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TNT's 'Hunchback' Changed to Suit the Cable Audience

March 15, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Victor Hugo was suitable for the 19th century. But it's obvious that he could never hack it as a writer for television.

No wonder, then, that Hugo's classic novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" had to be revised to make it presentable for viewers of cable's TNT. Hence, Sunday's rendering of "Hunchback" is less an adaptation of the original novel than a largely botched story inspired by it, one with Mandy Patinkin as the noble bell ringer, Quasimodo; Richard Harris as his villainous mentor, Dom Frollo; and Salma Hayek as Esmeralda, the gyrating stimulus for their testosterone.

Literature is always bent to the passions and interpretations of those converting it to stage or screen. There's nothing necessarily inviolate here. And previous movie versions of "Hunchback" also have rewritten Hugo, most recently Disney's animated musical, which created not only songs but also happiness-ever-after for its hero and heroine.

Now comes TNT's "Hunchback," directed by Peter Medak and handsomely staged in Eastern Europe, but otherwise undistinguished, and at times flat-out carnivalesque in its depiction of the gnarled bell ringer's devotion to Esmeralda and his efforts to save her from the gallows and the clutches of the twisted churchman Dom Frollo.

The teleplay, by John Fasano, soars over the top in accentuating the lascivious nature of the cruel, self-flagellating Dom Frollo, who lurks like Bela Lugosi and publicly condemns "base desires" while secretly foaming with lust for the ravishing dancing girl. His biological bells toll louder here than Notre Dame's, nearly drowning out the rest of the story, such as it is.

This "Hunchback" departs from the novel by finding new targets for Dom Frollo's lethal blade, depicting Quasimodo as something of a bookish pamphleteer and fomenter of revolution, transforming street chaos into a human rights rebellion, changing Esmeralda's romantic interest and, in the case of her and Quasimodo, toying with their fates.

Harris is menacing all the way to his fatal dive, Hayek is fetching and Patinkin is a nimble, athletic Quasimodo, but one projecting little of the soulfulness visible in Charles Laughton's definitive 1939 portrayal of French literature's enduring human gargoyle.

* "The Hunchback" can be seen at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday and again at 8 p.m. Tuesday and 5 p.m. Friday on cable's TNT.

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