The Phantom of the Opera (1976)
by David Bischoff
Before I start with the chapter notes breakdown, a few words about the source material. Bischoff states on the publication page that this novel (which is not a new story, by the way, but a straight-up retelling of the established story) is based on Leroux; however, there seems to be a not-inconsiderable amount of influence from the Julian/Chaney film as well. The cover is a direct copy (albeit painted) of the famous scene in which Lon Chaney as the Phantom is theatrically playing the organ, down to the violin hanging in the background (scroll up! Find a copy of the movie and amuse yourselves trying to catch that exact shot!), while the book pauses in the middle to offer up a series of black-and-white screenshots from the movies produced to date, also including the 1943 Lubin/Rains movie and the 1962 Fisher/Lom film.
Bischoff starts his version off with a Poe quote, from Eleonora:
"The question is not yet settled,
Whether madness is or is not
The loftiest intelligence--
Whether much that is glorious--
Whether all that is profound--
Does not spring from disease
Of thought - from the moods of mind
Exalted at the expense
Of general intellect."
It won't be immediately apparent, but this is included because Bischoff's Erik is extremely mentally unstable, and the book will focus on the question of genius as being tied to mental illness in a very Dionysian way.
One of the most compelling things about this novel is that it makes Christine a much more down-to-earth character. Leroux's Christine was an allegory, a savior, innocent and mother figure all rolled into one for the purposes of the message of redemption and salvation; she was the heroine and in a constant state of having to save her own and everyone else's butts. Bischoff's Christine, in contrast, is a less overtly heroic figure, one who has more relatable, and the reader is rooting for her from a more self-insert type of view. This Christine is also more overtly interested in her own self-advancement and in less than admirable (but understandable) reactions to the nonsense around her, which make her a different but interesting character.
For example, Leroux's Christine is frightened by the sudden, dramatic changes in her voice, even going so far as to tell Raoul that she feels that her voice doesn't even belong to her anymore; by contrast, Bischoff's novel opens with a happy Christine flouncing down the hall after her successful surprise debut, full of girlish pride and excitement. As a reader, it's a different angle with which to connect with her as a real person; the tradeoff is that Bischoff seems uninterested in Leroux's allegory or symbolism, and instead just wants to tell a straightforward story.
In order to rush said story along (this little book is hardly 145 pages long, and it's got very small pages with pretty large type), Christine finds Buquet's body almost immediately, hanging in a storeroom near her dressing room on the night of her debut. I understand the screaming and running away, but I'm not quite sure about her decision to not tell anyone about it and let other people discover him. Supposedly it has something to do with her fragile nerves, which I always feel is a cop-out. My nerves aren't any less fragile than yours just because I was born a century or so later, lady, and I could probably bring myself to tell, say, an usher or something, if for no other reason than it encourages any murderers who might have seen me discover the body not to want to kill me to keep it a secret.
Continuing the trend set by his change of Christine's character, serious changes occur to Raoul and Philippe as well. Rather than being a still untried youth looking forward to his first tour of duty, Bischoff's Raoul is already an experienced sailor, which adds maturity and effectiveness to a character who was much more embryonic in the original novel. Bischoff also removes Raoul's and Christine's previous relationship; no longer childhood friends or sweethearts, they have never met prior to the events of the book, and Raoul is enchanted by Christine's beautiful face and voice after a performance and determines to woo her (as happens in a lot of versions, this is probably to increase tension by preventing the Phantom from being an interloper in an already established relationship). His personality and motivations are more fully fleshed out - he bribes a stagehand to get to Christine's dressing room, is fetchingly nervous about speaking to her, and is generally very gallant - than in Leroux's original novel. This is probably to help encourage a modern reader to see why Christine would fall in love with him where they might have had trouble with the same in context of Leroux's Gothic fantasy world, and is probably influenced by the soldierly incarnations of Raoul in the early film versions.
In a telling moment, Raoul overhears Christine and Erik speaking in her dressing room and, assuming she already has a suitor, attempts to step aside and leave (though he is luckily stopped by another of the chorus girls). It is a vastly more mature handling of the subject than the original Raoul's half-faint, half-pout as he whinged about how he thought she was pure and unblemished, and leaves the reader with the impression of a character who is infatuated with Christine but not so much that he can't be noble about respecting her wishes.
Christine flirts with Raoul like there's no tomorrow, and she also flirts with the managers and pretty much everyone else who talks to her. I would have said that it appeared she was cultivating Raoul as a patron, like many opera girls of her time period - a sort of concubinage affair where she would be his lover in exchange for gifts and status. Sadly, I think this is just a case of Bischoff's road of good intentions leading to the hell of historic anachronism, as no such relationship is suggested in any other way. She's just flirty by nature, and good for her. Get 'em, babe.
Bischoff also chooses this chapter to begin his campaign to de-supernaturalize Erik as much as possible. The retiring managers are completely unsuperstitious, and refer to the Phantom as a "hoaxer"; while this does help entrench the idea of a mortal Phantom in our minds, it also makes the retiring managers themselves less believable as characters. If he's some hoaxer in the opera house, interfering with their operations, why have they put up with being the hostage of a real, living person for so long? Why not bring the police into it? They even go so far as to suggest that the Phantom is a homeless person that has somehow wandered into the underground of the opera house and claimed it as his territory, which makes it seem even less likely that they wouldn't have called the police at some point. People call the police when a homeless person just tries to use the bathroom or browse a shop in peace, let alone if they actually caused a disturbance.
Christine is much less submissive to her "Angel" in this version, in line with her more pragmatic personality. The first conversation that we hear between them includes her telling the Angel not to meddle with the process of her becoming a recognized singer, chiding him and telling him that he must wait like everyone else for her to handle it on her own. This seems out of place both because she is talking to a being she believes to be supernatural and divine, and because she supposedly holds a lot of awe for him in all other areas, but it's also delightful because I'm always happy to see a Christine who is not here for the Phantom to try to run her business for her.
Interestingly, Christine's mother is added into the story; her original background of traveling with her itinerant violinist father is accompanied by a new feature, her mother working to pay for her singing lessons after the father's death. It's interesting that subsequent versions seem to always seek to remedy the motherlessness of the original novel; possibly they feel that the complete absence of a mother figure is a blemish on the novel, or they prefer that Christine (the true mother figure) be moved to the safer (at least psychologically, if you view Christine as a love interest and therefore don't want this Freudian subtext) territory of lover, rather than encompassing both roles. It's not too hard to see why an author, particularly a more modern one, might find the Oedipal subtext disturbing. Christine's mother never makes an appearance, however, and only serves as background window dressing; no mention of Christine's celebrated Scandinavian origin is ever made, which is a shame since this obviously in-charge Christine could use that as a way to illustrate that she comes from a different culture with different expectations than the average French performer.
Carlotta is a veritable potpurri of all the stereotypes commonly associated with opera divas. She's shrewish, overbearing, overweight, past her prime, snobby, and generally abrasive to everyone around her. Why the change from the original Carlotta, who was basically just as much of a victim as everyone else? I'd theorize that Bischoff was seeking a more villainous take on the character, one that would A) allow the reader to enjoy her humiliation and inject some comedy into an otherwise almost entirely suspense-oriented story, and B) give the reader somewhere to focus their automatic need to identify an antagonist. Erik is, of course, the final antagonist, but by giving us someone to hate a little bit more at the beginning, Bischoff tries to prevent the reader from immediately putting Erik into that neat little "bad guy" box. Unfortunately, this sets up a nasty dynamic where Carlotta's reasonable upset at being terrorized and mistreated is excused because no one likes her, and pits her and Christine against each other even more than they were in the original story.
Carlotta's direct confrontation of Christine happens not long after she's introduced. Leaving aside the fact that Carlotta's reaction to the warm reception of a chorus girl would probably have had a lot more to do with threatening the managers and parading her diva self around than with harassing Christine, who is obviously not in charge, the cat fight seems gratuitous and falls flat as an attempt to add dynamic interest to either character or the situation. We don't get to learn anything new about either character (Christine remains herself without any new facets introduced, again a shame since being confronted by someone she might have hoped to have as a contact or friend or recognizing the Phantom making a nuisance of himself splashing back on her could have been interesting), and Carlotta isn't developed enough to have any characterization other than being a cardboard antagonist.
In spite of other characterization disappointments, Bischoff does a good job of drawing a believable romance between Christine and Raoul. His more realistic characters have a more realistic romance, but it still remains "innocent" as in Leroux's original novel, which contrasts it with a more dangerous relationship (although frankly the Phantom in this version is not really in the running as a compelling love interest, even more so than in the original).
Madame Giry is given a first name in Bischoff's version: Michelle. I'd say this was to give her a little more weight as a character, like Christine and Raoul, except that she appears only in this chapter and never again. Meg does not appear at all, and with her gone and Michelle not doing much, she doesn't have the maternal position she has in a lot of other adaptations.
I got up in anachronistic arms (alliteration!) over one of Bischoff's managers saying the word "ectoplasm", but I looked it up, and you know what? The word was coined by French scientist and Nobel laureate Robert Richet, who lived from 1850-1935, so it's conceivable that the manager could have used that world. I learn something new every day.
The chandelier scene here is much more visceral than it was in Leroux's novel, almost cartoonishly so; descriptions of blood and damaged body parts abound. It makes it more terrifying for the reader, but at the same time I'm not sure it was worked into the ethos of the rest of the story well, either by meshing with the mystery/horror concept or acting as a shocking counterpoint to illustrate the shattering of the high-society intrigue portion. Also, someone in the audience shouted that it was an earthquake, which seems unlikely given that Paris almost never has earthquakes, but maybe they're from out of town.
Some of the original Christine's naiveté is preserved as she doesn't seem to have an inkling of the Angel's true intentions for her; she believes that he wants her to avoid relationships with men in order to focus on her studies, rather than out of jealousy (despite the earlier "You must love me" interlude in her dressing room). This further underscores that Bischoff isn't trying to make him a viable romantic lead, and is much more concerned with lining up with the horror film versions of the story that have been previously released.
When Raoul sees the wreckage of the chandelier and the broken and bleeding bodies beneath it: "He would have gone immediately to the victims' aid, but for his concern for Christine." This is the first and last nod toward helping the smashed people out, and while I could see that Bischoff was trying to make the reader admire him for his sense of compassion, what it really did was make me think he was sort of a jerk. Christine isn't lying under a chandelier, dude. Prioritize a little, maybe. In another move that brings Christine more down to earth in a character sense, Christine actually is injured in the chandelier incident (trampled by her fellow chorus members, not hit by the chandelier, but she's fine.
You know, it's weird enough to have Christine staying unchaperoned at Raoul's house in the aftermath of this disaster; people are undoubtedly Making Assumptions, but when the managers come to visit and ask Christine if she's well enough to return to the opera and she says, "I am well now, but the de Chagnys keep me chained to this bed!"... I mean, everyone just makes the best of it by coughing discreetly and looking at their toes. Weirdly enough, this doesn't even seem like it's being played for comic relief, just a sort of accidental aside.
The first of two major departures from the Leroux comes here; Erik and Raoul actually get into a physical altercation. Bischoff has been trying to establish Erik as a very corporeal, physical being, and this certainly reinforces that, but the supernatural element to his character is severely diminished. Bischoff compensates somewhat by giving Erik prodigious strength for some reason; there is no explanation for why the basement-dwelling health-plagued ghoul is mysteriously stronger than the literal military officer, and unfortunately it ends up being pretty unnecessary to the plot, since it's just thrown in there to try to make him more frightening without really explaining why. It is interesting that Erik accuses Raoul of harboring "foul desires" for Christine; of course, most of the cast is probably thinking the same thing, but it serves as a reminder that Raoul, who has never said or thought anything along those lines where the reader could see him, is the "pure" character while the Phantom is the sexual and "corrupt" one.
Christine takes Raoul's word on faith that her Angel is really the evil Phantom, and accuses him, calling him the "Devil of music", which seems like a really quick switch and also kind of ridiculous. Christine spends a disproportionate amount of her time attempting to rationalize things, and for her not to question something as life-changing as the sudden identity switch of a beloved teacher seems very out of character. Erik isn't much better; at the first sign of Christine's faith wavering, he flips out and shouts at her, completely giving away his earthly nature and ruining a carefully laid and maintained ruse spanning years. It's just a convenient way to get Christine firmly out of Erik's camp so the third act of Beat the Monster can begin, which again betrays this novel's horror movie roots.
The Persian gets to make his entrance early in order to save Raoul from his own bad choices and get him away from Erik in his Red Death costume. It's seriously puzzling that Bischoff has gone to such pains to make the Phantom a corporeal human character, and then goes right ahead and hands him supernatural abilities - first the super strength, which he attributes to "insanity" because goodness knows we need more of that "mental illnesses make people dangerous" garbage out in the world, and now his uncanny ability to pinpoint Raoul in a crowd, during a frenzied masquerade ball, when Raoul is completely covered and supposedly unidentifiable by anyone. It seems like the author wants to have and eat various cakes, making the Phantom a concrete menace who can be concretely overcome, but also giving him magical powers so he looks more menacing before then.
Another thing that mystifies me is Christine's insistence that she must remain and sing the role of Marguerite the next night, rather than fleeing with Raoul. In the original novel, when she was still very sympathetic and undecided about her Angel, it made sense for her to stay out of loyalty to him; in Bischoff's version, however, when she is terrified of Erik and believes him to be a dangerous murderer who might be personally targeting her, her explanation that she's obliged to perform because she told the managers she would doesn't hold much water. This Christine seems like a person who should be immediately fleeing in a rented carriage, and I don't think any of us could blame her.
The inclusion of the statue of Apollo on the roof is probably some more influence from the Julian/Chaney film!
Philippe, originally just a background character and one that Leroux made a point of telling us wasn't overly interested in or involved with the opera, is old friends with the opera managers; this appears to serve no purpose other than to give people a chance to dump some exposition all over the place so the plot can continue. Which is a pity, since Philippe doesn't get to do much in most versions and actually giving him useful things to do could have been a fun new twist.
Apparently Christine finishes off her solo with a series of notes "several octaves above middle C". My note says, "Does Bischoff know how the human voice works?", which is probably overly harsh. But consider: the average soprano has a range somewhere from middle C up to about a high G (an octave and a half above). A trained coloratura soprano with a nice top-end range can go as much as an octave above that; the highest note in opera literature is a G above high C, which is two and a half octaves above middle C. Gounod's Faust, which Christine is supposedly performing, does not approach these highest notes, and even if she were adding a cadenza that spiraled up there, it's unrealistic to expect her to exceed that top-end G in a performance. Two and a half octaves does not constitute several. I was so distracted by the fact that Christine was apparently singing notes that only dogs could hear that I lost much of the rest of the chapter in a fog of confusion.
Like the Julian/Chaney film that it seems to follow so closely, Bischoff's take on the story removes the earlier, less terrifying visit to the Phantom's lair and just has Christine abducted for the final climactic showdown. The lair is nicely characterized, and some effort is put in to relate it to the Phantom's Persian origins, which I appreciated. Erik's mask, too, is intriguing - a Greek dramatic mask, divided in half for two conflicting emotions, which emphasizes his character nicely and also helps tie him in as part of the whole concept of performance.
The original Erik was clearly unbalanced, but he was also sympathetic, and the reader could see that his behavior came at least partially from being shunned and abused as a child and from poor socialization as a result of his deformity, but this Erik... well, the author is just not interested in a grey area of possible sympathetic characterization. His often childlike behavior (giggling, bouncing around frenetically, jumping up and down, etc.) is a poignant reminder of his lacking upbringing, which gives us some much-needed sympathy toward the character, but he's otherwise almost entirely unsympathetic and fills a much more traditional villain role.
The Persian gives his quick backstory as he hauls Raoul down into Erik's catacombs, but the Persian terminology is vastly simplified where it isn't downright wrong. It seems that Bischoff may have been working from a suspect translation; he translates "daroga" (itself a Punjab term, not Farsi) as "leader", rather than its closer meaning of "police officer", and refers to Erik's prior mistress as the "Queen of Persia", despite the fact that she was merely a favored concubine of the Shah and certainly not in any position of power beyond that. It's probably an attempt to avoid bogging the narrative down in unnecessary detail, but since the Persian and his insight into the Phantom's character is kind of the revelatory vehicle who makes the whole thing work, it mostly just feels like unnecessary exposition that confuses things more than it helps.
Christine's immediate compassion for Erik following his meltdown when she asks to see his unmasked face is a little out of place, considering that he has just threatened her and that she doesn't have the more awed, reverent relationship with him in this version, but in the end surprisingly believable. Actually, the very fact that Christine has had no prior time to know the Phantom and has only recently realized he is a threat adds to her nobility when she begins to pity and feel for him. Even her removal of the mask, in most versions an act of curiosity, is here born of compassion and a desire to know what exactly it is that torments him so.
In another change from the Leroux Phantom, who told Christine that his Don Juan wasn't suitable for her delicate ears, Bischoff's Erik plays it immediately, almost without being asked. He does so in a childlike, approval-seeking manner, in order to once again reinforce the immaturity and desperation of his character.
Probably the best line in the novel: "For a moment she did love him... she felt the deepest pity for him, wished that by some miracle he might be made happier." It's a great encapsulation of Christine's convoluted feelings for Erik, which do include love, but not of the romantic kind; rather, she feels respect and pity for him, and her natural compassion will not allow her to ignore his pleas for her love, even if they're misguided and ultimately unfulfillable.
Bischoff damages his own carefully set up theme of Erik's regular-old-human mortality by giving him the ability to see flawlwessly in the darkness and by making his eyes pupil-less, something even Leroux didn't include. (There are some birth defects that can cause an eye to appear to be pupil-less, such as aniridia, but most of them make your vision considerably worse, not better.) While it seems that the author is attempting to leave the nature of the Phantom somewhat ambiguous for his audience, he still hasn't committed fully to the ambiguity. It's just confusing.
The humanization continues, as there is no mention of Leroux's Phantom's deathly chilled, bony body; this Erik is warm and comforting. In fact, much to my confusion, when Christine is terrified by his face and his verbal attack on her following its unveiling, she sinks into his arms for comfort. This would make more sense with the original, worshipful Christine, but it's real weird here.
Bischoff brings the Beauty & the Beast narrative into the story here; the Phantom of the Opera is, at its root, a retelling of this story, so it's not far-fetched, but that makes it dance on the edge of meta-reference for Erik to relate the story to himself in the text. ss. Erik refers repeatedly to himself as a beast, clearly viewing himself as less than human (in contrast to Leroux's Erik, who believed himself monstrous but at base a damaged and discriminated against human); he views his musical talent as his salvation, as the only thing about him which is worth the love of another person. When he piteously tells Christine, "...without love, the monster will have won," we get to see that he things of there being essentially a split between a "good" personality - loving toward Christine, musical, a worshiper of beauty, wanting nothing more than to be loved - and the "bad" personality - the homicidal, tortured, dangerous one that reacts to the injustice of its situation.
In contrast to Leroux's Christine, Bischoff's actually admits to love for Erik - unfortunately for him, not as he would have hoped, but her compassion definitely helps. It's an interesting medium between the horror version Christines, who usually understandably want nothing to do with him, and the romance version Christines, who love him with mad passionate fire.
Like Christine, Erik has had his parents re-inserted into the text; both father and mother are present in his childhood, though they are neglectful and abusive. Obviously, Bischoff intends this to both increase our sympathy for Erik and to explain some of his problems as being the result of abuse; it mostly works, though I could have wished it were a little less heavy-handed.
This version of Erik has his love of secret doors and traps extrapolated into being a full-on genius architect; the Persian tells us that he built the opera house himself. As the opera house was built in 1875, that would put Erik in his 50's during the events of the story; while that makes sense in context of the time period and the reputation he's built up, he's... well, damn, he's awfully spry for a dude in his 50's who's been living underground for the last decade or so, isn't he?
I'm skipping a lot of chapters, mostly because nothing much new happens in them and Bischoff isn't a good enough writer for me to praise his prose or anything.
Here Erik actually pronounces himself and Christine married, which is an interesting moment. Unlike Leroux's Erik, Bischoff's has embraced his aloneness, his aloofness from mankind; by creating his own marriage ceremony, he demonstrates that he considers himself outside the law and exempt from the rules of the rest of society (I think you could make the argument that Leroux's Erik could have done this and maybe would have, but given that he really wanted to be accepted as a normal dude with a normal wife, there's at least a reasonable probability he would want to have a priest perform a normal wedding). After the marriage ceremony, he does turn his attention to the rest of the world, but it is not to seek acceptance or respect from them as Leroux's Erik does, but to crow about his "success". Bischoff's Erik seeks approval only from Christine, and throws her supposed "love" of him in the world's collective face.
Unfortunately, much like in the Julian/Chaney film, Erik is ultimately denied his salvation; Christine very sensibly escapes as soon as his back is turned, running to Raoul, which removes any question of Erik redeeming himself by setting her free.
Naturally, the solution is a sword fight. Bischoff, apparently, watched Julian/Chaney's epic carriage chase and thought that shit needed to be dialed up a notch, so instead, he has the Persian bust in with Raoul and engage in a mad sword fight with Erik, who despite being in his 50's and having had a really fucking hard day is still more than a match for him. I do have to give props to Bischoff, however, for remembering the bullet wound that Raoul inflicted on Erik during their first midnight fight; Leroux himself never mentioned it again, although the ambiguity of claiming it could have been a cat that Raoul shot prevents this from being a full-on plot hole. I'm also one thousand percent in favor of the Persian as the swashbuckling hero of the day, even if he is also having trouble finding his characterization in this book.
And if that wasn't exciting enough for us, not only does Philippe survive his dunking in the lake, but he bursts in at the end and shoots Erik. Christine lets him in, thus letting her also participate in her own rescue and the rescue of everyone else involved. When I first read it, I was kind of grumpy about the trite happy ending of resurrecting the dead character so everyone could have a happy ending, but years later, older and wiser and having had to read way too many versions in which Philippe either never existed or was gruesomely mistreated for weird drama points, I'm just cheered by the fact that he got a moment to come rescue his little brother here.
Then, of course, there's the classic Twilight Zone cliffhanger. Erik is dead... OR IS HE? It's such a blatant road to a sequel that I'm surprised Bischoff didn't write one to milk this cow a little longer. From a reading point of view, this once again emphasizes the Phantom's monstrous nature by leaving the reader on a note of fear rather than sympathy or redemption, and shouldn't be a surprise since the goal apparently wasn't to have any kind of point about redemption or growth.
This was basically a nice, enjoyable novel, with a few problems here and there and some annoying Hollywood features. It's never going to be in my top fifty, but some days all you can really ask for is that no one ends the story traumatically assaulted or on a boat to America.