The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939 film)

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Theatrical poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay by Sonya Levien
Bruno Frank
Based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame 
by Victor Hugo
Starring Charles Laughton
Maureen O'Hara
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Thomas Mitchell
Edmond O'Brien
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Edited by William Hamilton
Robert Wise
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • December 29, 1939 (1939-12-29)
Running time
116 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,826,000[1]
Box office $3,155,000[1]

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 1939 American film starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda.[2][3] Directed by William Dieterle and produced by Pandro S. Berman, the film was based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel and was a remake of the more famous 1923 silent film version starring Lon Chaney.

For this production RKO Radio Pictures built on their movie ranch a massive medieval city of Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the largest and most extravagant sets ever constructed.

Differences between the film and the novel[edit]

The plot differs considerably from that of the original novel.

  • One of the main differences is that Esmeralda and Quasimodo remain alive at the end, unlike in the novel, in which Esmeralda is hanged and Quasimodo is presumed dead, but two years later a hunchback skeleton is found at her grave site.
  • The characters of Claude Frollo and Jehan Frollo are changed as in the 1923 film: instead of being the bad archdeacon as in the novel, Claude is a good archdeacon, and his original position as a villain was given to his younger brother, Jehan, who was a drunken student in the novel and again portrayed as an older man instead of a teenager. In this film, however, Jehan is portrayed as King Louis XI's Chief Justice of Paris. He is also a close advisor of the King, while in the novel they don't know each other at all.
  • Jehan's death was portrayed close to his older brother's original one, but a major difference is that in the novel Claude was watching Esmeralda's execution when Quasimodo killed him.
  • The personal history of Esmeralda is ignored by the film. In the novel, it is revealed that she was not born as a gypsy and her mother is a recluse in Paris. In the film she is born as a gypsy, and her mother is not portrayed and neither is her background.
  • In the film, Jehan, being the Chief Justice of Paris, has the power to persecute gypsies.
  • Another thing that does not appear in the original novel but in the film is that Esmeralda is able to pray to the Virgin Mary in Notre Dame for the help of the Gypsies before Jehan comes and confronts her. At this point she also asks King Louis XI to help her people.
  • Also, unlike the novel version, but much like the 1923 film version, Esmeralda is invited by the nobles to their party.
  • There is one scene during the nobles' party, in which Jehan confesses to Esmeralda his lust for her, whereas in the novel Claude does so at Esmeralda's prison before her execution, and unlike the novel, Gringoire visits Esmeralda in her prison cell to console her after Phoebus' death.
  • The moment shared between Captain Phoebus and Esmeralda also takes place during the nobles' party in the film rather than in a room. Phoebus who is only wounded by Claude in the novel, is killed by Jehan in this film version; therefore, as in the novel, Esmeralda is wrongly accused for the crime, but her attraction for Phoebus is not explored by the film after the incident.
  • Another difference is that Jehan confesses his crime to his brother Claude (and later to King Louis XI), and he is the one who is in charge of Esmeralda's trial and sentences her to death.
  • In the film, Gringoire writes a pamphlet that will prevent Notre Dame's right of sanctuary from being taken away by the nobles in order to save Esmeralda from hanging.
  • At the end of the film, Esmeralda is pardoned and freed from hanging (her Gypsy people are also finally freed), and then leaves with Pierre Gringoire and a huge crowd out of the public square. In the novel, Gringoire left Esmeralda with Claude Frollo capturing her and saves her goat instead, resulting in Esmeralda's death.
  • The film also makes it clear that in the end Esmeralda truly loves Gringoire, whereas in the novel she merely tolerates him.



The film strongly influenced Disney's 1996 animated film version of the story,[citation needed] which borrowed several of its ideas.

Award nominations[edit]

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards:[4]


The movie was very popular but because of its cost only made a profit of $100,000.[1]

E. H. Harvey of The Harvard Crimson said that the film "in all is more than entertaining." He said that "the mediocre effects offer a forceful contrast to the great moments" in the film.[5]

Home video[edit]

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released on DVD on January 6, 1998.


  1. ^ a b c Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p56
  2. ^ Variety film review; December 20, 1939, page 14.
  3. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; December 23, 1939, page 202.
  4. ^ "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-12. 
  5. ^ Harvey, E. H. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The Harvard Crimson. Wednesday December 16, 1953. Retrieved on February 20, 2010.

External links[edit]