Variety’s report on Wednesday that Zhang Yimou is in talks with Warner Bros. to direct “Quasimodo” triggered many follow-up pieces expressing excitement that the Chinese visual stylist would be making his Hollywood debut with a likely tentpole.
However, as Entertainment Weekly twigged in June 2011 when Tim Burton was considering the job, the main reason the project raises eyebrows is that Josh Brolin is attached to play the title role. It was Brolin, in fact, who pitched this latest adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to the studio.
Brolin has shown before that he’s not averse to undermining his all-American handsomeness. Pronouncing his jaw as Tom Chaney, the main villain in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 “True Grit,” gave him a distinctly cretinous, inbred appearance. (The good-looking British actor Dominic West did something similarly troglodytic playing a real-life serial killer in ITV’s 2011 “Appropriate Adult.”)
It’s hard to imagine Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp, for all his flamboyant caricaturing, tousling their beauty to play a hunchback formerly incarnated as a grotesque by Lon Chaney (1923), Charles Laughton (1939), Anthony Quinn (1956), and Mandy Patinkin (1997).
But this raises the question of how far Brolin is prepared to go. In the novel, Quasimodo’s ugliness is the source of his hermit-like existence and the foil to both his tenderness and Esmerlda’s beauty. Were a hint of attraction to replace the pity she feels for the hunchback, the psychological and sociological meanings of the story would be jeopardized. Only Hollywood insiders know at this point if the movie’s screenwriters, Kieran and Michele Mulroney, have reimagined the relationship between Hugo’s beauty and beast.
Why should this matter? In the last quarter of a century, Hollywood’s broad retooling and manipulation of popular fictional or mythical characters – among them two Robin Hoods, the John Silver of “Treasure Planet,” Willy Wonka, King Arthur and Guinevere, Alice, and the Lone Ranger – has diluted their power. The contemporary taste for excessive stylization (manifested, for example, in plastic environments and high-velocity traveling shots shown from an omniscient perspective) and smug or cynical humor has also contributed to the crisis in American movie storytelling derived from classic sources.
Including television, there have been a few successes in the historical action-adventure or storybook field (Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” the BBC’s “Ivanhoe,” Peter Weir’s “Master and Commander,” ITV’s “Hornblower” series, P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan”) and some conscientious misfires (Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Frankenstein”).
Obviously, the literal-minded style that prevailed in Hollywood from the 1920s through the 1950s (resulting in as many cardboard dramas as vivid fantasies) wouldn’t work today. But unless there’s a reaction to the perfuming of characters and the hyperbolizing of narratives and their settings, this kind of cinema may be permanently maimed. A hideous Quasimodo for whom Esmerelda feels sorrow, warmth, and gratitude, but nothing more than Platonic love, might be a step in the right direction. Josh Brolin, it’s up to you.