and the party is broken up by Clopin and Esmeralda sadly rejects Phoebus. Like Gudule, these scene that revolve around the classes don’t add to very much to the over all plot
It’s not that entire plot and pacing of the 1923 version is bad it’s just following the book too closely wrecked the pacing and the removal of Frollo’s torment ruins the emotional intensity. The “Chaney being forced” to the audiences was just the opening so it wasn’t a major problem but it’s the reason why the film doesn’t have a very strong opening scene.
Next Time- Characters starting with Quasimodo