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Essays & Reviews

Phantom of the Opera -- Again: Les is More

So here it is at last, the great popular thing — Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage hit "The Phantom of the Opéra", on the big screen. I think it's a deeply disappointing failure, manic TV adverts and awards nominations to the contrary.

I was a latecomer to the Phantom in its stage incarnation. Foolishly, I bought all the snobbish ridicule that preceded the show's arrival from London (a knee-jerk New York reaction to bumptious pre-opening overkill from the Phantom publicity machine); the loss was, of course, mine. When I finally did see it, the show was a powerful experience that struck lively sparks from me both as audience member and as writer* (see Phantom Phragments). You can fault the music for repetitiveness and pastiche and the story for sexist silliness and gaping plot holes, but the live music and living actors on the stage amid props and sets designed to suggest more than impersonate Fin de Siécle opulence made a knock-out impression.

Some critics say that the movie is junk because the stage show it's made from was junk (although several of these have also admitted that they never saw the stage show). This is nonsense. You would not have enjoyed the stage show if your preference is for sophisticated comedy, social commentary, or hard-edged realism, but on its own terms the show was splendid. Its huge, worldwide audience was not a fluke. I've read that Katherine Hepburn attended regularly in New York; she knew stage genius when she saw, and this show had it.

The movie doesn't.

I've just listened to a tape of the original cast recording. Even in the car at sixty-five mph the sound was crisp and bright, the broad orchestral themes veined with clever invention and variation, the lyrics — while sometimes overblown and contorted — often affectingly evocative. All the punch of the original sound came through brilliantly, putting to shame the movie's soundtrack.

I. The Sound and the Stupidification

Why on earth is this movie's sound so god-awful? It's like trying to hear band music through the back of a sofa. Where is the technology that should have sharpened and brightened the sound, making it at least as transparent and energetic as the live music was? Instead the soundtrack is muffled and dulled; and I know it's not just a failure of this local movie theater because I've read similar complaints from elsewhere.

Worse, the most effective and affecting lyrics have been dumbed down. To be fair, the textual muscle of the show was weakened very early on, presumably by its creators. For example: on my tape (original cast, probably from the London production, copyright 1987) a verse in "Music of the Night" runs,

"Silently the senses

"Abandon their defenses

"Helpless to resist the notes I write,

"For I compose the music of the night.

"Slowly, gently . . .

This was changed quite early in the show's career to:

"Silently the senses

"Abandon their defenses . . .

" . . . . . . . . . (no lyrics) " . . . . . . . . . (no lyrics)

"Slowly, gently . . . "

(Here quoted from p. 146, "The Complete Phantom of the Opéra" by George Perry, Henry Holt & Co, also 1987.)

It looks to me as if someone thought that since the senses "silently" abandon their defenses in the lines above, the third and fourth lines should be — silent. Very clever; but this removes a crucial emphasis on the fact that the Phantom, knowing himself to be a hideous gargoyle of a man, depends on his music to seduce Christine. It is his music that is to seal her to him, because his music is all that he has to offer.

It happened again, with this pointed and poignant verse on that original cast tape:

"Close your eyes, for your eyes

"Will only tell the truth

"And the truth isn't what you want to see!

"In the dark it is easy to pretend —

"That the truth is what it ought to be . . . "

This clear expression of the central anguish of the Phantom's life, his desperate desire not to be seen for the grotesque that he is, was blurred into meaningless tosh about surrendering to your dreams and letting your spirit soar so you can "live as you've never lived before".

Worse still:

"Close your eyes and let music set you free!

"Only then can you belong to me . . ."

Became this flabby replacement:

"Let your soul take you where you long to be!

"Only then can you belong to me . . . " (ibid.)

Well — where is that, and why is it "only then" that you can belong to me? The original cast tape version is specific: the Phantom sings as a man spurned and oppressed by the world whom only music does "set free", and he's offering to share his experience of that immense, transportive power. He sings the praises of something that he knows Christine, a musician herself, can understand and appreciate. It's this bond between them that gives him hope in the first place.

Now, the soul of a well-told story is selective detail. In the absence of specificity, the reader/viewer/audience will automatically plug in some vague notion gleaned from an endless tide of books, films, shows, songs, TV shows, and adverts. Moreover, in a childish culture like ours any blurred meaning is automatically cast as "dirty".

"Since I'm a really ugly man who writes great music, I beg you to let my music carry you past my ugliness so that we can become not just lovers but exalted soulmates!" becomes "Hey, baby, let's have sex." Wham, bam, from a 19th century Gothic romance about music and longing to "Baywatch" in a few little words (this was done long before filming began; I found the better version on the Crawford-Brightman tape, not on the complete disc version, although both forms were released in '87; every other tape or disc I've heard has the watered-down lyrics too, so I'll bet I was hearing the alteration in all the stage productions by 1988 at the latest).

I'd guess that a deliberate decision was made to divorce the lyrics from the particulars of the story because the producers thought the song would be more widely marketable as a generic love song with no pointed reminders of the particular deformed, homocidal character who sings it. In any case, a concise, effective piece of musical storytelling was replaced by lyrics emptied of meaning, which are are now set in stone via this film.

The Phantom story is a strong story, and it deserved better.

II. The Under-story: Male Pain

Beneath the superficial romantic triangle, this story is about the valorization of masculine agony. The central subject is the suffering of the man of talent rejected by others (crucially, of course, by women) because he's not tall and handsome but deformed and crazy (or, in the composer's case, small and homely, which was pointed out by jeering critics when the show opened in New York; fury at the success of a show that they despised made them cruel).

This is not a light matter: masculine anguish has been (and largely remains) the backbone of serious Western literature and drama.

The assumption is that women are made for pain — penetration, menstruation, birth, rape, casual murder by various Jack-the-Rippers, abandonment, etc., and God ordained the whole mess anyway in the Garden of Eden. Therefore women's suffering is a given and becomes trivial in the eyes of the culture: female pain only signifies as sentimental melodrama (check out the Lifetime channel).

But men, now; men, who are promised dominion of the whole world merely by virtue of being born male, well, why should they suffer? Yet suffer they do, even the luckiest of them — existential angst, if nothing else, but primarily deprivation (unless one is very handsome or very rich) of the foxiest chicks. The regular guy can only offer his talent, his intelligence, his brilliance if he has some, in place of physical handsomeness. In most cases this offering will be spurned by the beauties to which most cultures assure him that all men have automatic entitlement. Webber's "Phantom" tapped into the seething rage, self-disgust, and hopeless pain suffered by ordinary men barred by their own ordinariness from the babes that pop entertainment insists they not only must have but "deserve".

Think of all those movies in which a normally plain, little (or maybe very big fat) guy somehow wins a gorgeous, thin woman — for example, "Sideways". Ask yourself, Why would such a beautiful woman be even slightly interested in the depressed, schlumpy, chinless protagonist? Compare the far superior and utterly anomalous " American Splendor", in which the same actor ( Paul Giamatti) is paired with a woman ( Hope Davis) who looks like a real, regular woman, to enormous effect.

Actually, this is the only example of this that I can think of; maybe it is the only example. It's not an accident that "Sideways" is a good movie, but "American Splendor" is a great one — nor that many critics — males almost to a man (as it were) — prefer "Sideways".

Notice how it never works the other way: the "homely" woman is really Sandra Bullock or Julie Andrews in "ugly" disguise, so that she can be made over into a glamour girl in order to win her prince. The homely guy merely has to demonstrate his sweet or heroic inner qualities to win the lovely princess. (The only exception that comes to mind is Princess Fiona in SHREK, and she's a rather pretty ogress to begin with, as Shrek himself seems to think.)  And yes, I'm deliberately omitting a recent film about a woman transforming her boyfriend into the model handsomeness she desires, primarily because I never saw it; but it sounds like a very interesting anomaly, "anomaly" being the problem with it.

The stage show brilliantly captured this dynamic, a product of masculine insecurity and resentment, and the common cultural contempt for ordinary-looking women. The burning fury of the frustrated male was broadly but effectively written into the show and, in my experience as an audience member, it was powerfully captured by the stage Phantom no matter who played him.

The movie, fatally, cuts the guts out of the whole enterprise.

III. Throwing Out the Baby

Yes, the film is opulent to look at; yes, it's romantic, and melodic in the solid if repetitive style of the composer; and yes, the actors are pretty, and two of the leads sing their parts effectively.

But. But, but, but —

Never mind that shoving the story back to 1870 is absurd (the stage show, true to the original novel, was set in the 1880's): does anyone know what happened in Paris in 1870? Why, the Franco-Prussian War happened, ladies and gentlemen, and France lost! Paris was racked by revolution and then occupied, that winter, by not one but two German armies, while various Republican and radical Socialist French parties attempted to form a new government. Let's just wince and sigh and set that aside as normal movieland arrogance and ignorance (history? What's that? Who knows, who cares?).

The major problem is much worse: the core of the story, that fiery blend of passion, hope, unbridled rage and deepest despair, is gone. The stage Phantom's howls of anguish and jagged screams of mad laughter are banished from the film. His deformities become minor, his madness a Heathcliffian brooding and bad temper. The deep male pain (I never said it wasn't real pain) that was the backbone and heart of the show's impact is as muffled by these changes as the music is muffled by that muddy sound track.

In the film version, I see a commercial decision to reach for a younger audience (a good, if cynical, bet, since the mature fans of the stage show will likely come see the movie anyway). So both the male leads have been made into studly young men with glossy hair, athletic physiques, and first-rate tailors.

What we get is a sort of "Bridget Jones" with menaces.

According to an article in a pop culture magazine the director of the movie, Joel Schumacher, decided to turn the rivals into a rich, handsome, and vacuous young man vs. a smart, self-made young man soured by bad treatment because he's appearance-challenged, as it were (but not much). Schumacher's reasoning as stated makes a kind of sense and touches deeper, generational questions. He says he saw that Christine, as written, was so naive as to appear retarded, so he decided she must actually be "an adolescent". (Christine is even ditzier in Gaston Leroux' novel, in accordance with 19th century ideas of the imperiled and witless fictional heroine. The stage show merely adopted this cliché of the fatuous child in a young woman's body.) So, if she's only seventeen, then her suitors can also be younger — Raoul in his twenties and the Phantom in his young thirties, by the look of them.

Schumacher says he chose to make her even younger than Brightman's stage Christine to justify that naiveté; but his next remark, to the effect that he wanted to film the story with young, beautiful, sexy actors, betrays the real reasoning: Hollywood commercialism, pitching the "product" to audiences too immature to be expected to empathize with anyone not perceived as young, beautiful, and sexy.

Wrong, wrong, wrong; they should have kept Christine a young woman, not a child, made her the over-sheltered charge of a very strict Madame Giry, and shown her maturing out of that naiveté in the course of the story. This would have preserved the slightly perverse but enormously powerful original dynamic: the cross-generational sexual tension that gives the love triangle its compelling, darker chords.

IV. Age has its Privileges

The stage Christine was childish but not a child; the stage Raoul was the younger son of a noble family (as in Leroux' novel), but not a boy.

The stage Phantom as I saw him portrayed was — older. Not just deformed, not just maddened by solitude and misery, not just brilliantly talented as composer, inventor and architect, but adult: a mature man with a horrible face and a hard, cruel past. Like Leroux' original character, he was a grotesque, murderous genius shaped by at least four decades of cruel deprivation, delusion and despair. Into Christine's as-yet-unformed story he came from this long past of his own.

I put it to you that the intensity of the Phantom's obsession with pretty, pliable Christine grows from his awareness of his own age, of this talented young singer as his one and only, his last chance at love, sex, and the simple warmth of human companionship before his own inevitable decline. His fixation on her is the desperation of a mature-to-middle-aged man facing the prospect of his own mortality, sighting the approach of the winding down toward death of a life so crippled as to have barely manifested in the world at all.

At this stage of his miserable life he doesn't just love Christine; he needs her, desperately. And the cause of his jealousy is his knowledge that he can't rival Raoul's easy, sunny, above all youthful vitality. But his weapon is the attractiveness not of the young stud, but of the mature man seasoned by the lessons of experience (and the self-knowledge that they bring), an intense and masterful man who has earned his authority by a lifetime of adventure, struggle, and survival against great odds.

His interior monolog might run something like this:

"Heaven, bring me someone young to admire me because she's too naive to see through me, someone energetic enough to reawaken my own sexual and emotional vitality, a beautiful prize whose possession by me will make other men — younger men, handsomer men —-envious! Bring me someone immature and inexperienced enough to do as I tell her, to eagerly serve my fearful needs instead of serving her own desires, to subsume her own life so she can be the reinvigorating focus of mine!"

It's the dashing of these forlorn and pathetic hopes that makes us pity the Phantom so deeply at the end of the story.

His unwilling realization that it would be truly monstrous to doom his beloved Christine to a life with him leads him, finally, to let her go with her younger lover. At heart, he wants his beloved to have more of a life than being shackled, a few years hence, to an aging, ailing, monstrous and neurotic criminal with a terrible temper (childishly as the Phantom often behaves, he also demonstrates intelligent self-awareness).

So, against all expectation and with a convulsive and racking effort, he does the decent thing — he lets her go. It's a breathtaking gesture, and, quite properly, it breaks our hearts

This resolution (in more than one sense of the word) isn't just about how breaking up is hard to do, like an episode of "Orange County". It's a cruelly maimed adult's large-spirited sacrifice of the one miraculous hope in a frightful life. His gesture hits us so hard because it demonstrates that inside the murderous monster a human being of great heart survives, suffers, and responds to the smallest gesture of love — a human being of much larger compass and personal honor than Raoul will ever be. That is the pathos of the Phantom's renunciation — and the reason that we come away thinking that Christine chose the lesser man, warts (to say the least of it!) and all.

On-screen this delicious combination of emotional goodies, which helped power the stage show to its vast success, has been thrown away.

What replaces it? Soap-opera shenanigans among Schumacher's young and pretty saps. This can of course be interesting, particularly to those still in the throes of the youthful mating dance, but it has nothing like the mythic power of "Beauty and the Beast" (in which the Beast is a contemporary of Beauty's father, not of Beauty), or Zeus and his many young lovers among mortal women, or middle-aged Mr. Rochester and youthful Jane, or Othello and Desdemona, etc. etc. etc. The movie cynically betrays the power of this story, and of the stage musical built upon it, by choosing instead to be an action-packed costume drama of virile young rivals in love, dueling (literally) for the heart of a brainless waif.

Not surprisingly, the result is not worth the bother.

I went to see the stage Phantom about a dozen times over as many years, dropping in whenever my professional travels took me to a city with a production to see. Christine was a blank, with a few exceptions — some of the women playing the role overcame its static childishness by the weight of their voices and sheer force of character. Raoul was always a mere foil for the Phantom (though none as vapid as this movie Raoul, with his empty face and voice — compare Steve Barton, on the original cast recordings, whose strong, hearty tenor was a real alternative to Michael Crawford's wierd, high keening). But in the Phantom as portrayed on stage I saw an impressive display of variations despite Webber's attempts at rigid control.

I saw psychotic and bloodthirsty Phantoms, aching and driven ones, sarcastic and knowing ones, Phantoms concealing painful tenderness behind manic cruelty, sadly suave and sorrowful Phantoms, miserable prisoners of crippled personalities and bodies operating like half-broken clockwork — a surprising array of interpretations, given the limitations of being hired as, essentially, stand-ins for Michael Crawford and his interpretation. The role had dimensions, and these actors found and exploited them to the utmost.

In this film, Raoul is simply inadequate: a callow boy with a girlish voice. Raoul should be an impetuous young aristocrat, bluff and confident, not a nonentity. Emmy Rossom's Christine has a lovely voice, and she makes what she can of a role with no "there" there (Christine is entirely defined by the demands and expectations of the people around her). And the Phantom — well, Gerard Butler is better than my comments so far might suggest. His vocal interpretation is as good as those of some of the stage Phantoms I've seen, with a roughness and intensity that works pretty damned well.

But his efforts are undercut by the trimming away of the Phantom's stark rage and mad screams of pain and revenge, and by a make-up "deformity" that's hardly worthy of the word. If your subtext is the valorization of masculine pain, that pain had damned well better be seriously evident. Some of the stage Phantoms that I saw suggested a twisted spine and even the shadow of a limp, which enhanced the piteousness and horror of the character's predicament — and of Christine's perverse attraction to him — to great effect.

The movie team's stated concern about this, that if the Phantom were too deformed people wouldn't accept Christine's love for him, was deeply mistaken. The attraction is ostensibly to his musical and personal authority, and covertly and subconsciously to his "sexy father" persona. The man isn't supposed to be cute, he's supposed to be brilliant, charismatic, dominating, and clever enough to work the "daddy" angle (or angel) to his own advantage.

Christine, a child of the 19th century, is drawn to the older, authoritative male (who also happens to be that cultural hero of the time, a "Man of Genius") because she misses the protection and love of her dead father. That isn't incomprehensible to a modern audience; the dynamic is still pervasive and powerful in the modern world.

Personally I think that Butler could have done a very effective job even without that subterranean, cross-generational pull to work with — if only the stage Phantom's full physical dimensions (including some seriously handicapping deformity) had not been sacrificed to Schumacher's choice to go the young-beautiful-sexy route.

V: Stage and Screen

So: in my view, in this movie the music is flattened into an undistinguished soup of noise, the story is undercut by a dumbing down of crucial lyrics, the underlying and powerful emotional themes are canceled by the choice of a young and only mildly uglified Phantom, and — there's something else, something more nebulous but maybe more important than any of these factors.

Maybe stage presentation is just superior to film, for some material. On stage this story throbbed with the vitality of living bodies in motion, living voices, startling live stunts involving fire and explosions and thrilling, dangerous acrobatics, all tearing through the living moment on the force of unabashedly emotional music that punched right through the critical mind to the emotional gut. Scorn such an achievement if you must, but don't kid yourself that it's easy to do, or all that common either.

On film, everything is blurred and watered down to a vapid dullness that is in its own way astonishing: how could this rich, vibrant mix of music and romantic excess be so tamed, stifled under a syrupy glow as if under layers of yellow varnish, disjointed by empty visual tricks and trappings, that hardly anything of the stage show's power survives?

Look, the story is inherently preposterous — but the authority of the actors' physical presence on stage carried us, as audience, right over this problem. On film, there is no effective physicality, no personal risk being taken right in front of us, no daring in attempting such outsized, basically absurd material in your own person and in front of a theater full of people and forcing this stuff, by heroic effort, to transcend itself.

Besides, there's something about the screen — the selective mobility of the camera, the framed action, and the disjointedness of cutting and close-ups — that worked against this "Phantom" (I came across a review of "House of Flying Daggers" by Roger Ebert, who lauds the fact that large-scaled action scenes "are not broken down into jagged short cuts and incomprehensible foreground action", and that struck a chord).

Recall, if you saw a stage production, the first scene between Christine and the Phantom in his lair; she moves across large, physical space — space that we, the audience, share inside the theater — toward him, and we see the entire interaction, beginning to end, so we can feel its emotional meaning. On film, this scene is all close-ups and cuts back and forth, and the momentum and the meaning of each of her movements (and his) is erased. I'm thinking particularly of when he's seated with his back to her, playing his music; she creeps up behind him and snatches off his mask.

On stage, the actors' bodies' gestures, movements, relations to each other — the whole kinesthetic dimension — was crucial in conveying the interior story between the characters, precisely because, of course, we had no close-up facial expressions to do that for us. We only had their actions, seen in relation to each other (and, of course, their words and music).

The screen close-ups of the movie cast's faces are far less eloquent than the stage-actors' bodies were. It doesn't help, of course, that Christine is required to look wide-eyed and wonderstruck all the time, that the movie Raoul has a characterless face, and that the masked Phantom has the use of only half his face to act with most of the time. Not surprisingly, the dramatic choreography of bodies moving with and against each other in a defined space — a space that is all visible to us all of the time — is lost. This story's hot core of dramatic tension (the throbbing tangle of attraction and repulsion that builds between Christine and the Phantom) is toally lost with it.

Again, the final scene in the lair on stage took place while the pursuing mob was glimpsed on the stairs, coming closer and closer; this allowed the momentum of the lair-interaction itself (among Christine, the Phantom, and Raoul) to drive as one increasingly tense and high-pitched scene from beginning to end. The movie's frenetic cuts from the principles to the approaching mob dissipates the energy of both streams of action, and the result is busy and distracting just as the music is trying to impel everything forward to a crashingly dramatic conclusion.

I don't know enough about the craft of film to come up with better visual strategies to replace the authority of the physical presence and action of live actors on a stage; maybe it's no accident that most stage plays' screen adaptations have been failures. In this case we have an intimate story in stage space replaced by huge faces, or frames stuffed with gilt, spangles, and seething, jouncing mobs of people, with an occasional wider scene (the cemetery) soon intercut with close-ups again.

But let's recall that the original show was staged by Harold Prince, a genius in his field; largely because of him, a piece that could have been merely laughable romantic schlock became romantic schlock of mythic power and proportions. I think a film director of Prince's caliber could have translated his great staging into a magnificent and transporting movie. On the evidence, Joel Schumacher is no Harold Prince. Maybe it was too much to hope that Lloyd Webber would make the perfect choice of director not once, but twice.

And maybe, thanks to years of delay and his own diversion into many projects since, the composer was a bit too tired of his Phantom to be sufficiently vigilant. Wrong choices, uncorrected at the start and built upon layer after layer, acquire their own momentum. Beyond a certain point the only alternative is to scrap the whole thing and start over, but by then necessary resources are used up or committed elsewhere . . . this is how bad movies get made, after all.

Like this one.

There has got to be a way to do this story right on film; but this is not it.

VI: Remedy

Like other admirers of the show, I've been waiting a long time for this movie. The poor result is deeply disappointing and frustrating. I'd much rather have had a great film to rave about.

But I don't, and no amount of media hype or fannish enthusiasm can cancel what my own senses, reason, and memory tell me.

So here's what I advise: go and find a tape or a disc of the original stage show and listen to that (there's a tape of the Toronto cast, too, I think, which is also excellent — Rebecca Caine's Christine sounds like a young woman of enough substance to interest a critical, peculiar, demanding fellow like the Phantom). You'll get a far better sense (or reminder) of the powerhouse punch that the stage "Phantom" packed than you can by any number of viewings of this overblown, choppy, superficial travesty on film.

Better still, if you find yourself in a city where the stage show is still up — just New York, Minneapolis, and London as far as I'm aware — spend the money, go see it! Or go see it again.

*[My own version of the tale, "Beauty and the Opéra, or the Phantom Beast", currently appears in the collection "Stagestruck Vampires and Other Phantasms"; also see a trio of brief scenes, "Phantom Phragments", that arose from later musings on the story and are on this site for free viewing.]

SMC, 2005