I decided to read this book because we've been watching the film of the ALW musical lately (my son loves it, plus I've been a fan of the musical for years, and have seen it on stage a couple of times). I was curious as to how closely Webber's version kept to the original.
Before I get into my thoughts about that, however, first I want to consider the book on its own. I really enjoyed this story, although I didn't always enjoy the prose. There were times when I felt there wasn't enough detail, and I struggled to figure out just what was happening; however, at times the description was very detailed and juicy. (In general, I tend to not like things written during this era; the prose is a bit difficult for me to parse).
The story is, of course, familiar. L'Opera Garnier in Paris is being "haunted" by the so-called "Opera Ghost." This phantom has taken an interest in the career of a young singer, Christine Daae, and mayhem ensues.
One of the primary reasons I was interested in this book was to see how LeRoux portrayed the various characters. In general, I felt the character development was lacking, and there wasn't as much depth as I'd hoped there would be. The story itself, though, is a page-turner; I read the final third of it in one sitting, in a bath which had long since gotten cold, but I kept reading instead of getting out and drying off.
I think my favorite part of the book was the description of the opera house itself - the labyrinthine passages, from the rooftops, all the way down many basement levels into the depths underneath. All this was especially interesting to me when I learned that the book is, indeed, set in l'Opera Garnier, which I have visited (more on this below, plus PICTURES! :D ). The action was exciting, and I found myself constantly wondering whether there really was a "rational" explanation for all that happened, or if there really was some sort of witchcraft involved.
In the end, I think I felt more pity for Erik than fear. I also felt a lack of sympathy for some of the other characters (in particular, Raoul, whom I can never seem to like in any version of the story). Christine was difficult for me to understand - not enough development for me to really get a feeling for her motivations, so I didn't entirely care what happened to her. Even though Erik truly is monstrous, I found it easier to sympathize with him than with any of the other characters, except perhaps the Persian, who was an interesting fellow.
Another thing that intrigues me about this story is the preface to the edition I read, which revealed that there is some evidence that Erik, the Phantom, might actually be loosely based on a real person living in the opera house during that time period. Apparently, there was also a real family de Chagny, and some other people who could be correlated with various characters in the book. It's also worth noting that the details about the opera house itself were accurate - there really is a subterranean lake beneath l'Opera Garnier. Oh, and while different in the particulars, there was an incident with a falling chandelier in the late 19th century.
All in all, it was an interesting book, and a classic that I'm glad to have read.
Now . . . some thoughts comparing the ALW musical (in particular the film) with the book.
I did try to read the book just for itself, without constantly thinking "back" to the ALW version, but this was difficult at times. (Not so difficult at others, however, especially in the second half of the book, when things really got rolling). Overall, I find the two to be completely different in focus (interesting considering one was derived from the other); the book is a gothic horror story, while the musical is a love story.
I find the distinction primarily in the interpretation of Christine Daae. LeRoux portrays her mostly as a naive, helpless victim, although at the end she does have some power to affect what is happening to her. I also don't think he develops her character very well, although we do get some depth at the very end, but to me it felt like too little, too late. Webber, IMO, gives her more depth (to what extent he took that interpretation from previous films, etc., I don't know - perhaps someone else romanticized the tale before he did; I will probably have a look at other film versions in the near future). I found it far more easy to believe that Webber's Christine would be drawn to the Phantom, even while she was frightened of him. To be honest, I prefer ALW's Christine (and Emmy Rossum was superb in the film - she IS Christine for me now, forever more). However, I also feel it's a bit apples and oranges to me now, as the book and the film are enjoyable in different ways, but in such different ways that it's almost as though they're two wholly separate entities now. In the book, Christine never seems quite real to me, nor does much of what she does make any sense. Even if she's just supposed to be a somewhat hysterical young girl, well, we don't see enough of her to figure out what could possibly be going on in her head. I find myself able to understand her motivation a lot more easily in the ALW version, especially the film, which is what makes the romance possible.
Of course, the interpretation of Erik (the Phantom) is also important. In the book, he is truly deformed in a way that would be much more difficult to overlook. (Sorry, but Gerard Butler is HAWT, even with part of his face sort of scarred). (Yes, here I have let escape my shallow tendency to judge based solely on physical attractiveness). ;) But really, there is a different between a guy with some scarring and a guy who doesn't have a nose, and has a face that looks like a skull. In the book, Erik also does seem more ruthless to me, and less "human" - less empathetic, and less stable, mentally. He sleeps in a dirt-filled coffin, for example (something which makes him smell "like death," according to Christine. Ewww). So, the book Phantom is a monster in just about every way; ALW gives him a lot more "humanity." Well, maybe that's not the right word, as we know full well that humans are capable of monstrosities. So, instead, I'll say that ALW makes him a far more sympathetic character, and less monstrous physically, as well.
Raoul, on the other hand, is equally "well" developed in the book and the ALW version, and I must say that I dislike him equally in both. In neither version do I ever get any sense of what in the world Christine sees in him. (He comes off all right in the stage musical, when you don't see as much of him, but in the film and the book, URGH!). On the whole, there is nothing at all that I find likeable about the Vicomte de Chagny, especially early on. I've always wondered why Christine was interested in him in the first place; I guess the childhood playmates thing, but still. He's pretty obnoxious. In the film, if I were Christine, I'd have given Raoul the boot after that first time he came to my dressing room and totally ignored the fact that I told him about five times that I didn't want to go to dinner with him. More fun to shack up in the totally cool underground lair with the Phantom and become a world-famous opera star. (Well, if this could have happened before Erik went on his killing spree, anyway. That does make him somewhat less appealing as a love interest). I must admit, though, that Raoul does come off as a hero by the end, especially in the book, since Christine really does need to be "rescued" from the more monstrous Erik. (Although, much of the credit for the rescue in the book must be given to the Persian, who doesn't appear in the musical).
As usual, ALW made clever use of much material from the book, not just in terms of adapting the story, but in using tiny little details to great advantage. One thing I remember especially was the way he took material (not quite verbatim, but close) to create the "Little Lotte let her mind wander" recitative. There were other touches like that which I really enjoyed, although I can't remember any of them off the top of my head.
In the category of "things that were very different," ALW did not include any mention (that I've noticed) of the Persian, who has a big role in the book. I quite liked his character, too, although I suppose I can understand the need to cut him out, for time. Also, in the book, the denouement (from the time Christine is snatched off-stage) makes up nearly *half* of the book. There is a LOT of detail there - the Persian and Raoul running around the opera house, the Torture Room, various backstory, lots of stuff. (Although, funnily enough, the musical inserts the whole "torches and pitchforks" search, which does not happen in the book). In contrast, the musical dedicates what, an eighth? A fifth? of the total running time to the rescue at the end. Not that this is bad. There are some interesting things which happen in the book that are left out of the musical; however, ALW perhaps does a better job of getting across the main point - that Christine's ability to show affection for Erik is what melts his heart enough for him to decide to let her go (and, in the case of the book, not blow up the entire opera, with a full house upstairs, in the bargain). I love ALW's scene where Christine kisses the phantom, which happens "off-stage" in the book. The dynamic between these two is understated in the book, and I think ALW did a wonderful job turning that into a very powerful scene - something which the book lacked, a bit, at the end. Not that the book ends with a whimper; there's just not the poignancy that ALW delivers.
So, on the whole, I love both the book and the musical, although the musical speaks more to the romantic soul inside me. (Assuming I have one; I've been told that I don't, but I assume that's not true). ;) In the long run, it's probably the film that will stick with me, as it's the version with which I'm most familiar (and which I'm likely to consume many more times in the future; I doubt I'll read the book again, or if I do, it won't be for many years. Too many other books out there to read). Plus, it kinda makes me happy to think of Erik and Meg hooking up at the end (which is TOTALLY the way I interpret the penultimate scene in the film; the final scene kind of blows it for me, but I just pretend that whole "rose on the grave" thing never happened). See! I DO have a romantic soul. Honestly! :D
Oh! And lest I forget, here is the really special thing I discovered in reading the book:
ALW refers to the "Opera Populaire," which I always assumed was based on l'Opera Garnier (which still stands, although it is no longer the primary opera house in Paris; there's a new,
Just for fun, look how little Connor was!
The grand staircase - easy to picture Erik coming down those steps dressed as the Red Death, eh?
The photos really don't do this building justice:
I seem to recall being told this was the room where horse-drawn carriages would enter, so their passengers could disembark. Although now I wonder if that's right - would they really have let carriages drive over such a gorgeous mosaic floor?
Here I am inside the theatre:
A (but surely not "the") chandelier, plus the amazing ceiling painted by Marc Chagall:
I would love to go back there again sometime, and hear an opera. (We were in Paris out of season, so were only able to tour the building, not actually attend a performance). In any case, though, when I realized that this is the "Phantom's Opera House," my son was REALLY CHUFFED to discover that he's been there. He bounced up and down about it for days. (Like I said at the top, he loves the musical; in fact, I think I'll take him to see it on stage when we're in New York later this year).