Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review - The Phantom of the Opera

My prior exposure to The Phantom of the Opera is almost exclusively tied to the Broadway Musical (or the movie musical adaptation of the Broadway play). Apart from that, all I knew about the Phantom came from random references in Scooby Doo or other peripherally related media. Thus I wasn't at all surprised to find the book have significant differences from what I know of the Phantom. Still, I felt a general sense of familiarity to the story and could envision many of the scenes…probably my biggest struggle was to stop internally singing songs from the play as I read the book.

As was the case of many of the novels of the time, this book includes significant commentary from the author as he emphasizes that this is a true story that he has happened upon and researched over time. The author assures us that he has personally vetted out the claims of the research materials he has used and that he has personally investigated the locations of the story. This technique always strikes me as a little interesting and makes me laugh a little at the mindset of novelists and readers of a century ago.

In spite of the fact that this story is certainly a work of fiction, it is very evident that Leroux conducted at least a moderate degree of research. At the very least, he had a great knowledge of the layout, look and feel of the Paris Opera House. The edition I read included an article in the appendix from a historian who commented on the attention to detail and accuracy. The article commented on the nature of the descriptions of the Opera House in the book as compared with reality. It indicated that there was certain literary license in some areas of the description (particularly with regards to some of the secret passages and such), but for the most part the book presented a true and accurate representation of the Opera House and could serve as a valid reference.

Apart from the accuracy of the descriptions, I found the descriptive nature of the text very engaging but not overly so. I wasn't distracted from the descriptions, but I felt like I had a vivid feel for the Opera House (and other locales) and could truly envision the scenes presented. The characters felt a little stereotypical and predictable to me…though part of that could be due to my knowledge of the story as well as the fact that this story is a century old and perhaps when it initially came out, the characters were more unique than they are today.

For those who have seen or are familiar with the Broadway play, you'll be familiar with a lot of the general aspects of the story. I can't speak to other film versions of the story. There are quite a few significant differences in the story as well. Probably the biggest difference is that there are many more scenes that happen away from the Opera House. In the play, we go up on the roof at one point and I believe the graveyard scene is supposed to happen away from the Opera House (it's been a while since I saw the play…and my memory is unclear).

In the book, we also find out where Raul and his brother live. We find out where Christine grew up and lives away from the Opera House. We wander the streets around the city. There's more backstory given to Christine as well as to her earlier interaction with Raul. We hear the folk story around the "Angel of Music" and understand even more why he is so enticing to her. All of these elements helped enrich the book and will certainly throw some interesting light on the play.

Where things got a little weird for me in the book was in the character of the Phantom as well as a character not in the play…the Persian. We get an interesting back story on the Phantom's life prior to coming to the Paris Opera House. This story is intriguing though I think a lot of my interest was more in the way the story was laid out. Rather than giving you the whole story at once, which could have been done easily enough, we get hints and allegations throughout that allude to the Phantom having previously "haunted" another large building in similar ways. This was an interesting revelation to me.

What was fun though was not only learning more and more about the Phantom (who is given a name in the book…but I'll leave readers to find that out as they read on their own) but also learning about the kingdom he'd built in the Opera House. As a contractor helping work on the construction of the Opera House, he had full access to all the nooks and crannies of the building and was able to make his own modifications as well. Once the construction was finished, he simply stayed behind and continued building his fortress. In addition to the trap doors and secret passageways, the Phantom was a sort of technological illusionist and had built a number of very complex rooms and areas with devious intent.

There's a scene near the end of the book where we learn of a room called the Torture Chamber. We stumble into the room (along with other characters) in the dark and it's a while before we fully learn the workings of the room. Initially I envisioned a room with Medieval torture devices…a Rack, a Wheel, an Iron Maiden, Knee Splitters, Cats Paws, and others. Instead the room was a sort of "Sensory Illusion" or "Sensory Overload" chamber. By using light, mirrors, sound recordings, image projection, environmental control (hot/cold/etc) and quickly changing "set pieces" moving in and out, the Phantom used the room to conduct psychological torture on his victims by sending them "virtually" into a variety of locations specially organized to drive a person insane.

The concept of this actually being torturous seemed laughable as I read it. However, as you think back to the late 19th and early 20th century when this sort of "magic" was inconceivable, I suppose it is more likely to consider that a person may be driven insane by creative manipulation of their environment. After all, there are reports of audience members being terrified as they watched an early "movie" of a train barreling towards the screen…many jumped out of the way. So even though we know/imagine these effects aren't 100% realistic, when we consider no other basis for evaluation, it could have been terrifying.

The Phantom is one of those paradoxical characters…we are made to both pity him and to fear him. He is a misshapen, grotesque misunderstood human being who has been shunned and despised all his life and as a result turned into a recluse. On the flip side, he also took advantage of his reclusive moments to frighten, torture and murder people who got too close to his personal kingdom. While he's very smart, his moral logic was very young and fraught with the childish snap judgements and vengeful ideas that you might hear in a playground argument.

When it becomes evident to him that Christine will not likely opt to love him and be his bride, his moral logic gets all the more desperate and he turns to a "if I can't have her, nobody will" mentality. The Phantom gives Christine two choices, in the figures of a scorpion and a grasshopper. He explains that she must either choose to love him, or she and everyone else will die. Turning the scorpion or the grasshopper invokes one of the Phantoms inventions. Once again, the confrontation in this moment felt a little silly but the mechanisms involved did create serious tension…especially when it became clear that either choice has catastrophic consequences in Christine's life (the extent of the "good" choice also being bad isn't crystal clear to her but as a reader, we can quickly deduce what will happen with each choice…in either case, someone is meant to die).

The Phantom's Lake
by Les Edwards
As the story draws to its conclusion, the Phantom grows more and more pitiable but never forgivable (since he never exhibits any true remorse or responsibility for his actions). I think in these final chapters/pages, we are meant to be drawn in by his anguish and feel some sort of compassion on him. I can say that I did feel bad about his situation, but he still was certainly not a lovable character. By the same token, I didn't feel that much love for the other love interest (Raul) as he felt like a stereotypical hero…rather flat and predictable. Still, he had redeemable qualities.

Overall, I'm glad to have read this classic novel. It's an interesting view into literature and life in the late 19th and early 20th century. The scenes, characters, and descriptions are all well-crafted and very vivid. There are a number of scenes that were a little dry and more boring than informative, but they were easy enough to skim by. I didn't feel the sense of horror and fear that this book may have created when first released, but if I put on the mystical goggles of the early 20th century, I can appreciate the form and function of the plot devices and see how this could have been terrifying to readers. In some way, this story and the way it's presented reminds me of some of the crime dramas on TV these days…insofar as we are not only told the story of kidnapping and murder in a prominent location, but that we also get to see the psychological element of the Phantom and how he became what he is.

While it seems to hold up generally over time, the sometimes slower pace and the outrageous plot devices may be a little hard to swallow for many modern readers. But if you have interest in "classic literature" at all, or in the workings of early 1900s Paris, this will likely be an interesting read for you. Otherwise, you may want to stick with the Broadway play or movie.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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