“If I am the phantom, it is because man's hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me.”
In 1910, French writer Gaston Leroux published a novel that drew from his time covering the Paris Opera as a reporter. Based on actual historical events at the opera, his story would go on to be the basis for many adaptations. The story was finally immortalized by the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical which is the longest running musical in Broadway history.
In the light and glitter of 19th century Paris, the Paris Opera has come under new management. The managers are told of a phantom who haunts the opera and demands payments, a private box, and other things in exchange for keeping the opera safe from himself. The new managers scoff at such a notion and begin to ignore the Phantom's wishes one by one. It isn't long before mysterious things begin to happen in the vast opera house.
One of these is the rapid rise to stardom of a chorus girl named Christine Daae. She is convinced that her dead father has sent the "Angel of Music" to help teach her as he once promised. She becomes reacquainted with her childhood friend, Raoul, and tells him of her "angel" expressing both intense fear for it as well as passion. Raoul is convinced that Christine is being held against her will in the power of an all too real man, and he sets out to discover the true identity of his rival.
My Review (Caution - Spoilers):
Like most people, I first became aware of this story through the famous musical. I like many aspects of the musical, though there is an element to Erik's obsession with Christine that is a little too creepy for me. Still, I knew that many fans liked the book so I thought I would give it a try.
My overall opinion? I wasn't too impressed. This is a tricky story and I only see a couple of ways to really make it work. The first is to read it as a sensation story. Leroux's original readers would have been familiar with the historical context of the novel, and it obvious the Leroux was playing this up for sensation. The whole story is played out like a mystery, as the identity and methods of the Phantom are slowly revealed. You can certainly see the elements of Leroux's other writings which included detective fiction and "locked room" mysteries. This is all well and good if you are new to the story. Unfortunately, most of today's readers are not. There is very little room for discovery and surprise since we already know the Phantom's identity, past, motivations, and his fate. This takes a lot of the "sensation" out of the story.
The other way to make this work is to fill the story with something other than sensation...something like pity. The reason the musical connects to so many people is that it does a good job of making you feel a strong amount of pity for the Phantom. He is turned into this romantic anti-hero who needs only the love of a woman to make him a good man. The book fails to do this. Because Leroux is setting up an atmosphere of horror and suspense, he tends to play up the dark side of the Phantom. Though there are small shots of sympathy here and there, we are never allowed to see things from the Phantom's point of view so it is difficult to see beyond his actions and his ugliness.
If you are a huge fan of the musical, then you will probably want to read this for more background and context. For everyone else who may be a casual fan (or not one at all). I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it. It just didn't excite me very much.
I have seen two versions of this story. One is the 2011 live production of the musical at the Royal Albert Hall starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess. I liked this production and it was nice to have the opportunity to see the actual musical.
The other is the 2004 film version starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. I didn't hate it, but it didn't really become a favorite either. The one decent aspect was Gerard Butler...didn't mind having him sing to me for a couple of hours!