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These Stories Are Classics for a Reason

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire’s ardent believer in this best of all possible worlds, wouldn’t be working as a tutor today.

Oh my, no. He’d be here in Hollywood, rewriting the classics of world literature into sappily-ever-after movie scripts.

The latest of these cinema sugar coatings is opening today, Disney’s all-animated musical version of one of the saddest romances ever put to paper, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

It’s a heartbreaking book; almost everybody dies. Esmeralda the gypsy is unjustly put to death for sorcery. The wicked priest who hounds her to the grave to expiate his lust gets hurled off the ramparts of the great cathedral. Even Esmeralda’s pet goat is hanged for witchcraft. And the deformed Quasimodo himself, tormented by human cruelty, just lies down and dies beside the corpse of his beloved.

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I don’t know how the Disney version ends, but I doubt it’s with hangings, defenestrations and crumbling skeletons.

There’s a reason this book has been read for 165 years, and it’s not the illustrations. Great literature is full of tragedy, and tragedy is full of what everyone is clamoring for these days . . . values. Trials and tribulations, greed and sacrifice, loss and restoration, crime and punishment.

Oh, the body count in movies is still plenty high--instant, spectacular, anonymous death, delivered a la Schwarzenegger. We keep ratcheting up the firepower, but cutting away the intimate complexities of human power to elevate or destroy itself. It’s all caliber over character.

As a book, “The Scarlet Letter” is steeped in mortal and venial sin, hypocrisy and pride. But the recent movie of the same name is sweetened with PC and happy trails. An industry audience roared when “freely adapted” from the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel appeared on the screen; “Hunchback” has made free with Victor Hugo, giving his gypsy sly turquoise eyes, turning the loathsome male bimbo Phoebus into a dimpled hero and--judging from the drawings I’ve seen--rendering the tragically disfigured Quasimodo into just a funny-looking kid you might see on a telethon.

And Demi Moore, who played the new age Hester Prynne, is the voice of Esmeralda the gypsy in the new Hunchback movie.

I’m waiting for the first truth-in-advertising lawsuit from a high school junior who flunked the English test because he saw “The Scarlet Letter” movie instead of reading the book. And how many kids, and grown-ups, will think they know about “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” because they saw a movie that happened to have the same name?

Who is this timid sanitizing for? Surely not for children; they adore stern object lessons. It was squeamish grown-ups who dumbed down fairy tales about evildoers enclosed in nail-lined barrels and rolled down cobbled streets in punishment.

Maybe these writers simply had wretched childhoods. If they can get into counseling early enough, they won’t need to tell these horrible stories. So hello, sweetheart, get us rewrite:

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The new “Madame Bovary”: Doctor Charles Bovary’s struggling medical practice is bought out by a chain of HMOs; he bails out the extravagant Emma and gives her a letter of credit for their anniversary.

“Macbeth”: By law, Birnam Wood cannot be deforested, so Macbeth is flushed out of Dunsinane the same way the U.S. military forced Noriega out of sanctuary--by endlessly blaring unpleasant music until he surrenders. (Ethnic note: Bagpipes won’t work.)

“The Great Gatsby”: Daisy agrees to go to traffic school, Prohibition ends and Gatsby makes millions more bottling bourbon under the label Old Sport.

“Pygmalion”: Inspired by Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins opens a chain of accent-therapy clinics but is soon put out of business by picketers from the Cockney Roits Society.

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“Othello”: She goes to a battered women’s shelter, he enters therapy to find his inner child, and Iago becomes a top-rated talk-radio host.

“Moby-Dick”: The Sea Shepherd rams the Pequod before it can kill the white whale. Captain Ahab comes to terms with his revenge fantasies and joins the campaign to save marine mammals.

Oh, and the Hunchback?

A “Beverly Hills, 90210" plastic surgeon offers his scalpel pro bono, and the new, confident Quasimodo signs on as studio vice president.

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