Disney’s Adaptation of Hunchback of Notre Dame

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo, the Cathedral itself is considered a ‘character’, the main character as a matter of fact, as is evident from the original French title ‘Notre Dame de Paris’-or ‘Our Lady of Paris.’ The book is set in the Gothic era, and accentuates the acuteness of the architecture, of passion, and of religion. Hugo also touches upon notions of social justice and iterates that people must retain a sense of morality and responsibility for their actions, and not be too fatalistic. Disney’s adaptation of the novel simplifies the themes and historic significance and reduces the message of the plot to ‘don’t judge someone by the way they look.’ The spotlight in the film is on Quasimodo and the emphasis is on his mistreatment, and how cruel society can be to ‘outcasts’. Almost every main character in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, contain some kind of stereotypical quality, which this paper will explore.

In a lot of their storylines, Disney includes a patriarchal oppressor, typically a white male authority figure who seeks to oppress marginalized peoples. The antagonist in Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dom Frollo was a clerk in the book, but Disney changed him into a pious judge, who plays the role of the oppressor. This is manifested in his hatred for gypsies and ambitions to ‘cleanse the world from them’. Other Disney movies with patriarchal oppressors include Governor Ratcliffe vs. the Indians in Pocahontas; Clayton vs. the apes in Tarzan, and Commander Rourke vs. the Atlanteans in Atlantis. (Greydanus,2011). Another characteristic of the patriarchal oppressor is a hidden desire for the heroin, something Disney conveyed clearly in Frollo, as they depicted him to be a man tortured by his secret longing for Esmerelda, the beautiful gypsy street dancer.

Judge Frollo is also represented by Disney as the villain, this is evident in the stereotypical sinister light Frollo is consistently shown in: the ominous background music that plays in his presence, his ugly features, his black robes and a sense of darkness that seems to radiate from him. In the book, Frollo is not presented in such an evil way; he is actually a compassionate character who took responsibility for raising his brother Jehan after their parents died. He also tried to educate Quasimodo, with little success though, because in the book Quasimodo is actually deaf, unlike in the Disney version. Frollo eventually renounces the church and takes on black magic, while constantly trying, in his own way, to make Esmerelda love him. He ends up killing her, an ending not shared in Disney’s rendering.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is claimed to be Disney’s “last word on Christianity to date”(Greydanus, 2011). Frollo, a catholic, holds perverted perceptions on devotion, sin, and damnation. He secretly lusts after Esmeralda, which he believed was a sin, and was even more motivated to destroy her. He becomes obsessed with finding her and if he can’t have her, only the reaper can. His frantic obsession turns into violence and Frollo goes on a killing spree in trying to find her so he can burn her at the stake, should she refuse him. Ironically, the only spirituality in the film comes from the gypsy Esmerelda. In one of the scenes she prays for the outcasts in the world, “Dear God help the outcasts, hungry from birth, show them the mercy they don’t find on earth.” In the background a group of venal Catholics ask God for material goods, celebrity and glory. “The overall impression of the film is clearly that Catholics are selfish and corrupt, and their beliefs are twisted and oppressive.”(Greydanus, 2011)

Frollo also represents the colonizing force in society-power starved and manipulative. He has conditioned Quasimodo, telling him “be grateful to me, do what I say, obey.” His hold on Quasimodo is evident in many scenes; such as his reluctance to leave the tower and join the festival for fear that he angers his ‘master’. This master-slave, colonizing relationship is a recurring theme in classic literature, for instance the relationship between Prospero and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. By presenting himself as Quasimodo’s only ally, Frollo warns him that “you are deformed and you are ugly and these are crimes for which the world shows little pity.” Quasimodo becomes the vehicle through which Frollo exercises most control, and a tribute to Frollo’s malicious personality in the film.

Now moving on to Quasimodo, who is ostracized because of his ‘deformed figure’ and ‘ugliness.’ This alienation is due to what is known as the ‘horns effect’, which is the opposite of the ‘halo effect’. Because Quasimodo is perceived as hideous, negative qualities are associated with him and so society fears him. In both the book and the movie, he is crowned Pope of Fools because he had the ugliest face in Paris. Quasimodo is conditioned to also think of himself as a monster, when his gargoyle companions (added by Disney for the benefit and entertainment of the kids) introduce the idea of Quasimodo and Esmerelda being a couple, he immediately rejects it, citing his grotesque looks and her exquisite features as the reason why he is ‘not her type’. This particular movie breaks away from the stereotypical hero must look like a Ken doll approach. Disney does a good job in showing the contrast between Quasimodo’s external gruesomeness and internal beauty. In the opening scene Quasimodo encourages a baby bird to take its first leap and finally learn to fly, he urges it saying, “no one wants to be cooped up here forever” a clear projection of his feelings. Another scene in the movie shows a literal representation of imprisonment when Quasimodo is locked up in chains; this is very symbolic of the state in which he was living his life. He finally breaks free of the chains, also figurative of the new found liberation he achieved.

The movie touches on some very real issues; many people suffer from poor self-image and self-esteem due to the way they look, it leads them to believe that they are unlovable. Quasimodo obviously suffered from this, but by showing the deep affection Esmeralda had for Quasimodo, the movie sends a message that, beauty is skin deep, and everyone can be loved. The movie also attempts to maximize the emotional similarity of all people, no matter how they look, by showing that even Esmerelda, despite her beauty, also felt like an outcast who doesn’t fit in, she questions, “what do they have against people who are different anyway?”

In the movie, Quasimodo was the subject of a riot during the festival, people tied him down and threw vegetables at him to “make his face even uglier” Finally, Esmerelda stands up for him and cuts off the ropes that were holding him down. In the book, Esmerelda also shows support for Quasimodo, but the circumstances were different. Quasimodo was sentenced to two hours of torture for the attempted kidnap of Esmerelda, as per Frollo’s request. While Quasimodo was being publicly humiliated he begs for water, but no body brings it to him, until Esmeralda gives him something to drink. In the end of the film, Quasimodo is finally accepted into society, but he had to save Esmerelda and destroy Frollo to achieve society’s recognition first. It probably didn’t hurt either that he had the lovely Esmerelda on his arm. This puts forth the impression of conditional acceptance, that one must earn the right to be a part of society, especially if one is different.

In contrast to Quasimodo’s harsh features, Esmeralda is stunningly beautiful, which is to be expected as all Disney heroines are. Appalachian State University psychology professors Doris Bazzini claims, “Parents should be aware that their children are probably absorbing a message portrayed consistently that attractiveness and goodness go together.” She said, “Even though our study showed one film does not impact this stereotype dramatically, my personal opinion is that a steady diet of these movies is at least reinforcing a stereotype.” (Boones, 2011). An article entitled, ‘Disney Princes and Princesses Still Slaves to some Stereotypes’ explains that many Disney movies contain gendered messages, such as the need for girls to look pretty; thereby creating a pink princess culture that emphasizes good looks. (Welsh, 2011) The cliché is furthered with Esmerelda being a street dancer, wearing tight skimpy clothes, and using her body to make money. She is the object of many men’s desire. In one of the scenes, she dances on a spear, in a manner very similar to pole dancing. She is also placed in many ‘damsel in distress’ situations where she has to be saved by a man. However, Esmerelda is also very headstrong and rebellious, she constantly defies and stands up to Frollo telling him, “you speak of justice but you are cruel to those in need of your help.” Her fearlessness is a nice break away from the air headedness stereotype that is associated with a beautiful character. Her depiction in the movie is closely related to her character in the book.

Captain Phoebus, another leading character in the movie, plays the handsome police captain who eventually captures Esmeralda’s heart. He is of course, tall, blonde, and handsome, and is constantly saving Esmerelda. These stereotypical traits are reserved for every gallant hero Disney produces. In one of the scenes, Esmerelda and Phoebus were fighting in the church and Phoebus says to Esmerelda, “funny, you fight almost as well as a man” with just a hint of sexism. In the book, his character is very different. Phoebus tries to seduce Esmerelda but he does not love her. He was actually somewhat of a player. In the book, Frollo stabs Phoebus and leaves him for dead, framing his murder on Esmerelda. However, Phoebus actually survives but doesn’t come to Esmeralda’s rescue when she is sentenced to death for his murder, he just watched her die. However, this ending would probably not have been appropriate for Disney’s younger viewers.

The film is very centered around the stereotype of gypsies. They all have dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. They are all assumed to be palm readers or fortunetellers, and reside in the ‘court of miracles’ where the blind can see and the deaf can hear. When we are first introduced to Esmerelda she is dancing in the street, a small boy goes up to watch her but his mom pulls him away saying, “Stay away child, they’re gypsies, they’ll steal us blind.” Further evidence of racial profiling is when the police came and started accusing her of stealing because ‘gypsies are incapable of earning anything.’ When Frollo is arguing with Esmerelda he tells her “how typical of your kind to twist the truth,” citing a perfect example of the very definition of ‘stereotype’.

Gypsies were not the only people presented in a discriminatory way. It is also interesting to note how the ‘peasants’ were depicted in the Disney movie, even though as a cast, they were not very prominent. The majority was toothless, and mostly drunken and belligerent with prejudicial attitudes towards gypsies, and a violent one towards Quasimodo. These descriptions are very hackneyed and are usually associated with ignorant people. A connection seems to be made here, between being poor and being rowdy and stupid.

It is also worth briefly mentioning that the movie also contains several sexually explicit scenes. Whether it is Esmerelda and Phoebus passionately kissing, or  Frollo provocatively grabbing Esmerelda from behind and smelling her hair. A lot of research correlates high sex content in movies to early onset of sexual behavior among kids. This seems to be something Disney perpetuates in its movies, all of which include kissing scenes. There’s even the infamous Little Mermaid song called ‘kiss the girl’.

There are various themes found in Disney movies with underlying messages to be deciphered and recurring stereotypes. Disney films are acclaimed to be wholesome family entertainment, suitable for young children and fun for adults.  However, some of the themes prevalent in a lot of its movies push forward a range of stereotypes, from gender bias, to racial, social and even religious commentaries, and ideals of unattainable beauty. It’s kind of ironic that the message carried by the Hunchback of Notre Dame, is that of ‘don’t judge’ when they seem to fall guilty of several judgments themselves.


Boone, N.A. (2011). Disney Movies Promote “Beautiful as Good” Stereotype. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Psychology, Appalachian State University, Retrieved from http://www.news.appstate.edu/2011/01/04/disney-movies-promote-“beautiful-is-good”-stereotype/

Greydanus, S.D. (2011). Quo Vadis Disney? Notes on the end of the Disney Renaissance, circa 2001. Decent Film Guides, Retrieved from http://www.decentfilms.com/articles/quovadisdisney.html

Welsh, Jennifer. (2011). Disney princes and princesses still slave to some sterotypes. LiveScience, Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/20110401/sc_livescience/disneyprincesan


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