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Why Disney’s Live-Action ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Remake Is Already Problematic

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s Disability Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Disney announced Wednesday it will continue its live-action remakes of classic animated films with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Already, people on social media are speculating about potential casting for the film, with non-disabled actors Josh Gad and Ben Platt as possible contenders for the role of Quasimodo.

Over the last year, I’ve written multiple articles about the importance of casting actors with disabilities to play disabled characters. The disability community has been advocating for accurate representation for years, but it seems to be finally reaching the public consciousness, with non-disabled actors such as Trevor Noah and Jameela Jamil addressing the issue in the wake of Bryan Cranston playing a quadriplegic in “The Upside.” I hope Disney is listening to these conversations and will cast an actor with physical differences to play Quasimodo. However, there are bigger problems with Disney’s animated version of “Hunchback” which must be addressed for the live version of the film to be anything other than disastrously offensive to the disability community.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a dark, violent story filled with murder, lust, and outdated stereotypes of the Romani culture. People were surprised when Disney decided to make a film of it back in 1996. Even then, it was widely criticized for many of the reasons I’m about to discuss. In their attempt to sanitize the story, Disney actually made “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” more problematic from a disability point of view, and took away its power and even its core message.

In the 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo and its many non-Disney film versions, Quasimodo is viewed as a monster by the citizens of Paris, and presented as frightening to look at, but a good person on the inside. He seems to be almost a supernatural creature, but in fact, he’s human — a human being with disabilities. As originally conceived, he is hard of hearing (from his job as the bell ringer at Notre Dame cathedral), has facial differences, and has a “hunchback” — an old-fashioned, now offensive term for scoliosis.

In the 1400s when “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” takes place, people whose bodies were drastically different from what was considered “normal” were believed to be cursed. Quasimodo was viewed as “a creation of the devil.” When Victor Hugo wrote the novel in 1831, science was just beginning to understand the cause and nature of medical conditions, and recognize that outer appearances do not determine a person’s character. Thus, Hugo’s portrayal of Quasimodo as sympathetic was ahead of his time. Hugo even recognized that society’s judgment of Quasimodo based on his appearance was what limited him, not his disabilities — a concept we now call the social model of disability.

In the novel, Quasimodo falls in love with a young woman named Esmeralda when she brings him water after he has been whipped and displayed in the town square. Esmeralda falls for another man, the conventionally handsome Captain Phoebus, but he merely lusts after her, as does Archdeacon Claude Frollo, Quasimodo’s devious adoptive father. Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda the first time as she is about to be executed, but is ultimately unable to prevent Frollo from orchestrating her death. After avenging Esmeralda by throwing Frollo from the cathedral tower, he goes to her discarded body and dies holding her in his arms.

Like almost all depictions of disability in classic literature (and frankly, in modern literature) “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” doesn’t end with the disabled guy getting the girl and living happily ever after. However, Hugo presents Quasimodo as the person who was truly worthy of Esmeralda’s love, and their entwined bones symbolize their souls being joined together in the afterlife. Through his sacrifice, Quasimodo transcends society’s view of him as an object of scorn or pity and becomes a true hero.

Disney takes all of the novel’s powerful symbolism and stomps on it with their mishandled rewrite. Of course, Disney didn’t want the story to end with intertwined bones in a mass grave, that just doesn’t lend itself to a catchy tune. So they changed the ending, but they did so in a way that reinforces harmful stereotypes about disability. Instead of depicting Phoebus as selfish, they have him and Esmeralda fall in love. They didn’t have an enchantress to transform the beast into a prince in this one, so what else were they supposed to do? Let the “ugly” guy get the girl?

Instead, the hero Quasimodo receives a chaste hug from the beautiful Esmeralda, and then “does the right thing” by joining her hand with Phoebus’ and holding them together, signaling his acceptance of their relationship. As someone who has received that hug, the “I love you, but not like that” kiss on the forehead, and symbolically joined a hand I loved to someone else’s more than once while hiding my tears, I know it’s a deeply painful part of the disability experience for many of us. Disabled or not, everyone experiences heartbreak when the person we love doesn’t return our feelings, but people with disabilities struggle with the added question, is it because of my disability? In the case of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, I believe the answer is yes.

What kind of message does that ending send to kids and adults with disabilities and differences who watch the movie? It tells them no one will ever truly love you the way you are, no matter how much you stand up for what’s right, no matter how much you sacrifice for others. It tells the popular, “beautiful” kids they should take their disabled classmate to prom as a good deed, but not consider them someone to actually date or fall in love with. It tells society, “of course we shouldn’t hate or laugh at disabled people, but they aren’t really like everyone else.” It reinforces the concept of people with disabilities as asexual inspirational props who just need a conciliatory pat on the head to feel loved, who should date “our own kind” if we have relationships at all. That’s the exact opposite of the disability representation we need.

Disney, you have the chance to handle disability right this time. You’ve already changed up the plot, so let Quasimodo win Esmeralda’s heart. Teach kids who look different they are worthy of love. Cast an actor with facial differences and/or scoliosis, someone who truly knows what it’s like to be judged by the way you look. Show the world that people with disabilities can be romantic heroes. You have the power to change the world. Please use it wisely.

Originally published: January 17, 2019
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