Recently, “The Warden’s Walk,” an excellent blog I’ve been reading for some time, posted a question of whether the Phantom of the Opera is abusive or romantic. Certainly, given the high drama of the famous musical, it’s a worthy debate. He approaches it, though, afrom the vantage point of Joel Schumacher’s big screen adaptation.
(Quick disclaimer: I was a HUGE fan of the Weber musical. Saw it on Broadway with some members of the original cast still there, that’s how old I am. I was a troubled kid and it spoke to me. Go figure.)
That said, he raises good points. I invite you to read the blog in question. My comment there is the seed of what grew into this post.
Yes, the Phantom is a villain. He’s a bad guy.
There are no two ways about it. He manipulates, he murders, he distorts, he kidnaps, he intrudes, he steals, he covets, he treats himself as God-like. He’s the poster child for breaking every Commandment.
I think that the real beauty of the original novel, the original Lon Cheney movie, and the inimitable stage musical, is that it doesn’t disavow that. He’s the bad guy. He’s the villain.
But he’s also a product of his experiences. While I hesitate to say “sympathetic,” the Phantom is, at least, understandable.
The silent film version is truly wonderful. Long, but wonderful.
So what of the idea that it’s a romantic story? In short, we see “romance” through the Phantom’s eyes. The problem is Phantom doesn’t know how to be romantic. He merely thinks he is romantic.
He also doesn’t understand love; like Anakin Skywalker with Padme Amidala, he thinks he is in love, but really what he’s feeling is possessiveness and a desire to redeem himself through the other person. Desperate for acceptance, he sees his manipulation of Christine as the way to it, even if only vicariously.
While there’s no mitigating factor for his actions, it still shows a villain struggling with his humanity. He does have talent, mad as it is, and he desperately wants to be good and desirable. To adapt the words from Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, Magnolia, he has love to give, he just doesn’t know where to put it.
There is some small piece of him inside that knows what he is doing is wrong. The problem is that he lacks the ability to control his baser impulses. The irony is that all of his ingenuity, had it been turned to good and natural ends, would have led to the acceptance he so craved.
The redemption of the Phantom is that, at the end of the book/play/movie he realizes he *has* been wrong. He realizes it’s wrong because Christine has the courage and strength to show him mercy, which is in itself a foreign concept to him. It’s a postulation that, if he’d been shown some sort of human kindness in his life before then, maybe things could have been different.
In the end, the Phantom is a reflection of our own monstrosities as much as his. Society created him. That doesn’t remove his personal responsibility for his actions; his redemption, again, can only come from his personal recognition that his actions were wrong, and his repentance from them.
All that said, Joel Schumacher’s adaptation is not particularly good, trading theme and depth for artifice. Which is not surprising.