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Why Hollywood Keeps Adapting The Phantom of the Opera

Collider 9/24/2022 Rhianna Malas
© Provided by Collider

Last week, it was announced that The Phantom of the Opera would be closing on Broadway on the 18th of February 2023, after a record-breaking 35-year run. This news has split the theater community. Some are mourning the end of an era. Others are thankful that Broadway is evolving past an outdated show. Then there are those of us don't lean either way because they've never been near Broadway and likely never will. There is no denying the impact that Phantom has had on people, from titans of the industry to some sad teenaged girl who, years later, is now writing this article.

However, this story is far more than one 1988 musical. Inspired by the true story of a concierge's tragic death to a falling counterweight in the Palais Garnier in 1896, writer Gaston Leroux created his seminal work: Le Fantôme de l'Opéra in 1910. Adapting the story by elevating the stakes, exaggerating the drama and introducing Erik, the Phantom, one of the most iconic characters in fiction.

What Is The Phantom of the Opera About?

This is where we find the baseline of every Phantom adaptation worth noting. A deformed, mistreated, and unstable man lives beneath an Opera House, becoming its in-house superstition. An incredibly gifted musician, he spends his time composing his magnum opus and becoming a music teacher for an up-and-coming soprano, who he is madly in love and obsessed with. The soprano falls in love with a childhood friend, which he does not take very well, and it all culminates in a dramatic confrontation where, for the first time, the Phantom is shown the compassion he has been deprived of his whole, tortured life and decides to let the soprano go, usually dying shortly after. The faces, names, and causes of deformities change but that plot, more or less, remains the same.

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Originally written as a mystery novel, the story is now an icon of gothic melodrama and is up there with Dracula and Sherlock Holmes as one of the most adapted stories of all time. Dozens of films, novels and theatrical productions have played off the baseline of a surprisingly intriguing little penny dreadful, and if you look close enough, The Phantom of the Opera draws a timeline of cinema history.

1925's Phantom of the Opera Predates Many Well-known Monster Movies

We all know the rogues' gallery of universal horror movies, the head honchos of the golden age. Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But there is one that predates them all, one that made its stand in horror twice during early cinema, but is usually kept on the B-Team, and left out of most of the merchandising.

1925's The Phantom of the Opera, starring famed acting chameleon Lon Chaney, is a classic of silent cinema and the most accurate adaptation of the original novel. Sitting neatly in the dark expressionism of silent horrors but with that Universal polish. Chaney's brilliant physical acting and iconic deformity makes him vanish into the role of Erik, he very deeply cared about this role, heavily protesting the pitchforks and torches of the films' ending. When looking at the film, it almost looks like a bridge between silent cinema and the universal horror, sharing common ground with both Nosferatu and Dracula. Chaney's disfigured face in this film, crafted to look like a corpse as in the novel, terrified people back in the day, and is still pretty unnerving now, and though Chaney didn't live to see the rise of the talkies, his magnum opus lives on.

In 1943, the Phantom Took a Completely Different Aesthetic Turn

This film, starring Claude Rains, has less in common with the other Universal horror films and more with the glamorous period spectacles of the 1940s and 50s. Public acclaim was now with films such as Gone With The Wind, and that's the style it emulates. As horror films mostly remained in black and white throughout most of the 1940s, this film is in glorious technicolor, with sweeping sets, a diminished disfigurement on Rains, and a generally more romantic feel than many horror films at the time. While people were certainly confused by this dramatic change in tone at first, they came to love it as its own musical drama with an incredible score.

Both of these films have the same distributor in Universal Pictures, but their differences are like night and day, both showing that they understand the deep melodrama and intrigue of the story while missing the nuance of the tragic villain. The bad guy must suffer horrifically for his actions, killed by either angry mob or falling rocks, it was just how things were. But it certainly shows the two angles which the story can be seen, is it a darkly romantic drama or a horror-mystery? The Phantom of the Opera continues to walk that knife's edge into the rest of the 20th century.

From Hammers to Slashers

The British invaded more than just in music in the mid-20th century. Starting in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Film Productions were the hottest thing in horror due to its high gothic horror mixed with blood and sexuality not seen in American horror. Originally slated for Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom plays The Phantom in 1962's The Phantom of the Opera, a surprisingly sedate and tasteful take on the story. It's not well-loved or well remembered, though by no means is it a bad film, the story is rather intriguing and there are certainly notes of it that are carried on into the future. There isn't the spurts of blood Hammer became known for, that will have to wait until 1989.

The next and, as of this moment, last time The Phantom of the Opera is categorized as a horror was in 1989, when Robert Englund, Freddy Kruger himself played Erik Destler in a kind of obscure slasher movie. Taking notes from Faust, which is one of may fun allusions to the original novel in this movie, Erik is now a man in a bargain with the devil, which causes his face to disgustingly rot and decompose, making masks from human skin, it had to happen sometime. This is an appropriately blood soaked version of the story as Erik takes on a Faustian Jack the Ripper role, and it's the very last time he is the straight-up villain of a story, with Christine, his muse, being The Final Girl.

Christine Daae is something of an early final girl, though her character can change dramatically between interpretations, she's always the ingénue obsession of the murderer, but also the one saving the day either through compassion or wits.

The 1962 version was both a classic hammer horror and a historical gothic fiction, though not as well received as the ones starring Cushing and Lee. The 1989 adaptation, on the other hand, was a late 80s slasher at its core, with disposable jerks being killed left and right and a supernatural backstory on similar veins to the Freddy and Jason sequels. Since the Dark Universe has been put on an indefinite hold, we may never see another horror version of The Phantom of the Opera. But just between these two films is a movie that shows us a completely different evolution.

With the Rise of Musicals Came The Phantom of the Paradise

The Phantom of the Paradise, directed by Brian De Palma with music by Paul Williams, was one of the cult shots in the arm that revitalized the musical movie after a string of flops. Sitting among giants such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, more than anything Universal, Hammer or 21st Century film made, this predicted the course of the Phantom for decades to come. It is an over-the-top, fantastical camp musical long before the next over-the-top, fantastical camp musical that Andrew Lloyd Webber would soon create. The Phantom, now named Winslow Leach (William Finley), is now the tragic, but still murderous, hero up against villainous music producer Swan (Williams). The element of it being a musical, and the phantom being more of a protagonist and less of a monster, is something that would continue into the 80s and 90s.

In the 90s, The Phantom Becomes a Serious Romantic Drama

The first adaptation that was a more serious romantic drama was a 1990 miniseries, made in conjunction with the 1991 musical written by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit and starring Charles Dance (yes, Tywin Lannister), that is the only one filmed at the real Palais Garnier in Paris. It showed The Phantom and Christine's relationship in a more wholesome and honest way, at least at first, he still tries to kidnap her, and Erik is viewed in an incredibly sympathetic and even humorous light. While the miniseries and the musical both have a lot of charm and sincerity to them, there's one musical, one film, that completely overshadows them.

A film of Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash hit of a musical had been in the works ever since the original cast were still performing in 1989, and lasted long enough that the original cast was no longer available to play the roles. Warner Bros. gave Webber total artistic control over the film, and he gave Joel Schumacher the director's chair. Casting changed hands a lot due to scheduling conflicts of potential actors, but the role of Christine was eventually given to a 16-year-old Emmy Rossum, and the role of The Phantom was given to a musically inexperienced Gerard Butler. This film takes a lot from the grand period pieces of the late 90s and the early 2000s such as Titanic, and rode the wave of the 2000s musical movie revival. It splits audiences hard to this day, people either loving it or loathing it as either a deeply romantic and lush adaptation of the original or as an overblown, inappropriately cast mess.

The Phantom of the Opera's History Parallels that of Film Itself

It is clear to see that each adaptation is like a little pinpoint in the history of film, horror and musicals, a roadmap from silent cinema to high budget spectaculars, every thing is influenced by something else, so by looking at how the same story is told we can track how the medium of cinema has changed and evolved, it's fascinating to see how the same story can turn from a 60s brit-horror gothic, to a 70s cult musical, to a 80s slasher movie.

Since 2004, no one in the mainstream has released a new adaptation of Leroux's novel. In some ways I can see why, it has a lot of pitfalls that don't play well in the modern day, but there's so much of it not examined by those who came before. There are so many talented, creative people in the fandom have made this story their own through art, web-comics and online series. Talented, creative people that this story means the world to, which truly is the beauty of the public domain, having the freedom to do that.

The Phantom of the Opera endures, and will endure through the Broadway musical closing, because it is one of the most intriguing stories ever put to page or screen. A gem that can show a new image at every angle you look through it; it can be the story of a young woman escaping the grasp of a manipulative mentor figure, or of a deeply damaged person being shown compassion for the first time and is finally able to emotionally develop beyond trauma, or of a good old-fashioned mystery, a Faustian bargain, a revenge story, a love triangle, a melodrama, and a horror movie.

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