Thursday, March 28, 2013

Reader's Diary #971- Gaston Leroux, translated by David Coward: The Phantom of the Opera

Perhaps it was the mention of Sherlock Holmes in the intro, but I found myself comparing Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera to Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Then again, I just read the latter back in February, so it was fresh in my head.

Not being at all familiar with the story beyond the title, I didn't know what to expect with The Phantom of the Opera. I had assumed a love story with a supernatural twist. That it was a bit of a mystery came as a pleasant surprise. Leroux toyed with the idea of the phantom being supernatural, somewhat teasing superstition with the promise of more logical causes and it reminded me of the monstrous hound in Doyle's work. The mystery wasn't so much about whether or not the legends were true, but how it was pulled off. But whereas Doyle's tale was told following Watson's discoveries, Leroux's story is told from a variety of perspectives, none really dominating the other, and I found myself like a greyhound chasing a rabbit around a track. Not that I was frustrated by the experience, I quite enjoy it when writers take such playful approaches with their readers. Leroux clearly had all the information I needed, but dished it out slowly and at his whim. That the story first came to life as a serial is not surprising. I would have subscribed to Le Galois, eagerly awaiting the next installment.

 I quite enjoyed the story, though for the first half of the book I felt a little offended that this would be another "damsel in distress" story. Christine Daaé, the damsel, comes across as so gullible that I could hardly see what Raoul saw in her. She's a superstitious twit, I thought, let the Phantom have her. But later on, Leroux gives her a bit more of a backbone, and a back story. We see that she's not so much stupid as she is emotionally distraught. I'm far more forgiving of that. The smartest person in the world— man or woman— is entitled to a mistake now and then, especially when it's the result of emotional trauma.

I was incredibly fortunate to finish the book on the plane on the way to New York*, where I took in the musical that very same night. It was wonderful to compare the two, with the book so fresh in my mind. I enjoyed the musical, quite a bit. Perhaps more than Debbie. We both agreed that the music was great, but she was put off a bit by the fact that all the dialogue was sung. In the other shows that we took in (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Bunnicula, and Wicked), this was not the case. I thought it was actually easier to suspend my belief with The Phantom. Everyone singing all the time seemed somehow less weird than people just suddenly breaking into song. As for differences from the book, the chronology was changed somewhat and some characters were amalgamated into one, but significant events were still there and the love triangle was in tact. One thing the stage production fell short on for me, however, was the magic. I loved reading about Erik's, the Phantom's disembodied voice, the elaborate tunnels and traps he'd devised, and so on. Reading the book, I felt like an 8 year old boy again, fascinated by secret passageways and booby-traps, and while some of that was hinted at in the stage production the phantom's trickery felt rushed through (despite the fact that the running time is 2 and a half hours). Still, I enjoyed it a great deal. I can see why it's the longest running show in Broadway history.

 (*For more of my New York trip and to see some of my photos, follow me on Twitter!)

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