Just another hunch Preview: TNT's 'The Hunchback' blends in with Hollywood's many other deformed faces in the crowd.

March 15, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

A good story's a good story, which explains why TNT's "The Hunchback" makes for an enjoyable two hours.

But Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is a great story, full of sex and violence and pathos and parties and religion and tolling bells and did I mention sex and violence?

So why isn't "The Hunchback," which premieres at 8 p.m. tomorrow (with repeats at 10 p.m. and midnight), better than good?

Probably because the story has been adapted to the screen so many times, and done so well. Pity poor Mandy Patinkin, whose Quasimodo follows in the esteemed footsteps of Lon Chaney (who starred in the 1923 silent version), Charles Laughton (whose 1939 take on the role was definitive), Anthony Quinn (in a generally panned 1957 Technicolor extravaganza) and Anthony Hopkins (on TV, in 1982). Even Walt Disney took a stab at it, with Tom Hulce serving as the voice of Quasimodo in last year's animated version.

For the few of you out there who may not know the story: Set in the early Renaissance (the printing press has only recently been invented), the story opens in front of Paris' Cathedral of Notre Dame. The city's gypsy population is throwing itself a party, with the featured attraction a smoldering dance by Esmeralda, a young woman whose innocent eroticism attracts two men with widely differing objectives.

Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer who's lived his life in the shadows, away from prying eyes, has never seen anything so beautiful; he regards Esmeralda as a treasure to be admired from afar. His intentions are pure; those of Dom Frollo, the imperious head of the church, are not. One look at her dance, and he can't get Esmeralda out of his mind; even self-flagellation doesn't help. He wants her, and what he plans to do with her is anything but holy.

Those desires, of course, lead to tragedy: Esmeralda ends up charged with murdering one of the king of France's advisers, and her only hope for salvation lies in submitting to Dom Frollo. That is, until Quasimodo swings by (literally) and escapes with her into the cathedral, where she is safe even from the king (Laughton's cries of "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" are a staple of movie greatest-hits packages).

Which puts Frollo in a ticklish spot: Now, he's both protector and perverter, the man whose church is obligated to protect Esmeralda, while he himself has something else in mind. There's also an intriguing subplot, which "The Hunchback" does a nice job of portraying: Dom Frollo, one of literature's classic villains, is almost as obsessed with keeping knowledge out of the hands of the people (the printing press, he insists, was created in hell) as he is with Esmeralda.

There's plenty of potential here for greatness, including a stellar cast. But only Richard Harris as Frollo lives up to his billing, playing the doomed holy man with shaved head, bony fingers and a face that looks like it hasn't seen daylight for a few decades. Harris' Dom Frollo is one depraved guy, and you don't doubt for a minute that he means to carry out every murderous, lecherous thought.

As for the film's failures, there's enough blame to go around. Patinkin, one of the most charismatic actors around, can't overcome the body-mangling make-up that produces Quasimodo's familiar hump or gargoyle-like countenance. The screenplay, by John Fasano, like most of its predecessors, wimps out and fails to retain the tragic ending Hugo envisioned.

And the radiant Selma Hayek, though undeniably beautiful, fails to make her Esmeralda smolder; she's more appealing than alluring -- the kind of gal who might make Dom Frollo think, "My, how attractive," but not, "So much for that vow of celibacy."

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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