I choose The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux as the first book to read off my Classics Club book list for one simple reason. I had a dream about it.
Now, understand I’ve never read this book before. It’s not even one I checked out of the library, flipped through, and lost interest in. So when I dreamed about seeing the written pages of this book morph into film-like scenes that were not in the 2004 film or the play I saw this year, I decided I needed to read this book. It’s not unusual for me to dream vividly, but it was a bit odd to construct such an elaborate version of something I hadn’t thought about recently.
So I ordered it into the library and read it (in translation, unfortunately, since my French isn’t very good). And I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the book. It must have been almost 10 years ago that I first became seriously interested in the musical The Phantom of the Opera, and at the time I decided against reading the book because so many reviewers I read said they were disappointed. They said if you like the play, don’t bother reading the book because Andrew Lloyd Webber somehow managed to pull brilliance out of a terrible novel.
It is not a terrible novel, though I understand why some readers didn’t like it. Many who love the musical expect a more romantic Phantom character, while Leroux’s Erik (a.k.a. The Phantom) is firmly rooted in a Gothic tradition of villainy. He sleeps in a coffin. His lair includes a torture chamber. He has no nose in his deathly-pale face.
But we’ll get to comparing it with the play later. For now, back to the book. It is written as if by a narrator who began studying the events surrounding the tragedy of the Paris Opera House about 30 years after its haunting by the “ghost.” This haunting coincided with the famous disappearance of Christine Daaé and the Vicomte de Chagny. Our narrator connects these two events, interviews the only witness who is both surviving and locatable, and happens into possession of some very intriguing documents attesting to the ghost’s antics. In short, he is uniquely positioned to be the only person qualified to uncover the truth regarding the opera ghost.
Parts of the story are told as we would think of a “normal” 3rd-person narration, others are the narrator’s conjectures about what might have taken place, still others are written as if borrowed from the memoirs of a few key characters. This rather disconnected narrative style works surprisingly well, and there were only a few places where I thought it jarring to be reminded that the narrator is supposedly piecing this story together from multiple sources of evidence.
Probably the main change from the book to the play is how Erik is portrayed. This blog post about The Many Faces of Erik collects pictures of the Phantom’s portrayal in film and on stage, both before and after Webber’s musical. I could have nightmares about that face from the 1925 version, but it’s probably the closest to Erik in the book.
Erik is described as having “a death’s head,” and his hands are skeletal and cold. Even the most ghoulish Phantom make-up in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals can be hidden under a half-mask. In the book, the entire man is deformed in some vague way that can’t really be hidden. The people who glimpse him even in disguise get the impression of a ghost or skeleton.
And his character is more twisted in the book as well. In the play, we know the Phantom as a genius who has gone mad and kills to protect his secrets. In the book, we are given more of Erik’s back-story and made to see him not as an unstable, unloved man who is carried away by his passion, but as a violent man without a conscience who has a history of inventing new ways to kill and torment people for pleasure. He captures our imagination, our horror, our pity, but not our love.
Angel of Music
Christine and Raoul’s back-story was very similar in the book and play, with the book simply being more fleshed-out. I liked Raoul less in the book, though. He seems a rather pale, helpless character who follows Christine around vacillating between hating of her for loving someone else and being willing to do anything to protect her from Erik. If he was translated perfectly from the book to the musical and the changes for the Phantom left in place, I doubt there’s be any part of me hoping for Raoul to win Christine.
Poor Christine, in the book and play, was doomed by her father’s promise to send her the Angel of Music. This is built-up even better in the book, with her father telling stories about how the greatest musicians heard the Angel of Music, who moved them from talented to unforgettably brilliant. Christine’s father was a great violinist, but never heard the Angel. His daughter, however, was waiting for him to send one from heaven, and when Erik first sings to her she asks if he is her Angel. He grasps the title eagerly, and she’s lost to his music.
His voice first appears in the book simply as a speaking voice — the man Raoul hears but cannot find in Christine’s dressing room and the invisible speaker in Box 5. Madam Giry calls it “such a lovely man’s voice … so soft and kind.” When Erik finally sings, the word “captivating” hardly seems to do the listeners’ reactions justice:
The voice without a body went on singing; and certainly Raoul had never in his life heard anything more absolutely and heroically sweet, more gloriously insidious, more delicate, more powerful, in short, more irresistibly triumphant. He listened to it in a fever and he now began to understand how Christine Daaé was able to appear one evening, before the stupefied audience, with accents of a beauty hitherto unknown, of a superhuman exaltation, while doubtless still under the influence of the mysterious and invisible master.
The voice was singing the Wedding-night Song from Romeo and Juliet. Raoul saw Christine stretch out her arms to the voice as she had done, in Perros churchyard, to the invisible violin playing The Resurrection of Lazarus. And nothing could describe the passion with which the voice sang: “Fate links thee to me for ever and a day!”
The strains went through Raoul’s heart. Struggling against the charm that seemed to deprive him of all his will and all his energy and of almost all his lucidity at the moment when he needed them most, he succeeded in drawing back the curtain that hid him and he walked to where Christine stood. (from Chapter IX)
Michael Crawford (original Broadway cast), Ramin Karimloo (25th anniversary cast), and Cooper Grodin (touring cast I saw in Columbus) have voices like this. That spectacular voice, which mesmerizes Christine and the audience, is the secret of Erik’s allure. Without it, he would just be a hideous man with an even more hideous soul hiding under an opera house. But add this voice, and he becomes something unforgettable — the dark menace who should be repulsive but is somehow irresistible.
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10 thoughts on “The Phantom of the Opera”
I love all incarnations of this book… the musical(s) and pastiche novels (particularly Susan Kay’s Phantom) alike. I have never cared for Raoul in any adaptation for various reasons, but Erik captures my fascination. It’s been a decade since I read this book. Maybe it’s time for another go!
“All I Ask of You” is one of my favorite love songs, which is probably the main reason I like Raoul as much as I do. My overall opinion of him really depends on how he’s played, though. I liked him in the film and in the 25th anniversary DVD but the Raoul I saw on-stage was less likable. There was something about that performance which highlighted all the things I dislike about the way Raoul treats Christine. Until he has hard evidence that the Phantom exists, I get the sense that every time Christine tries to explain things to him he’s thinking, “you’re a bit dotty, but you sing so prettily I’ll just ignore that and love you.” He doesn’t really listen to her, and I find that terribly frustrating.
That is indeed a very pretty song. 🙂
Like you in finding it hard to like Raoul all the time, I don’t like Raoul because he spends the first half of the play telling her she’s an idiot (there is no Phantom!) and trying to take over her life (I don’t care what your music teacher wants, I’m taking you to dinner) and the second half guilting her into doing something she doesn’t want to do, that neither of them believe is safe — oh, Christine, you don’t have to do this… but you’re our only hope. You know that, right? Then, he’s dumb enough to announce his plan in the OPERA HOUSE, where Erik can hear him. Um, duh?
Poor Christine. She’s caught between TWO men who want to control her life, who both “love” her, and who both in some sense manipulate her. Raul is the better of two evils, but he’s still no catch.
Wonderfully written blog! I agree with your views on the discrepancies between the book and the Andrew Lloyd Webber that we have come to love so much. Like Charity, I also love all portrayals of the character. I love reading re-tellings and spin-offs of the tale and find it interesting to see each author’s unique take on the characters. I also find it intriguing to view the many different film adaptations. That being said, I’ve read many reviews of Leroux’s novel, and I feel that yours is one of the most concise I’ve read. (=^_^=)
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Thank you 🙂
I haven’t read any of the re-tellings and spin-offs yet. Which ones would you recommend?
Oh, you’re very welcome! If you haven’t read any, then Susan Kay’s novel, Phantom, is a must-read. Her version is by far one of the most widely acclaimed re-tellings and my favorite one so far.
As far as other re-tellings go, some people like them and some don’t. Personally, I’ve read some that I’m not crazy about-that simply seem like cheesy fan fiction, but then I’ve also read others that have unique takes on the characters that were actually quite believable. Some Phans don’t like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version being tampered with, and other don’t like Leroux’s being altered, but I enjoy reading all takes on the tale, even modern re-tellings, so the advice I always give people attempting to read Phantom re-tellings and spin-offs is to simply have an open mind. If you don’t want the story altered at all, though, then these types of books might not be for you.
I haven’t read all the Phantom books on my “to-read” list yet, but I’m currently in the process of rereading all my Phantom books and rating them on Goodreads before I proceed with purchasing and reading new ones. I don’t know if you have a Goodreads account or not, but if you do, we can certainly connect on there so you can see all the Phantom books I’ve read so far and what I’ve rated them as. Here’s my Goodreads link if you want to check it out:
At risk of sounding self-promotional, I’ll say that although I would never classify my book, Maiden’s Blush, as a Phantom of the Opera re-telling or spin-off, it does have references to the tale since I had just discovered Phantom back when I was writing it at the tender age of 16. I’ve been contemplating writing a Phantom book myself, but I fear that I wouldn’t be able to do the characters justice, so for now, I’m contenting myself with reading others’ works. Lol.
If you happen to read my book, please share your thoughts. I’m looking for new readers. Although my book was published in 2007, it was never marketed much, and I’ve just recently began to actively market it, so I’m always looking for honest reviews and critiques. I’d be honored if you’d consider reading and reviewing. (=^_^=)
ALL that being said, I apologize for the extensively long post. As you can see, I’m a Phantom of the Opera enthusiast, and I jump at the chance to discuss it with others. Lol.
I should also mention that I found your blog through a friend named Birol who posted a link to it on Facebook. I don’t know if you two are connected, but I want to give credit where it’s due, especially if y’all are. (=^_^=)
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I’ll definitely add Susan Kay’s Phantom to my to-read list. That’s the one Charity mentioned as well. Two recommendations means it must be good 🙂
I am on Goodreads under my fiction pen-name Maris McKay. Just added you as a friend. And I’ll add your book to my list as well. Hopeful I’ll get around to reading it and if/when I do, I’ll be sure to leave a review. So many books to read, so little time!
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Thank you! And I know, right? I have sooooo many books I want to read, but between writing and everything else going on, it’s hard to find time to read them all! (=^_^=)
Have you written any books? I ask because you have a fiction pen name.
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I have, but none published yet. I’ve been querying agents for one and am planning to self-publish a short story collection some time next year.