Quasimodo rings: The din goes 'round and 'round

July 21, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- There's a tremendous intellectual debate raging right now about the Disney people's cartoon version of ''The Hunchback of Notre Dame,'' and trying to follow it can make a person feel a little like a cartoon character himself, a spectator at a sort of madcap tennis game.

First, Disney serves up ''Hunchback'' as fare for adults in kiddie camouflage, which is exactly the way McDonalds offered us the Arch Deluxe. At last, the creators of Mickey and Donald seem to be saying, grown-ups can send the children to bed and enjoy a cartoon movie themselves without feeling mildly creepy about it.

That's because, animated or not, this is Victor Hugo. What we're seeing here is a Great Book, a Famous Work of Literature, originally written in the French Language. And that made sense to me. I had never read ''Hunchback,'' except for the Classic Comic version, and this seemed a harmless way to catch up with everyone who had.

Before I could even check the movie listings, the returns started flying by. Lots of critics said that instead of making M. Hugo's novel more accessible to the masses, Disney has cheapened it.

James Bowman in the Weekly Standard, whose work I've always respected, went even farther. He said ''Hunchback'' wasn't just trashy, it was evil. He wrote that it was a deliberate, insidious assault on Christian values, and a propaganda vehicle for Hollywood secular-think. Gosh, I thought, I guess I don't want to see it after all.

Then the other evening Irna was reading me a piece in the Washington Post. Reporter Pamela Constable wrote movingly about seeing the film with ''several young children of Central American immigrants,'' who were awed and mesmerized by the film's images, both its characters and its majestic cathedral.

''They are children,'' she wrote, ''like millions of others in this country today. They spend their evening watching trash TV or playing Nintendo while their parents work. . . . They know the words to a dozen rap songs and fast-food jingles by heart, but they have never heard of Victor Hugo, and they will probably never see Paris.''

She came out of the theater, she said, feeling uplifted, and concluded that with ''Hunchback,'' overhauled and prettied up though it may be, Disney has done something truly worthwhile. Sure, the story had been drastically altered, but ''how important is literary accuracy in a product whose theme is tolerance and compassion, wrapped in an appealing, snappy package?'' As for the elitist ''literary gatekeepers'' who want to keep the peasantry out of their preserve, the hell with them, and three cheers for Disney's happy, animated Quasimodo.

Starry-eyed children

It was a well-written and highly personal essay. I was touched and wished I'd been there to watch Ms. Constable's group of starry-eyed children watch the movie.

''What do you think of that?'' Irna asked, when she finished reading the article.

''She makes a good point,'' I said, a little dizzy from having my mind changed so completely. ''It's certainly better for the kids to see a Victor Hugo cartoon than it would be to stay home and play more Nintendo.''

But Irna, an immigrant's daughter with no patience at all for intellectual fads, wasn't having any of that. She said she didn't think it was a good point at all. It's just what all the dumbing-down advocates of eviscerating school curricula always claim, she said, and it's offensive.

What's important isn't so much that what the Disney people have done desecrates literature, she said. What's truly important is that it insults the audience. Providing adulterated Victor Hugo in Donald Duck format is condescending, and implicitly accepts Ms. Constable's premise that a cartoon is as close as they'll ever come to Victor Hugo.

But there are still libraries, even in Marion Barry's sacked and prostrate Washington, Irna went on. Hugo's books can be found there. Kids used to check them out and read them; a few kids probably still do. Why should the world, or the Disney people, operate on the assumption that just because children are poor, they can't or won't do serious reading?

And, intellectual wimp that I am, I found myself once again spinning around 180 degrees to agree with her. On this issue, my position seems distressingly like that of the last person I talked to. Or maybe both sides really do have a point. Columnists hate it when that happens.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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