Hump Day: The Hunchback (1997)

Hell’s bells! Matty can’t look away from Peter Medak’s car crash adaptation of a literary classic.

They called it “The Patinkin Incident”.

An event so profound that Disney staff still talk about it a quarter of a century later. 

As detailed in a 2020 chinwag with Collider, during pre-production of Disney’s 1996 animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise auditioned Tony award-winning Broadway hero-cum-The Princess Bride (1987) and Alien Nation (1988) star Mandy Patinkin for the part of Quasimodo, prior to Tom Hulce bagging the role. And almost instantaneously all hell broke loose. First, the once notoriously difficult and tetchy Patinkin incurred the wrath of Disney’s superstar composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz by rearranging their audition song and bringing in his own accompanist. Then the tightly wound Patinkin blew a gasket and verbally massacred them in an apparently “wall-shaking” tirade when Menken and Schwartz called him out on this egregious no-no, before upping sticks in a whirlwind of blue-coloured air. 

“I wanted to do Quasimodo as real but they had their own Disney needs,” said Patinkin to the L.A. Times in 1997, in full downplay mode. “So I just said, right at the audition, “I can’t do this”.” [1]

Welp, having subjected myself to Patinkin’s dismal performance as the eponymous bell ringer in THE HUNCHBACK — Peter Medak’s subsequent adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic tale — I think Trousdale et al got off lightly. Because I’d sooner be roasted in a flurry of F words than suffer through his gurning pantomime display again. Signing up for this $8million TV movie as a kind of artistic exorcism, Patinkin — a devoted admirer of Charles Laughton — based his entire portrayal of Quasimodo on Laughton’s iteration of the character in William Dieterle’s 1939 film. However, Patinkin’s turn is more a particularly cruel piss-take than a reverential tribute. Both he and the prosthetics he’s slathered in are bloody awful. 

Much better are The Hunchback’s distinguished supporting cast — Salma Hayek, Richard Harris, Jim Dale, and Vernon Dobtcheff. Hayek is delicious as Esmeralda, and Harris is superb as the dastardly Frollo, essaying the wicked clergyman as a cross between Nosferatu, Colonel Kurtz, and Lance Henriksen in Stuart Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1991). Carry On icon Dale does gypsy king Clopin with gusto, and the eminently watchable Dobtcheff is always a pleasure to behold. Each of them, though, are completely adrift amidst Medak’s curiously cack-handed direction.

Lacking flair and the requisite sense of grandeur, The Hunchback is stilted and small-seeming rather than poetic and sweeping — the complete antithesis of Hugo’s source text. Worse is that the film is often clunky and ugly looking. Adopting a jerky, choppy, and zoom-heavy approach that’s an ill fit for the material, Medak exhibits little regard for a scene’s rhythm and logic, preferring instead to spin and twirl his camera around and inflict upon us a series of tableau that could charitably be described as ‘Ken Russell on a bad day’. Indeed, with The Hunchback’s lavish and stylised backdrops (courtesy of production designer Trevor Williams, with whom Medak had teamed on The Changeling (1980) [2]) and its amplification of the novel’s themes of religious hypocrisy, Russell’s The Devils (1971) is clearly some sort of touchstone. Alas, in terms of quality, The Hunchback is closer to Russell’s utterly chronic Uri Gellar biopic Mindbender (1996). But, hey, credit where it’s due: on the instances where Medak’s visual schizophrenia works — say, every tenth shot — the helmer does manage to produce a couple of striking images.

Rubbish but thankfully never boring (file under ‘interesting car crash’), The Hunchback was lensed in eight weeks between August and September 1996, shooting in France, Budapest, Hungary, Prague, and the Czech Republic. It premiered on TNT at 8PM on Sunday 16th March 1997, a fortnight after Disney’s Hunchback landed on VHS.

USA/Canada ● 1997 ● Drama, TVM ● 95mins

Mandy Patinkin, Richard Harris, Salma Hayek, Jim Dale ● Dir. Peter Medak ● Wri. John Fasano, from the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

[1] The Hunchback From Hope by Susan King, L.A. Times, 16th March 1997
[2] Williams was quite rightly nominated for an Emmy for his work. The film also received Emmy nods for its costuming, hairstyling, and, bizarrely, its crap Quasimodo make-up. 

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