Phantom Histories: Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera is one of my favorite stories but also one of the most frustrating.

The original story written by Gaston Leroux was published as a serial in the French newspaper Le Gaulois, but is now available in novel format in most bookstores. Because of its serial nature, though, the story doesn’t read naturally if you just sit down and read it chapter after chapter. It’s an excellent book, but it commits some big literary no-nos, such as introducing a major character in only the final act. Nonetheless, it is a compelling read with a character that is evil yet likable and ultimately very tragic.

With some narrative flaws but an otherwise terrific story, the original work seems like it would be greatly improved by adaptation. Despite having received numerous film versions, I don’t feel that any of the adaptations of Leroux’s novel have quite captured the original charm. Yes, some of them are very good in their own right, but they always leave out one or two elements that leave me wanting.

The end result is that I’m a big fan of The Phantom of the Opera, but I am still waiting for what I would consider a definitive version – a tale with all the character development and tragedy of the original story without the literary problems caused by the format in which it was released.

Looking Back at the Original

So let’s talk about the original tale told by Gaston Leroux, which was serially published in 1909 and 1910, then novelized in 1910.

Phantom of the Opera Original
The face that became a legend.

Anyone familiar with the later adaptations of the work probably knows much of the plot. Young Christine Daae is visited by a voice that she believes to be the Angel of Music, sent by her deceased father. Under the Angel’s training, she unlocks her great potential and shocks audiences who had previously seen someone who was talented yet passionless in her performance. At the same time, Christine is pursued romantically by a childhood sweetheart named Raoul, who finds himself at odds with a mysterious stranger.

The Angel of Music is in fact a disfigured man named Erik, known as the Opera Ghost, and he has fallen in love with Christine. Erik eventually takes Christine into his lair beneath the opera in hopes that Christine will come to love him. Christine unmasks him, but shows him surprising pity, and Erik lets her leave so long as she wear his ring as a sign of her devotion to him.

Eventually, Erik becomes aware of the mutual love between Raoul and Christine and kidnaps the girl, threatening to destroy the opera house if she does not marry him. Raoul searches for Christine with the help of a man called the Persian, who knows of Erik’s past.

Both Raoul and the Persian fall prey to Erik’s traps and are left at his mercy until Christine bargains for their lives, promising to stay with Erik in exchange for their freedom. Seeing Christine’s love for Raoul, Erik lets her go to marry him. Erik and Christine kiss, she leaves, and Erik later dies beneath the opera house.

Leroux’s Narrative Structure

Leroux tells the original tale in the style of a historian, constantly telling the reader that his story is based upon facts and presenting fictional documentation to back himself up. This might be because the Phantom here is practically a supervillain. He is a self-taught genius in many fields, including music, architecture, and combat. He is capable of downing an armed warrior with nothing but a length of rope. He moves like a shadow, and it is implied that through the opera house he has effected major change in the French government. Stressing the “reality” of the story might be a way of getting around the fact that Erik is a little too good at everything to be believable. The only thing he isn’t is handsome, which of course guides the entire story.

Phantom of the Opera Red Death
Although he is a snazzy dresser.

As with just about any adaptation that has come afterwards, the entire draw of The Phantom of the Opera is right there in the title. Erik is the reason to read the book, and although it has some nice moments here and there with other characters, you’re always wondering where the Phantom is when he’s not in the scene. Even during the first act, when Erik only appears as a rumor, a shadow, or a disembodied voice, it’s the mystery of who or what the Phantom really is that drives the tale. Christine, Raoul, and the other characters don’t have the strength to carry this tale by themselves. In a way, that’s very appropriate – the entirety of the story revolves around the machinations of the Phantom, which is one of the few things that Erik wants in his life.

The Pitiful Phantom

When you get past the mystery, Erik himself is a pretty pathetic figure. Born with a face resembling a skull, he never more than a monster to those he knew, not even to his own mother. Until Christine kisses him in the end, he has never known any physical affection.

Phantom of the Opera Wax Statue
Cut the nose off of this fellow, and you have an accurate portrayal of the Phantom from the book.

Taking refuge in the labyrinth beneath the Paris Opera House, he tries to overcome this feeling of inadequacy by pretending that he is some sort of hidden dictator. He insists that Box Number Five be left open for him every night, and causes torment to those who disobey him. He makes recommendations to the original opera owners, draws a salary, and believes himself to be a clandestine player in the Parisian government.

When you boil it down, though, he’s not some secret leader of the Illuminati. At best, he’s a guy who sometimes influences the way the Paris Opera runs. For normal people, the opera is but a small part of their lives – they attend a show, then move on. Poor Erik is stuck in a world that is mere entertainment to others. He violently defends his territory, even going so far as to kill those who defy him, but he’s really the equivalent of a nighttime manager of a movie theatre or the supervisor at the 7-11. His very existence is something that most people don’t even think about more than a few hours a day.

We forgive Erik for his psychopathic behavior with regards to the opera because he is such a tragic figure. We also have Christine, the most angelic figure in the story, supporting him, which helps sway our point of view. Unlike the reader, Christine doesn’t get a long exposition about the Phantom’s backstory. She just sees what is in front of her, and despite the fact that he lies to her and even kidnaps her, she sees what a pathetic figure he really is and shows kindness to him. That pity saves her from being another victim of Erik’s tendency to destroy those who don’t play along with his sadistic games.

A Grand Finale

An effective conclusion serves as another important key to Leroux’s novel. Unlike many versions of the tale, Christine doesn’t get saved by handsome Raoul. Not even the clever Persian, who knows all of Erik’s tricks, is a match for the evil genius. By the end of the story, Erik has everything that he wants. It’s up to Christine to save the day.

Phantom of the Opera Christine
In any other media, it’s hard to find Christine doing much more than this.

In order to win the day, most female protagonists, especially in older works, have to take on masculine traits. Usually, your strong female character has to resort to throwing a punch to prove herself, just like a man does. Christine, however, serves as an example of a strong female character who wins the day because of her feminine qualities.

Christine ultimately forces a change of heart in Erik through showing him genuine compassion. When all is said and done, she is not a prize to be won by the Phantom but rather someone who shows him love willingly. Yes, she agrees to marry Erik partly because of her concern for the helpless Raoul. However, she also sees what Erik needs: somebody to show him understanding, nurturing, and love.

By showing Erik that level of gentle understanding, Christine effects a total reversal in circumstances. Weeping, Erik lets her go, knowing he’ll never see her again. All he asks in return is that Christine bury him when he dies, which happens within a matter of weeks. (Yes, “death by a broken heart” is incredibly cliché. No, I won’t hold it against this story.)

A Nuanced Phantom

In my opinion, the original Phantom of the Opera is successful because of two things: it has a compelling and sympathetic antagonist, and it provides a major twist on the typical damsel in distress plot.

Phantom of the Opera 1925

Speaking to the former, it’s worth noting that we don’t find out the full backstory for Erik until the Persian explains it in the last act of the story. However, the writing, even in translation, is strong enough to show us how tragic this figure is long before we know the details. However, the tragedy of Erik’s past doesn’t excuse his behavior. Leroux’s Phatnom is a brooding, romantic figure, but he’s also a bad person who does bad things. The novel never asks us to ignore his evils, but simply explains the life that led him down that path.

Speaking to the latter, Christine appears for most of the story to be a helpless damsel. She’s frail, she faints, she gets kidnapped. At the same time, she accomplishes much more in the tale than Raoul ever manages, and she’s the reason we get anything resembling a happy ending. By the end of the story, through the power of compassion alone, she manages to show Erik that she isn’t just a prize to be won and forces an otherwise evil (albeit criminally insane) man to do something for someone else for once.

Supporting both of those elements is the fact that Erik is super-competent. He outmaneuvers the protagonists at virtually every turn. If the Phantom can be bested through brute force or his arrogance causes his own demise, he loses a lot of punch. Erik’s hyper-competence may require some suspension of disbelief, but The Phantom of the Opera isn’t nearly as compelling if the titular Phantom doesn’t border on the supernatural. Because he is so damned good at everything, everybody else sees a ghost or a monster, even if, like the Persian, they know his history. That makes it much more powerful when Christine finally sees through the tricks and illusions and recognizes that, despite all of his skill and mystery, Erik is in fact a man.

The Issues in the Adaptations

So what’s my problem with the adaptations of this work? For many of them, it’s just that they don’t do it quite as well as the novel. Leroux’s original work presents a balance that’s hard to get right. In terms of the Phantom, most adaptations either make him too villainous or too sympathetic. Others lower his competence level too far or strip away too much of his backstory. Christine, on the other hand, becomes more an object and less of a character in most adaptations. With very few exceptions, she has to stand by and watch the men save the day for her.

Phantom of the Opera Musical

And speaking of those adaptations, why is it that most people tend to look more favorably on those rather than the original work? I think the fact that they have the visual element going for them is key. (Also, in the case of the Broadway musical, it has some of the best damned songs in history, which certainly doesn’t hurt.)

Especially thanks to the musical, the Phantom has become a romantic figure, with many later adaptations even toning down his disfigurement so as to make him handsome with mild scarring. And the Phantom happens to play into a fantasy that is (to me, at least) inexplicably common among women: the notion of the bad boy who just needs some love to change him.

The fact that the Phantom has been made increasingly handsome throughout the years is an interesting reflection of the character’s situation in the book. Erik thinks that nobody will love him with his hideous skull-like appearance and, even in an age where we are supposed to see more than just physical appearance, he is largely right.

The visual medium has changed a lot of other horror characters over the years, as well. Take a look at Dracula, who originally had noticeably bad breath and hairy palms. Now vampires are a sex symbol. But I guess that’s how you can gauge the success of a horror figure these days: if he gets more handsome as time goes on, then that means the original concept was appealing enough that people liked it and wanted to make it more overtly sexy. In the case of the Phantom, we went from this:

Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera
Lon Chaney’s Phantom

to this:

Gerard Butler's Phantom of the Opera
Gerard Butler’s Phantom

Well done, Mr. Leroux. Well done indeed.

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