Halloween: Judge Claude Frollo

Screenshot of Claude Frollo from Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’. Copyright goes to Walt Disney Pictures and Buena Vista Pictures.

Hi! It’s Annie!

Claude Frollo has always been one of the most terrifying Disney villains to me; but now that I’ve consumed different versions of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, he’s definitely one of the most terrifying fictional villains in general. What has always been the most scary is the fact that he’s always in some sort of position of power, no matter what version of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ you read or watch. He’s this person who is supposed to be widely trusted, but is easily corrupted by power and his own selfishness. I am of the opinion that the scariest villains are the ones that are the most realistic. The ones that feel they are in the right and they are, therefore, the heroes. Judge Claude Frollo definitely, and unfortunately, falls under this description. So what exactly makes him so scary?

WARNING: This article will have possibly triggering mentions of sexual assault and attempted rape.

The Novel:

Frollo is not a Judge in the original novel, but rather an archdeacon. Definitely a lower position with less power and money to his name. Frollo also is not depicted as being purposefully evil, but instead is depicted as a man who falls into madness because of his own selfishness. His act before the novel of willingly adopting Quasimodo and teaching him sign language are the markings of a good person. But, those are possibly the only times he succeeds at being anything even resembling good. Frollo has an irrational fear of women (possibly due to his celibacy) and falls in love with Esmerelda at first sight. He sends Quasimodo to kidnap her for him, and Quasimodo is caught by Pheobus and other guards. The plan backfires on Frollo when Esmerelda immediately falls in love with her savior. He is so caught up in this that he doesn’t vouch for Quasimodo when he is almost killed by townspeople. His lust for Esmerelda drives him throughout the entire novel, causing him to stab himself, stab Pheobus, and sexually assault Esmerelda several times. Esmerelda is blamed for the stabbing of Pheobus and, by this point, Frollo has decided that, because she won’t be his, she should just die. He leaves Paris thinking that she has been killed for his crime and is at peace with that, not knowing that Quasimodo granted her sanctuary. When he comes back he tries his luck with Esmerelda again after finding her alive, this time attempting to rape her, but she is saved once again by Quasimodo. In a rage he turns her over to the guards and laughs as she is hanged. His laughter sends Quasimodo into a frenzy and he throws Frollo off the tallest tower of Notre Dame and to his death. You’re probably thinking that this is the most pathetic and disgusting fictional character you’ve ever read about, and I don’t blame you. Because he probably is. He does good actions before the novel starts, but you discover throughout the novel that his reasoning for doing good was so that he could call himself a good person. His actions when he is faced with his own selfishness are horrific and unforgivable. They also prove his true character. He never truly cared about Quasimodo or he wouldn’t have forced him to do his own dirty work and then left him to die. If he was a good person he would have left Esmerelda alone and if he truly loved her he never would have tried to hurt her or laughed while she died. He truly believes that he is good because of his status as a priest, but he reveals himself to be an irredeemable person. Not one person is sad when he dies; not the characters in the book and certainly not the audience reading it.

The Disney Movie:

While the original novel depicts Frollo as scary because priests are supposed to be people you trust, Disney goes a little farther with this. Disney makes him Judge Claude Frollo rather than archdeacon Claude Frollo. He has more power and is more corrupt because of it. However, unlike the novel, Frollo is very obviously supposed to be evil. He does not take Quasimodo in of his own volition nor does he care if whether or not what he’s doing is right. But he does still think that because he worships God he must always be in the right. Frollo follows much of the same arc in the movie as the novel in that his character is mostly informed by his lust over Esmerelda. But this is a Disney movie so this aspect is also toned down. That doesn’t mean he’s not intimidating or awful in the Disney movie though. Disney replaces several sexual assault scenes with brutal killings instead; such as setting half of Paris on fire and killing Quasimodo’s parents at the beginning of the film. Also, it’s really difficult for a villain to not be intimidating when they are voiced by Tony Jay (a former actor of the Royal Shakespeare Company who was known for his baritone voice) or when they have ‘Hellfire’ as their villain song. The instrumental version of ‘Hellfire’ has since been used in several different shows at Disney parks even when Frollo doesn’t appear because it’s such a great, terrifying, piece of music. I get chills every time I hear it. If you haven’t listened to anything instrumental from this movie, at least look up “Sanctuary”. I promise you, you won’t regret it. Even though Frollo is greatly changed from the novel, there’s no arguing against the fact that he’s one of the scariest Disney villains. But this time he’s slightly more enjoyable to watch because of his general villainous nature. It’s still difficult though, because he’s still such a disgusting person. At least Esmerelda is able to escape him and her death in this version.

The Musical:

This is a slightly more recent musical that Disney created. The fact that Disney created this musical is a bit surprising to me. I was able to see this musical early last year, and it was absolutely amazing. The thing is, it ascribes a lot more to the novel than the Disney movie despite this being a Disney creation. In other words, don’t bring your kids to see this one. Just because it’s Disney does not mean that it’s safe for kids. The musical demotes Frollo back to archdeacon and puts back in the attempted rape scene as well as Esmerelda’s death from the novel. Frollo is back to his regular pathetic and disgusting self. The musical gives him a bit more of a backstory with his brother and a Romani woman to try and explain to the audience a bit more where he’s coming from. Though it doesn’t, and isn’t supposed to, excuse his actions in any way or make what he does understandable. This version of Frollo is scary in another way. Rather than depicting Frollo as a madman like in the novel or straight up evil like in the Disney film; this version tries its best to depict Frollo as a man that was once good and could still have been good. He is corrupted so much by power, lust, and selfishness that he becomes the absolute opposite of what he was. You see his complete turn from a good man into an evil one. It’s the most human of transformations I’ve seen for Frollo and, because of that, it’s also the scariest. I just don’t understand why they stayed closer to the book for Frollo, but still decided to keep with the questionable decision of making Pheobus a love interest for Esmerelda. Pheobus has always been awful, and is even a villain in the original novel, so I have no idea why they continue thinking portraying him this way is ok.

Frollo is awful and disgusting, but he’s also realistic, causing him to remain one of the scariest villains of all time after all these years. In whatever version of the story that you watch or read, he always seems to be all the evil of humanity stuffed into one character. ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ is a great book, but it’s also a depressing read because the goal of the novel is to show it’s audience what we shouldn’t be, and what we should work and fight against. The only truly innocent person in the novel is Esmerelda and she is killed by corrupt people in power she was told she could trust. This novel was written to be a love letter to Paris, but this is a letter that instead of praising Paris, tells it that there’s still so much to fight for and still so much that could be better. It’s a reminder that we all have the capacity for evil. Frollo is supposed to be everything that we shouldn’t be; a mistake to be learned from. Though he’s not the most fun of villains to watch because he’s so awful, it’s still important to have villains like this to learn from. He’s awful, but he’s also a reminder to be kind and compassionate.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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