I think the 1923 version of Hunchback of Notre Dame is the best depiction of Esmeralda in an movie. She captures the original charm of Esmeralda from the book. She is young, sweet, free-spirited, innocent, romantic and a bit shallow. Let’s face it, Esmeralda is not a particularly deep character. She is not battling her own inner-demons nor is struggling against the social system. She just a young girl who likes to dance and the 1923 version allows her to be that character.
Unlike the Esmeralda of the novel the 1923 version has a bit more backbone and is more realistic. In the book Esmeralda is afraid of Frollo, in the 1923 she seems to ignore him or at most is just indifferent to him. Her behaving this way towards the Frollo character does make their relationship less dramatic though.
Also in the book there is no issue for her about Phoebus’ nobility. In the 1923 version Esmeralda does understand the social differences between them and at one point tries to rejects him however she retracts that very quickly. It may seem like a contrived sub-plot but it does add a bit of maturity to her character that we don’t see in the book.
Much like novel Esmeralda the 1923 doesn’t have lot of depth her characterization, basically her motivation is love and nothing else. I appreciate that movie kept her character simple and sweet like she is in book, it’s a nice foil to subsequent Esmeraldas who are either more mature or have a cause.
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