The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a story that lots of people know about but few people know the real story. It’s so much more than just a deformed Bellringer who loves a young beautiful Romani girl who is being pursed by a lustful priest, there are just so many layers to the story.
One big aspects that often gets lost, especially where film versions are concerned, is who is the title character of the story. The English title and the title for many of the movies points to Quasimodo, the titular Hunchback of Notre Dame but the original title of the book is a Notre Dame de Paris which points to the Church, the main setting, and the leading lady, Esmeralda.
This page is a look at which Esmeralda in film, and by extension TV movies, is the best depiction of the character and just all around memorable character.
And because the pool is quite small on Hunchback that are films that can be watched this is The Top 5 Best Esmeraldas from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Opening it up to Esmeralda from musical versions is a can of worms for another list.
Since there are always rumors of new versions being made, this list is subject to change. Let's see who Disney will cast in the role for the Live action remark as it is in the works.
Salma Hayek, 1997 Hunchback
At Number #5 we have Salma Hayek’s version. Hayek is one of those actresses that seemed ideal for the role as she is beautiful, sensual, and independence to the roles she plays.
Now if you know the book, Esmeralda wasn’t really all that brave and she was kind but on a whim but the Disney version morphed the character into a more take charged and very capable woman and the 1997 version was made on the coat-tails of the Disney version. Not saying the change in characterization is bad, just noting how this character has shifted away from her origins as immature teenager to a resourceful woman who can take care of herself.
A pro and a con of Hayek’s depiction of Esmeralda is she plays the role as Salma Hayek; a kind, sensual and empowered woman. It doesn't feel like she is really acting all that much however that is really enough because Hayek was pretty much destined to play Esmeralda.
Where she really shines in this movie is her dance number. I somehow doubt it is accurate to the way Esmeralda might have dance but there is a nice belly-dancing vibe and it's entertaining. it might be one of the most entertaining parts of the 1997 that isn’t a glaring flaw.
Gina Lollobrigida, 1956 Hunchback of Notre Dame
For many people, Gina Lollobrigida is their favorite Esmeralda as she has a free-spirited charm to her performance that is very engaging and very similar to Esmeralda’s personality in the book.
She also is the ONLY actress to play the role in bare feet, which speaks to authenticity and her dedication to the role. She also have a lovely dance scene that has a very Spanish flamenco tone to the movements. She is also the only Esmeralda to sing while she dances, which she does in the book.
Lollobrigida has the right look for an Esmeralda that is meant to be a full-fledge Romani. In the book she is not and that subplot is often unused even by Hugo himself when he wrote the libretto for the 1836 opera adaptation called La Esmeralda. Lollobrigida has dark hair which is in the fashion for the last 50’s and dark smoldering eyes. I would also point out that book Esmeralda does have black eyes and hair too. Lollobrigida is also small and dainty which fits Esmeralda's looks in the book. There is just something to Lollobrigida that looks right for the part.
All that being said however there is something to her playing this role of a young naïve girl that she doesn't really convey all that effectively. For whatever reason, Lollobridga feels too mature for the role. I don’t believe that her Esmeralda is young and innocent. And if that was the point to her character in this version. If a movie wand to depict Esmeralda as more mature and street savvy that is fine but that is not what this version was trying to convey in its characterization of Esmeralda. This version wanted her to be written to be the young innocent girl Esmeralda was in the book and there was just a disconnect with Lollobridga's overall vibe.
The Disney Version
If you’re like me, the Disney version of Esmeralda was the first depiction of the character you saw.
The Disney version seems to be a mix of the 1939 version with a sense of social justice and reverence for the Virgin Mary and Lollobrigida's sex appeal spliced with late 90’s independent woman, which came about because of Demi Moore's voice acting.
This version is not trying to be like Hugo's version of the character. Disney very clearly did not take their inspiration for the novel. They did however create an interesting spin take on character who at her core has all the tenants of the character; a beautiful, kind person who helped Quasimodo out when he needed help.
Esmeralda's social conscious makes her resonate with people and makes her an endearing relatable character.
Maureen O’Hara, 1939 Version
The 1939 version is one of the most respective versions of the story. It was made in the golden age and was the released the same years of two hallmark American movies, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of OZ and yet it still shone bright that year.
This version was speared-head by lead actor, i. e, Quasimodo, Charles Laughton who had a good working with relationship with nineteen year old Irish actress, Maureen O’Hara,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was her American debut. At Nineteen, O’Hara is the youngest of the screen actresses to play Esmeralda and as a result she brings a great spark and youth to the role.
Despite this youthfulness she brought to the role, O’Hara’s Esmeralda is less carefree than Lollobridga’s or the 1923 Esmeralda. This was largely due to the political climate of 1939 withWorld War II, Esmeralda is lot more concerned for the treatment of her people who are being persecuted in Paris and need papers to live there, which was not the case in the book.
And yet despite her concern O’Hara still has the love of life that Esmeralda has in the book.
Patsy Ruth Miller, 1923 Version
The 1923 a.k.a The Lon Chaney version is one of the most famous movie versions of The Hunchback of Notre. I would say that it is the second best known Hunchback movie with Disney being first.
At the time, the role of Esmeralda was coveted by every young actress in Hollywood and in the end Twenty-One year old Patsy Ruth Miller won the role.
Unlike most Esmeraldas, this version of Esmeralda followed her backstory in the book where she was stolen away from mother, albeit there are some difference, like in mother was noble and not a poor woman. Miller also plays Esmeralda more like she is the book, as sweet, free-spirited, innocent, romantic and a bit shallow.
Miller’s depiction does differ somewhat from the book in that she isn’t afraid of Frollo, none of the Esmeraldas really seem to be, though and she has an understanding of the social structure. In the book, Esmeralda thinks that she can marry Phoebus, a noble, without an issue but in the 1923 movie she rejects Phoebus for being in a different class as it’s a broader she can’t break with ease.
Miller was also pronounced by French authorities of Victor Hugo to be the "ideal" Esmeralda. If that isn’t a testimonial, I don’t know what is.