Victor Hugo & The Man Who Laughs graphic novel

I think Victor Hugo’s novels are always going to be tricky to adapt. And probably on every level, from the reason why a lot of people enjoy them to how both casual readers and those adapting these books read them. Which may be the root of the conundrum: how exactly to read Hugo.

One of the major obstacles on that front is how and where he’s been classified in the history of world literature. Hugo was contemporary with Alexandre Dumas and Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand and is intuitively grouped with the French Romantics, yet in some ways his work is quite at home in more modern, experimental conventions. There are a few incidental reasons why a modern reader might detect a certain psychedelic flourish that we shouldn’t get too caught up with, such as the divided eighteenth century European literary trends of hyper-realism and florid, unbound subjectivity. On one hand there were socially and politically grounded artists who saw the living pressures of society as their foremost responsibility, on the other, there were those who thought the exclusive province of art was the internal life.
It makes sense that Victor Hugo would be fully aware and involved in the contemporary passions of his day and, while many writers, painters and composers would choose a side and stay there, the fact that Hugo would alternate between the two shouldn’t surprise us that much. There is another aspect of his writing, though, that I think could potentially place him close to the likes of William S. Burroughs, Mark Z. Danielewski or even modern graphic novelists. This was Victor Hugo’s inclusion of the sensibility of visual, three-dimensional mediums such as painting and architecture into his novels.

Obviously, Notre de Dame de Paris (known to the English speaking world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is a glaring example of this and in many ways can be read as a sort of key to the rest of Hugo’s novels. While Hugo was a meticulous literary craftsman and researcher and very concerned with things working appropriately in their context, his work is far from being traditionally linear. Many of his novels begin with orienting our view of events as readers rather than orienting the characters themselves. Notre Dame de Paris starts with Pierre Gringoire and Jehan Frollo, who do not participate in the events that drive the plot so much as they witness them. And they usually witness the story around them without understanding much, if anything, of what is happening around them. Les Miserables begins with Charles-Francois Myriel, the Bishop of Digne and an outline of the events that led him to believe the things that he does before meeting Jean Valjean. We even get more than a few indications from these chapters about the scope Hugo projected for Les Miserables: Myriel came from a noble family and, as a young man, he had a zest for pleasure seeking. An unspecified trauma related to the French revolution destroyed his appetite for libertinage and he dedicated himself to a life of ascetic spirituality. A chance encounter with Napolean led to him being appointed Bishop of Digne. Most memorably, one of Myriel’s first visits to someone suffering on their death bed was an elderly member of a revolutionary government. Set as the story is after the restoration of the French monarchy, this old exile is “little better than a monster”. This encounter rocks Bishop Myriel to his core and it’s the last really personal glimpse we have of him before we see him in the company of Valjean. While the rest of Les Miserables is largely bound by a plot, we get an attitude toward a period in the history of France along with meditations on the role of religion, capitol punishment and death. At the beginning of Quatre-vingt treize, we meet the mother of the two small children that accompany us throughout the novel before we meet Cimourdaine, Lantenac or Gauvaine.

L’homme qui rit, or The Man Who Laughs, is no different on this front. Before we have a proper encounter with Gwynplaine we get two Preliminary Chapters. One shows us the inside of Ursus’ cart where he lives with Homo the wolf, covered in lineages and careers of the families of the British Peerage. The other is an exhaustive break down of the history of the fictional Comprachicos, Spanish nomads with their own unique Creole tongue, fiercely loyal to the Catholic Church, who have traditionally practiced and maintained the art of mutilating and crafting children from a young age to grow into marketable curiosities. Within this practice there are different disciplines and arts that bear the stamp of specific individuals or schools of practice. One we learn about in short order is masca ridens, the laughing mask, a hallmark of the work of a Doctor Conquest and his heir Hardquanonne. Another literary device we see in L’homme qui rit and other works by Hugo are fictional scholarly documents and resources that are introduced within the book but distinctive from the story, after the manner of supplementary material for something that actually happened.

This can happen in glaringly obvious ways, such as the in/famous Waterloo or Sewer chapters in Les Miserables, but some of the more effective usages of this device happen in less overbearing ways. For example, for all the times that Hugo dives right into the private subjectivity of his characters, there are others where he claims not to know their thoughts any more than he could read the mind of a real person, as if all he can do is impartially report things as they happened and anything else would be speculation. Consider this moment in Notre Dame de Paris when Frollo is watching Esmerelda and Phoebus have sex:

“In what sinister order was he arranging in his thoughts La Esmeralda, Phoebus, Jacques Charmoloue, his beloved younger brother, so lately abandoned by him at the dung hill, his archdeacon’s cassock, his reputation perhaps, thus degraded to La Falourdel’s- all these images, all these adventures of his? It is impossible to say. But certain it is that these thoughts evoked horrible pictures.”

Likewise, in Les Miserables, there is the chapter Une tempete sous un crane in which Valjean has to grapple with the possibility of breaking his cover. Hugo ventures several long glimpses into Valjean’s mind but, when Valjean goes to sleep briefly, Hugo refers to a fictional collection of documents left behind after his death that describe the dream he had that night, with the deserted village, the ghosts and the dark rider upon the skeletal horse. The emphasis on the reader’s perspective as something outside of the novel itself is emphasized by Les Miserables division into five books with a neat line drawn down the middle: Valjean as the protagonist in the first half and Marius in the second. The novel ends with an anonymous epitaph on the grave of Valjean, again, as if Hugo can only relate what happened, but can’t speculate outside of his scope.

In L’homme qui rit, one of the expressions of this more quiet use of fictional objectivity happens when Hugo’s narrative voice will blend with the internal narration of Ursus, which keeps us in touch with our first Preliminary Chapter in which we see the writing on the walls within Ursus’ cart. Sure enough, our last image in the novel is that of Ursus waking up to the absence of Gwynplaine and Dea, with Homo at the edge of their boat, “baying in the shadow and looking down upon the water”.

In every Victor Hugo novel I ever read, the orientation of the reader’s perspective is given at least as much attention as the design and mechanics of the plot. The very act of reading, how, when and where the novel reveals itself to us, is an essential concern for any writer, but the nature of Hugo’s shaping of our own perspective and the text’s own treatment of authenticity seems almost post-modern. Consequently, reading Victor Hugo well is a gradual and layered experience, which contrasts interestingly with how his stories are treated with archetypical simplicity in the modern west. While we’re on the subject I’d like to recommend a YouTube video by Lindsey Ellis called The Case For Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which deals carefully with this contrast, although I do think Lindsey committed something of a minor, forgivable oversight. She says that Notre Dame de Paris was motivated entirely by the historical vandalism of Notre Dame Cathedral and a wish to drum up attention for it’s preservation. I’m just not sure how you could walk away from that book and continue to think that: the relentless and flamboyant cynicism at least seems indicative of Hugo’s constant pre-occupation with the oppression of ancient, medieval institutions like the Catholic Church and monarchy in general. Then there’s the Ceci tuera cela (This Will Kill That) chapter that breaks down that very phrase in the mouth of Claude Frollo (Frollo’s inner narration blends with that of the narrator almost in the same way that Ursus’ does). It is a comment on how architecture is losing ground to literature as the most influential and important art form in the west. Given the attitude Hugo expressed toward literacy in other works, it’s hard to read Ceci tuera cela as a strictly negative statement, especially since he equates the shift with the transition from monarchy to democracy.

Lindsey Ellis makes an important point, though, in that adaptations of Hugo’s work tend to be far departures from the letter of the source material. The west seems to have adopted these stories as mythic archetypes, perennial outlines with fluid relevance, rather than the work of an individual writer. Victor Hugo himself anticipated and possibly encouraged parts of this, as an operatic adaptation of Notre Dame de Paris was made in his lifetime with his blessing and co-operation. Hugo even corresponded with an anarchist named Louise Michel who would often sign her name as Enjolras. Hugo was intimately familiar with art influencing life and vice versa, and his anticipation of the diverse ripples of his work makes sense given that he did not write his novels strictly as…well, novels. He would meticulously shape and manipulate the reader’s point of entry and understanding of his stories, so much so that reading Hugo often feels like watching Hugo. A three-dimensional object is situated in three-dimensional space; it’s very existence presupposes a a wider setting and other objects with relative relationships to it.

This is why reviewing an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s work requires a certain amount of care. A wide diversity of interpretations is a natural consequence of Hugo’s legacy. Also, as with any artistic legacy, diverse readings and interpretations are simply how the living relevance of important works manifests. So deviation from the original letter of the work is to be expected and does not, in and of itself, constitute a weakness. However, deviations from the letter do invite new readers to wonder why a given adaptation makes its deviations. With many adaptations of Hugo’s work, the stripping away of the narrative complexity is obvious: it simply makes it easier for a mainstream audience to digest. Other deviations speak to more idiosyncratic details of newer readings, though.

Consider Hugo’s attitude toward women: he was probably as feminist as we could reasonably expect an eighteenth century upper class, philandering French male to be. To hear him tell it in his own words, he probably believed in the social equality of men and women as strongly as he believed in universal literacy and representative government (that is, after he forged his bond with his mother’s side of the family and began to grow apart from his male-line attachment to French nobility and Peerage). Nonetheless, he has some typically chauvinistic moments regarding female characters, such as his tendency to sexualize and infantilize characters that represent daughters. There is, though, a difference between Hugo’s expressed misogyny and how others have read that misogyny. Eponine from Les Miserables, por exemplo. In the original novel, she is probably one of Victor Hugo’s best written female characters, along with being morally ambiguous. Eponine would knowingly trick Marius into joining the Friends of The ABC Society at the Rue Saint Denis barricade out of sexual jealousy and possessiveness. Along with her foot in the door of the dangerous woman trope, she also dresses as a man to join the revolutionaries, taking us into the trope of the deceptive female. For some reason, though, the author(s) of the musical decided to render Hugo’s misogyny differently, even worse in some places.

A current script for the musical has Eponine goggling in awe at Marius’ books and fawning over his hair. Is that deviation going to hugely impact the character of the musical? Maybe not hugely. It does effect the audience’s perspective of Eponine. Nonetheless, it’s curious that the stage writers decided to downplay the existent misogyny in Hugo’s portrayal of Eponine and invent different and more obvious misogyny. In an essay, Oscar Wilde singles out Fantine as uniquely romanticized and sexualized, writing that Hugo invites the reader to “kiss her bloody mouth”. Evidently, many readers have observed Hugo’s misogyny over the years and those that attempted new adaptations have channeled it differently. So much so that it’s hard not to anticipate some version of it in current adaptations; unlike the complicated filtering of the reader’s perspective, Hugo’s misogyny was more changed in translation than lost in translation. In any case, both of those changes are familiar to anyone who has read Hugo and experienced newer renditions.

Other deviations and interpretations have obvious contemporary motives, such as Disney wanting to continue their early-to-mid nineties winning streak and create a lucrative segue toward Broadway, as Lindsey Ellis explains in her video. In the wake of the success of Les Miserables as a musical, multiple live action films were made, either to cash in on the renewed interest or to provide a more “complete” and “faithful” option for those who felt the need for one in response to the structural changes the musical made.

The journey that L’homme qui rit has made throughout pop culture has many similar complications. One thing that’s bound to effect the modern American reading of L’homme qui rit is how the Joker was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s portrayal in a nineteen-thirties film adaptation. I know I was pretty gobsmacked when I learned that Victor Hugo helped give birth to the Joker. In an afterward to the graphic novel adaptation of The Man Who Laughs, written by David Hine and illustrated by Mark Stafford, Hine points out that very through-line and it’s role in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He refers to Heath Ledger’s Joker speaking the lines “let’s put a smile on that face” as “a twisted version of Gwynplaine”. It’s hard to disagree, at least in terms of direct influence. Even if it’s the nature of mythic archetypes to be perpetually relevant but in a different way for each era, this particular emanation of Gwynplaine is a stark departure. I don’t know the precise mechanics of Hine’s creative process for this book, but hypothetically put yourself in the position of someone writing a Man Who Laughs comic after decades of the Joker. Compared to the original, the only apparent connection is the total moral pessimism and paranoia. Making a completely new, personal and organic interpretation would necessitate breaking one hell of a pattern.

For the most part, David Hine and Mark Stafford had no problems with making something unique and memorable. There were a few other problems, though, some of which I remember other writers stumbling over while attempting to bring unconventional subject matter into the graphic novel medium. I remember reading a graphic novel about Bertrand Russel a few years ago in which the author would go meta every now and then, draw himself and show us sketches and chats between the creative team and his own rants about how he couldn’t find a way to capture this or that concept. I found it entertaining and it kept me hooked for a little while, but eventually I started wondering why the metafictive device was used and eventually I put the book down since so much about the presentation seemed to be taking up my attention and not providing anything meaningful to the telling of the story. A really egregious example of someone trying to innovate and bring in exciting subject matter to graphic lit happened when some biographies of the central figures of the Beat literary movement were published as comics. As a Burroughs aficionado, I naturally couldn’t resist, and sure enough almost the entire script was bland, lifeless explication. The series was like reading a pamphlet about the Beats with these simple little sketches with word balloons providing trite, out of context quotes.

The L’homme qui rit graphic novel doesn’t get that bad ever, but there are still a few moments that made me squirm a little inside. In the early panels, we see Gwynplaine in the company of the Comprachico’s boarding the ship at Portland Bill. One of them steps in front of Gwynpaine an shouts “Not you!” as everyone boards the ship without him. It’s just such a bald moment and there’s no obvious reason for it. Was it to let the reader know what’s going on? We don’t hear about the recent kingly ban on the Comprachico’s mutilations until later in the story (in the book we hear about the illegalization of Comprachico’s slave trade early on). And, for the purposes of the graphic novel, that’s a perfectly good place to address it. In order to understand this opening scene, though, all we need to understand is that Gwynplaine is left behind. And there’s no obvious reason why the reader needs to be told that explicitly in the moment it happens. What if Gwynplaine is off playing on the beach, looks up and sees the boat floating off, having had no warning? Something like that would have worked just fine and the effect of seeing it before we hear about it would create dramatic weight when the Comprachico’s write down a collective confession that they toss away in a bottle as they capsize.

There are a few other awkward moments of explication, such as the omniscient narrator interjecting out of nowhere the origin and role of Lord David Dirry-Moir / Tom Jim Jack. During the same explicatory break, we also get explication on the roles of the Duchess Josianna and Barkilphedro, which, at least, is arguably efficient. As someone who loved the novel (the first and so far only book I ever read in French) I can empathize with the desire to include the off-beat friendship between Lord David and Duchess Josianna: it’s colorful and entertaining in the original story, especially the various clubs that Lord David belongs to (such as The Fun Club, whose members break windows and set the huts of poor people on fire) and his passion for boxing, which compels him to live and sleep with a given boxer for a long time while training them and carefully monitoring and dictating their diet. Then there’s Hugo’s florid descriptions and voyeuristic pre-occupation with Duchess Josianna. Her pre-occupation with slumming, living a separate life in disguise and wanting to become super-human- combined with her different colored eyes -actually made me think of David Bowie a little. Pleasantly uncanny. While Hugo definitely get’s very typically voyeuristic with this character, it’s handled very differently from other sexualized female characters, and I can understand the temptation to want to draw her in a comic, simply to see what she would look like. I empathize with David Hine’s desire to include Lord David and Duchess Josianna- if I made my own adaptation, I’d be excited to think of how to portray them as well -I’m just not sure why he did it the way he did.

When Hine writes as an omniscient narrator, his diction maintains a connection with the language used by the characters which helps support the tone, but that doesn’t add a strength so much as it simply makes the explication easier to come and go from. Like the “Not you!” moment at the beginning, it’s not terrible, but I can’t help but wonder why. And both of those hiccups are unfortunate, since the illustrations and the sequential connections between the panels are very creative and a more tightly written script could have really made it pop. Another missed beat between writer and illustrator is the handling of Gwynplaine’s face in different contexts. Gwynplaine is largely incapable of any facial expressions besides his gruesome, artificial smile. There are parts in the original novel that I could picture being really poignant in a visual medium: when Gwynplaine is taken to the prison where Hardquanonne is being interrogated he loudly protests his innocence. Gwynplaine is reduced to hysterical shrieking and rambling, since he thinks he’s being accused of something but doesn’t know what. I could clearly picture his pale, sweaty, terrified face with it’s perpetual smile, with tears rolling down his face, screaming the lines “You have before you a poor mountebank!” For any visual adaptation, a live action film, an animated film or a graphic novel, how to portray Gwynplaine’s face with different emotions would be one of the really interesting parts. During most of the parts when Gwynplaine is afraid or anxious, though, his smile in the graphic novel comes off as lecherous. Maybe that was intentional, maybe not. Maybe it was meant to be vulnerable awkwardness.

Another significant departure is the softening of Ursus’ tone. In both the original and the graphic novel, Ursus is a cynical yet enthusiastic verbal performer. In the original, though, he is almost relentlessly sarcastic and angry. If ever he says anything positive, it’s ironically suggested by a frank negative comment. Graphic novel Ursus is hard-bitten, but not relentless. I don’t think this would draw the attention of someone familiar with the book too much- more of a nit-pick, I suppose.

In general, though, the plot was smoothly adapted. The chapter breaks are well placed and the thematic artwork on each chapter’s title page adds something to the graphic novel’s character. I think the tone of the ending was also handled well. There was a live action L’homme qui rit film a few years ago that seriously botched it with a scene with Gwynplaine sinking beneath the waves and encountering a ghostly, angelic Dea. (I also have a bad attitude about that film for several other reasons…not least of all why they decided go with a vampire-like sex appeal for Gwynplaine. Someone I watched it with said he reminded her of Brandon Lee in The Crow).

Speaking of Dea, I think Hine and Stafford did alright with her, given how much Hugo neglected her character development at times. You could say they did their best with what they had. I’d put it on par with the portrayal of Cossette in the 2012 film adaptation of the Les Miserables musical. Cossette certainly did not furnish a ton of depth to work with for future adaptations, especially if they were determined to remain faithful to the original text, and although her changes in the film script from the stage one were slight- such as the altered lyrics of some songs like In My Life and the reprises of A Heart Full of Love and Suddenly at the end -I found them welcome. In the original novel, Ursus tries to trick Dea- who is bedridden and blind -into thinking Gwynplaine is still there with his ventriloquism. The book encourages you to think he’s almost supernaturally talented at this and that Dea seeing through it is shocking. In the graphic novel it looks pathetic, which adds to the sorrow of the moment in a good way. I also enjoyed the graphic novel’s portrayal of Gwynplaine’s speech to the House of Lords at the end: he seemed like he was raging and letting himself go with his anger for the first time in his life, which I thought was neatly consistent with the original. In the live action film, I think they tried to play it like a mental break down, which played badly.

With adaptations of stories you care a lot about, it’s easy to foresee a lot going wrong and get protective. That’s definitely how I felt after seeing the live action L’homme qui rit a few years ago, and I think the graphic novel compares well to it. I can’t say that’s a high benchmark, though, especially since Hine struggled a little with the story structure and the tone. I’d be interested to hear what someone thought of it who knew nothing about the story beforehand. My curiosity has also been piqued with regard to David Hine, particularly another collaboration he did with Mark Stafford in a Lovecraft anthology.

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