Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Adventure classics -- A phantom's perfect haunt

The Phantom of the Opera

by Gaston Leroux


It’s hard to imagine a story more shaped by its setting than Gaston Leroux’s belle époque thriller, The Phantom of the Opera. As George Perry relates in The Complete Phantom of the Opera, the 1860 neo-Baroque design wasn’t a unanimous choice. But when Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, insisted petulantly that she didn’t understand what style it was supposed to be, architect Charles Garnier assured her, “The Napoleon III style, ma’am.”

How could an empress resist?

The building was big, gaudy, and a technological marvel of its day, with an underground lake to operate hydraulic stage machinery, a grand staircase requiring a new-fangled steel structural framework, and a seven-ton chandelier which, yes, once caused a terrifying accident. How could an author fail to write a fascinating story when he had such a setting?

Strangely, Phantom failed to knock Parisians out of their silk stockings on its first outing. Leroux was a journalist turned novelist better known in the early twentieth century for the daring, if sometimes unethical lengths to which he was willing to go for a story, Perry writes. He gained further, if minor, fame as a writer of locked room mysteries, turning out potboilers to support his gambling habit.

But when the president of Universal Pictures vacationed in Europe in 1922, reading the story and determining that legendary silent film actor Lon Chaney must play the lead, Phantom took on new life. And over the next century, its story proved it had legs as long as those of its ballet corps.

Leroux’s journalistic instincts had led him to use a faux-documentary style for the writing of Phantom. As part of this documentation, he provided a detailed account of the phantom’s history, claiming him to be a “monster” from birth who traveled extensively with circus sideshows, acquiring the eclectic fund of knowledge and experience that enabled him to live hidden within the opera building before becoming the mentor and suitor of singer Christine Daae.

Publicists for Universal Pictures urged theater managers to stock smelling salts for “nervous ladies who were likely to faint” when the horror of Chaney’s face -- with makeup of his own design -- was finally revealed. Further adaptations made the phantom’s deformities, rather than being part of his nature, the result of horrific accidents, from acid attacks to, in 1974’s campy Phantom of the Paradise, being caught in a vinyl record press. (For a list of the various descriptions, see

Mercifully, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and its further spin-offs chose not to explain the phantom’s appearance. After all, the romance at the heart of Leroux’s novel, of the beast who loves a beauty, is one that needs no explanation.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics looks at another example of Halloween horror and romance with an unforgettable setting, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.)

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