The Phantom Cat of the Opera (2000)

     by David Wood & Peters Day

This is essentially a retelling of Leroux's story in redacted form for children, except that the author and artist collaborated to insert anthropomorphic cats in the place of the familiar characters, all without the slightest hint that their feline protagonists are out of the ordinary. The result is a sumptuous, adorable picture-book full of cats in nineteenth-century garb, often complete with monocles, re-enacting the dramatic events of Leroux's tale.

 

Anthropomorphic cats + opera ghosts. What is not to love here?

The first thing to notice in a picture-book like this is the art, and Day's paintings don't disappoint. Fantastic detail and an evocative palette make these some of my favorite illustrations for the story, despite the fact that all the characters are furry felines. The colors are a pleasure and the style whimsical enough to appeal to children while still being interesting enough to entertain their parents, as well.

 

The second thing to notice is that this is a picture book meant for children to enjoy with an adult, not on their own. Advanced vocabulary words such as "mellifluous" are used, and the sentence fragments and somewhat choppy style of the writing suggest that it's intended to be read aloud. The story has been simplified for the child audience, but much of the vocabulary and presentation is still adult, and this would be a great book to read with a child and explain as you go along.

 

Most of the dialogue is repeated verbatim from Leroux's text, and the story progresses on about the same, though most of it is told from Raoul's point of view rather than from Christine's or an outside observer's. It's only as we near the latter half of the book that things begin to deviate from that text; the Phantom is revealed to be a tragic musician, spurned by the opera house's management and living beneath it ever since, which is reminiscent of the 1943 and 1962 films (though in this case there is no direct antagonist). While many details are retained to great effect, particularly the interlude with the rat-catcher (of course, in a book ostensibly about cats, how could he be ignored?), but others, such as the Daroga, are omitted entirely for ease of plotting. I was a little bit saddened at the Daroga's omission; while many versions do leave him out, it seemed like such a waste not to have a Persian in a book about cats. The punning alone.

 

The biggest change is a predictable softening of the Phantom's character; not only does he not commit any direct murders (Buquet and Philippe come through unscathed, and while the chandelier drop causes plenty of consternation, the artist and author gloss over the idea that anyone might have been injured), but he lets Christine go simply and without a fight when she admits that she loves Raoul and wants to be with him. In fact, he is presented as having been unaware of her feelings for Raoul, a substantial change from the original, which moves most of his actions from the realm of coercion to that of unorthodox courtship. His only sin throughout the book, therefore, is being overly pushy toward the object of his affections and frightening people; usually by accident, in fact, since this version, much like Leroux's Erik in the earlier parts of the novel, seems to eschew his mask much of the time (the text mentions his hideous face's appearance several times, but Days' art often seems not to jibe with this, showing the character masked in the same scene; it's worth noting that the mask is a half-face affair, which is about the only whisper of influence from Lloyd Webber's version here).

 

In the end, the greater redemption comment is mostly swallowed up by the removal of most of the character's sins, but other powerful morals, including the idea that emotions cannot be forced on others and that coercion is not okay, remain intact and relevant for the youngsters. The whimsical transformation of the cast into felines doesn't detract from the story at all; in fact, were you to read the text without looking at the pictures, you would never know that the switch had been made. This is a very cute version for children that still retains its suspense and is not watered down, and I'd recommend it to parents if only it weren't so damn hard to find.

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