The story follows the original novel insofar as Esmeralda is the focus, and Quasimodo is only a supporting character.note The main changes to the plot involve reworking the story into a typical Hollywood romance, with Phoebus and Esmeralda as our leading man and woman. Unlike in the novel, they get a happy ending. This may also be the first adaptation in which Claude Frollo is turned into a Decomposite Character to avoid portraying a priest as the villain. In this version, Frollo's negative traits are given to his brother Jehan.
This film is considered to have launched the Universal Horror franchise, although it isn't actually much of a horror film. Call it Early Installment Weirdness. Notably, Quasimodo never appeared in any subsequent Universal films, the 1939 version being a production of RKO Pictures. Even so, this film's status as part of the classic horror canon is the reason Quasimodo is occasionally counted as part of the Monster Mash.
In 1951, the film entered the Public Domain due to Universal failing to renew the copyright.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame provides examples of:
- Adaptational Heroism:
- Claude Frollo mixes this with Decomposite Character. He is a saintly archdeacon, his villainous role instead given to his brother Jehan. This would be repeated in the 1939 version.
- In the book, Phoebus was a jerk who was just interested in Esmeralda for sex. Although still portrayed as a womanizer, this film casts him as a heroic love interest for her.
- Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: Esmeralda still rescues Gringoire in the Court of Miracles, but their chaste marriage doesn't happen.
- Because You Were Nice to Me: "All Quasimodo knew was that this girl had once been kind to him," says the Title Card explaining why he rescued Esmeralda.
- Can't Act Perverted Toward a Love Interest: After Phoebus rescues Esmeralda near the beginning, he plans that she will be just another conquest for him. He brings her to a tavern, where he pulls down her sleeve as an apparent precursor to undressing her. When his feelings for her become serious, he pulls her sleeve back up and offers to take her home.
- Demoted to Extra: Gringoire is pretty much reduced to being Phoebus' goofy sidekick, mostly just to keep him in the story.
- Disposable Fiancé: Fleur-de-Lys is still in the story, and becomes this trope as a result of Phoebus ending up with Esmeralda. Fleur seems to be very "meh, whatever" about her fiance running off with another woman. The screenwriters might not have thought this through completely.
- Does Not Like Shoes: Downplayed, compared to later adaptations in which Esmeralda is perpetually barefoot. Here, she is barefoot for her dance act, but wears shoes the rest of the time.
- Flashback: Used to illustrate Sister Gudule's backstory.
- The Ingenue: Esmeralda, like in the novel and unlike in basically every subsequent adaptation
- Ladykiller in Love: Phoebus towards Esmeralda
- Mutual Kill: Jehan fatally stabs Quasimodo, but the hunchback manages to throw his master off the ramparts of Notre Dame before succumbing to his wound.
- Mythology Gag: When Jehan tries to convince Esmeralda to run away with him, he's wearing the robes of the Church, which he hastily explains by saying that it was the only way he could get past the guards. Apparently, that's as close as they could get to having a priest as the villain in 1923.
- Orphan's Plot Trinket: Esmeralda's necklace, as in the novel.
- Princess for a Day: Phoebus dresses Esmeralda up like a noblewoman and brings her to a ball, where he introduces her as "Her Highness, Princess of Egypt."
- Race Lift: Averted. Unlike in later adaptations, Esmeralda is revealed to be the long-lost daughter of Sister Gudule. This subplot goes nowhere in the film, which is probably why subsequent versions cut it.
- Shipper on Deck: In this version, Gringoire doesn't want Esmeralda for himself and is instead rooting for her to get together with Phoebus.
- Spared by the Adaptation: Unlike in the original novel, Esmeralda lives. However, Quasimodo still dies.
- Uptown Boy: Social class proves to be an obstacle in Phoebus and Esmeralda's relationship.