The strange affair of the Phantom of the Opera

In spite of his crimes, I prayed over his remains and asked God to have mercy on him.  Why did God make a man as ugly as that?

I am sure, quite sure, that I prayed over his remains the other day when they were taken from the ground at the place where the phonograph records were being buried.  His corpse had been reduced to a skeleton.  I recognized him not by the ugliness of his head, for all men are ugly when they have been dead a long time, but by the gold ring he wore.  Christine Daae had undoubtedly come and slipped it onto his finger before burying him, as she had promised.

The skeleton lay near the little fountain, where the Angel of Music first held the unconscious Christine Daae in his trembling arms after taking her into the cellars of the Opera.

— Gaston Leroux, from The Phantom of the Opera

Anybody can write a bad play or movie; finding the successful completion of a story is hard.  But to make an adaptation that ruins a good book, that calls for explanation.  Somebody had the solution in hand but didn’t take it.

Most people have some idea of Erik, the Opera Ghost, but it’s often warped by the cultural memory of bad movies.  Gaston Leroux could have written a generic horror story where the monster is killed by the hero, or about a lunatic who had acid thrown on his face, or a “social” novel about a disfigured but harmless genius who is misunderstood by society, but he didn’t.  He wrote something much more interesting, and gave us a far more memorable character.  Erik was monstrously deformed from birth and has never known any life where he didn’t horrify any who saw him.  An extortionist, kidnapper, and murderer, he is not misunderstood.  The few members of human society who know of his existence correctly understand him as a threat.  The book is blessedly free of moralizing.  And yet, in the end Erik is redeemed, and The Phantom of the Opera is the story of his redemption.

Unlike most stories about the degradation of stories, this one ends with a happy ending.  Fans of the book should all be grateful to Andrew Lloyd Weber for giving us a Phantom musical that, while taking its own liberties with the plot, gave us back an Opera Ghost with all his essential properties intact.

If you like The Phantom of the Opera–the book or the musical–it’s because you like Erik.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Christine, Raoul, or the Persian, but they’re not interesting in themselves.  They exist for the plot.  Of course, to like Erik one needn’t (and shouldn’t!) approve of his behavior.  Nor is your interest in him reducible to pity, although he is a pitiable character.  Our minds don’t return to those characters we merely feel sorry for.  No, the first thing to know about Erik, a key to his appeal, is that he is a genius.  Architect, inventor, composer, singer, ventriloquist–there’s nothing he can’t do.  The world is against him, but he consistently outsmarts them all.

And yet he has a handicap worse than his physical deformity.  Erik isn’t crazy; it might have been a mercy if he were not so lucid.  But he has had almost no positive human contact.  As a child, his own mother would not stand physical contact with him, but would run and throw him his mask.  When Erik has had to deal with people, he gets what he needs by terror, bribery, or compulsion.  By and large, nothing else would have worked, but as a result he has no experience relating to people in any other way.

Now imagine such a person falls in love.  What is he to do?  He must know that he can’t win Christine with abduction or threats, but once kick-starting her career and impressing her with his genius stops working, it’s all he knows, so it’s what he falls back on.  Perhaps this story works better for this generation than previous ones, because of the high profile nerds have given to the mildly autistic personality.  We’re ready for a story about a genius who doesn’t know how to talk to girls.

So why do so many versions mess it up?  I think it’s the end, when Erik releases Christine and Raoul, that is too much of a scandal to contemporaries.  Not that we have trouble with the idea of a bad guy redeeming himself.  But we conceive redemption in a Pelagian rather than a Christian way.  The bad guy starts being good and accumulates good deeds to balance his bad ones.  Darth Vader stops being bad, and then he saves Luke.  Good deeds, not just repentance, are needed for a story audiences will accept.  But Erik’s redemption only consists of him stopping the bad things he’s doing, realizing their wickedness or at least futility and allowing himself to be motivated by an unselfish love for Christine.  He releases his captives, returns some extorted money, and dies shortly thereafter.  He wins Christine’s respect, as seen from her keeping her promise, but this is his only victory.  No good thing happens because of his existence; in the end, he just mitigates some bad effects of his existence.  If life were a scorecard for adding up good and evil deeds, this would be an intolerable ending.  If the point of life has to do with one’s spiritual state, with learning to love, then one can find it a very satisfying ending.

One needn’t call The Phantom of the Opera a Christian story to say that it’s a story that requires its audience to have Christian-informed sensibilities if they are to find it satisfying.  Leroux hits the right notes in the above quote.

One Response

  1. My favourite movie version of this is the first, the silent black and white film starring Lon Chaney Sr. It was the most faithful of the films to its source material, despite giving the ending the Hollywood treatment (although I understand they originally filmed the ending closer to Leroux’s).

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