Unnatural Talent: Christine’s Mask in the 1990 Phantom of the Opera Miniseries

“She was unprepared for ugliness. And for that brief, sweet moment, so was I.”

The most exciting and horrifying event in Phantom of the Opera is not found in the novel, and it’s rarely found in adaptations. Christine Daaé makes a monumental decision before the events of Gaston Leroux’s text, a choice which influences the entire narrative. Alone in her dressing room, frustrated by her small roles at the opera house, she hears a voice. This mysterious and invisible figure promises her lessons, fame, and power. She agrees, but Leroux doesn’t describe this moment. Why leave such a foundational incident behind? Why begin the text after she has made and possibly regret this decision?

Christine and the Phantom follow similar trajectories, in that each are defined by their ambition, or to be something more than what they were. Christine longs to be a world-famous opera singer, why else would she accept lessons from someone in a wall? She recognizes her potential and wants to develop her voice into something powerful, a tool which will grant her acclaim and satisfaction. Although Christine is typically portrayed as a naïve victim in Phantom adaptations, there is nothing passive about her decision to pursue music. There is a part of her, ever so slight, that desperately believes that she is better than Carlotta, and that she deserves the diva’s spotlight more than her. This conscious ambition makes Christine a venerable and unconventional force, and I would argue that Christine’s decision to work with the Phantom is the most telling aspect of her character. She knows herself, and better still, she knows there is room for improvement.

No one can sing bel canto without lessons. God doesn’t allow it!”

Phantom narratives are equally concerned by the fear of masks and the fear/intense need to be accepted. Each character contends with their own version of these issues, although the Phantom is the most evident example. He wears a mask, people fear what is underneath, and he longs to be accepted by conventional society through that mask. The mask is thus a dual item, a way to shield and disguise yourself to avoid stigma, but also a mark that causes further stigmatization. The anxiety around mask wearers is likewise tied to their potential to ‘blend in’ and be accepted, the wolf amongst the flock if you will.

Christine is another masked character, just not literally. Leroux’s text is told from different perspectives, but never Christine’s. Her voice is not present, and therefore, her characterization in the novel is the direct result of what other people want her to be, versus what she may want. She comes across as gullible in the text, as she honestly believes that her teacher is an Angel sent by her dead father, and she doesn’t make the connection between this mysterious figure and the violent Opera Ghost. I believe there is something else in the background of Leroux’s novel, something which is not addressed there, but has been in certain later adaptations. Christine chose ambition, she actively chooses to dedicate her life to music. Not to the Phantom, to music and the power it could give her. I would argue that the novel is somewhat afraid of exploring Christine’s ambition, which explains why she disappears at the end of the novel and never becomes an opera star. It’s as though the novel doesn’t how to justifiably transition her desire to be a legend to being a proper wife. The 1990 adaptation finally depicts this unwritten moment, and in doing so, forever alters our concept of Christine and this trajectory.

“I’m sorry. I’m just not used to killing people; it threw me off a bit.”

Adaptations of Leroux’s novel have dealt with the dynamic between fear and disguise in radically different ways, often as a response to an earlier adaptation. I discussed the 1989 adaptation last week, the one with horror icon Robert Englund, and that film was a firm departure from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical. The 1989 version is steeped with graphic violence and subject matter to distinguish itself from the stage production. It did this to fully detach from the musical’s reputation of being a tortured romance, which the book is not. The novel is more conscious of the toxic elements between Christine and her Angel, and it wasn’t until Webber’s musical that the narrative shifted. On the heels of this 1989 horror flick came another adaptation, one which seemingly returned to Webber’s romantic gaze but made the story and its characters more dimensional. 

Screenwriter Arthur Kopit wrote a Phantom script before Webber produced his musical and was allegedly heartbroken when he saw Webber’s success. He figured that there was no room for another adaptation and that everyone would assume he was trying to capitalize off the musical rather than creating an original adaptation. His work was eventually produced as a two-part miniseries, staring the incredible Charles Dance and Teri Polo. I spent much of my post last week praising Robert Englund’s horror translation of the Phantom, but Charles Dance picks up and expands on something just as important from the novel. I think it would be helpful to focus first on the Phantom, and then Christine’s attempts at masking, as they do mirror one another.

“This means she’s probably going to sing all the time. What kind of horror are you leaving me in?”

Leroux’s text ends shortly after the Phantom lets Christine go, a scene which is not present in the original 1925 adaptation nor the 1989. These films fixate on the Phantom’s villainy and graphic nature, a decision which not even the Phantom can change. There is no room in these horror films for his character to give up Christine, as horror villains are often entirely self-obsessed and driven. He is either shot or stabbed by someone at the end of these horror works so Christine can escape. It’s only in the more drama-based adaptations that he lets her go.

The 1990 series features no horror elements and is tamer than Webber’s musical. It is a drama piece, and consequently, it’s interested in character rather than character’s actions. Horror films tend to inform audiences about their character through their drastic behaviour, how they react or enact horror upon others. They often involve these massive narratives which can spread across decades and have huge life and death consequences. While Leroux’s text certainly follows this horror tradition, the series does not. The miniseries focuses on little moments of character, both when the stakes are low and high. The episodes are still quite dramatic, and contain several big events, but the series leaves room for characters to establish themselves in conversations and small actions. This makes several of the relationships feel more established and believable. The series essentially asks us to consider what led to the relationship between Christine and the Phantom, and why the Phantom is not a one-faced villain. He is, after all, constantly masked, and thus wears at least two faces constantly.

One of the benefits of producing a literary miniseries is that you have more time to work with the material. You can focus on the events everyone remembers from the book while also incorporating more details from the text, even expanding on why those details were there to begin with. Many hail miniseries as the most ‘faithful’ adaptation medium there is, as creators are not obligated to stuff everything into a 2-hour runtime. I have spent several blog posts focusing on why audiences want fidelity, and how that specific word is so noteworthy to media adaptation studies, but I tend to agree with this position. I love miniseries adaptations; I think they can do something new without angering fans. They can show the main events and then move the story forward. That is exactly what the 1990 adaptation of Phantom does, as it focuses on a huge event which technically happens in Leroux’s text, but is not directly discussed, nor is it depicted in any other adaptation: how the Phantom met Christine and what their lessons looked like.

The novel, and most adaptations, begin in the middle of the Opera Ghost crisis, right after stagehand Joseph Buquet is found dead. This starting point is a simple way to introduce the main players and establish that the Opera Ghost is a viable threat. The 1990 version is not interested in establishing this threat, or horror, and so it begins months before, right when Christine arrives at the opera. As a newcomer, Christine acts as our introduction to the opera house and its character, as she meets them the same time we do. This introduction also allows us to spend more time with Christine, which is another thing other Phantom adaptation have trouble with. Most works rush to focus on her relationships with the Phantom and Raoul, and they do so before giving her the chance to be an individual. Webber gives her a single song before saddling her off with Raoul. Her entire identity becomes fixed to these men, and she must choose between them, with no third option. I’ve often wondered while reading the book if Christine chooses to be with Raoul purely because she wants to escape from the Phantom. We don’t hear her perspective, so anything is possible. You could even read Christine as a somewhat manipulative character, although that word is a bit harsh, who uses Raoul to escape and doesn’t really love him the way he obsessively loves her.

Christine is given the opportunity to become a full character in the 1990 version, which I genuinely appreciate. She has ambition, strong morals, and a complicated relationship/friendship with both Raoul and the Phantom. I think Christine’s established character here also mediates some of the troubling male gaze Phantom adaptations often spring with. Christine at least has some individual ambition and desire that is not entirely dependent on her love interests.

“All in all, not all that bad – being born I mean.”

The 1990 adaptation creates a radically different, and deeply sympathetic, ‘villain’. The Phantom is perfectly content living alone underground. He occasionally kills someone if they get to close to his house, but he lives in relative peace. While Leroux’s Phantom has an entire torture chamber which looks like a forest, the 1990 Phantom has an artificial forest, complete with plastic animals which he can wander through and pretend he is outside. That alone marks the difference between Leroux and the 1990 version, as Charles Dances’ character is quite different than any other. He is not torture obsessed like the original, but he is also not as naïve as Webber’s character. He wears a series of masks depending on his mood, sometimes multiple masks at a time. There is one scene where he takes off his mask only to reveal another underneath, meaning that there are literal and metaphoric layers to his character.

What is especially noteworthy about this Phantom is that we never see his face. Christine sees it twice, but she blocks the camera both times. The series is not interested in showing what tortures the Phantom, suggesting that the audience’s gaze is somewhat harmful. The show demonstrates that the Phantom is a somewhat toxic person while additionally suggesting that he is a deeply sympathetic figure who is merely afraid of other people’s gaze. He has ambition, like Christine, but in an opposite manner. Christine wants to be extraordinary; he wants to be ordinary. The Phantom’s firmest wish is to live as a normal man, and although he has been entirely rejected from these orders, he still wants a conventional life. He wants a wife, he wants to have picnics in the park, he wants to be as happy as he imagines other people are. But his versions of these things are always artificial. None of it comes naturally, he must build it himself. However, he is drawn to natural things, especially Christine. She has a raw talent that he just helps, it still belongs to her. He doesn’t try to possess her voice in any way, unlike the other Phantoms who are constantly shouting about owning Christine’s talent. He is genuinely proud when Christine succeeds, and only abducts her after Carlotta humiliates her on stage.

Although the 1990 Phantom loves classical music, he isn’t a composer like his counterparts. He is a skilled musician who is capable of training Christine, but he doesn’t write music. Instead, it’s revealed in the grand finale that the Phantom sings. He has an incredible voice that goes perfectly with Christine. It is also an extremely dramatic moment, as he sings to her, half dead, on the balcony of the opera house. Just for context, Christine has escaped from the Phantom after he tried to lock her up for seeing his face. His one rule for anyone below is that if you see his face, you die. He doesn’t kill Christine, but he can’t let her return and tell people. The mask reveal is also quite heartbreaking, as it happens during a picnic between Christine and the Phantom in his artificial woods. The Phantom tries to convince Christine that he lives a perfectly normal life underground, and they go through this sort of play where neither acknowledges that this world is constructed. When they sit down, Christine asks to see the Phantom’s true face, and she uses this manipulative language, asking “if you love me, please, let me love you too”. The original Christine just rips his mask off, but it’s an outright betrayal here. She uses her voice, the very thing he fostered, against him.

When the Phantom shows her his face, a move which no other adaption has done, she immediately passes out in terror. She cannot hide nor mask her fear, and her response is so instinctive and dramatic that the Phantom knows there is no chance she could ever love him. And whatever chance there was, before she saw is face, is over. He begins to destroy the forest, kicking and tearing it down, before shoving Christine into a large cage, noting “this need not have happened, you made this happen, I was happy with the way things were”. The play is over, and Christine cannot return to her naïve state. When she escapes, running back to Raoul, the Phantom gives up on life. He begins to sour underground, letting his hate slowly fester, devour, and kill him. Christine knows this and feels immense guilt for not being brave enough to help. She asks to play Marguerite in Faust one more time, hoping to lure him out and apologize. Raoul is against the plan, but once again, Christine asserts her voice and makes it clear that she will do what she wants, regardless of the risk. She has no idea that the police have also infiltrated the opera house.

Christine’s voice filters into the basement, and down further towards the lake. The Phantom hears it and stumbles up to Box 5, the ghost’s box. Christine is performing the finale piece by the time he arrives, the scene where an abandoned Marguerite confesses her love once more before flying to heaven, while her lover is dragged to hell. The Phantom interrupts the performance, singing as her lover Faust, and reciprocates this love. It’s a beautiful moment which signals that the play has returned, the Phantom can play as Faust and Christine as Marguerite. They project their relationship onto these figures so they can confess their love and deal with the seeming impossible distance between their lives. Christine’s love for him is perhaps more of a friendship than romance, but she does care deeply about him. It is a triumphant moment, which Raoul can only scowl at, but more importantly, these projected roles foreshadow the events immediately after, specifically the divide between these characters. The finale episode doesn’t suggest that the Phantom is going to hell, more that the divide between them is hellish. Christine stays on earth, and perhaps that represents hell, while the Phantom ascends.

The police begin to shoot at the Phantom, who rushes to the stage and carries Christine out of the gunfire and up onto the attic. He tries to attack Raoul, but stops when Christine begs him not to, again using that manipulative “if you love me” statement. This moment further cements that Christine’s voice is a weapon she consciously uses to assert her will. As the police surround them, the Phantom gives up, but before they shoot him, the Captain demands that the Phantom be brought back alive. The Phantom looks out, and sees the retired house manager, his father, and nodding, the man shoots and kills him so he can be free. Christine rushes to the Phantom and removes his mask once more, this time kissing him on the forehead before he dies. She carefully reapplies the mask as he passes. Christine also kisses the Phantom’s forehead in the novel, but the circumstances are completely different. She does so in the novel to placate the Phantom, in hopes that he will let Raoul go, but something else happens here. Christine and the Phantom are on equal footing, they understand one another to some degree, and there is no deception. The Phantom is thus not the only unmasked character in this death scene, Christine is also vulnerable and unmasked. She shows her compassion for him, and he shows her his face. That is how their relationship ends.

 “I was born so that she could save me, for that’s what she’s done!”

The Phantom’s well-established background with masks means that he can see right through other people’s disguises. When Christine tries to lie to him about Raoul, he immediately recognizes it. That ability is also one of the reasons he cannot stand Carlotta and her husband, Gerard Carriere, as they consistently dismiss talent and kindness for self-gain, making them just as artificial as his surroundings. Christine at least has the talent to warrant her ambition. He thinks the same of Raoul, as Raoul has a reputation of being a notorious bachelor with a long list of broken-hearted women. The Phantom assumes, rightfully so, that Raoul is just using Christine and is not worthy of her. It just so happens that Raoul’s feelings are later proven genuine, and that he really does love Christine. He once wore a mask, but around Christine, he just wears a dimpled smile.  

In addition to spending more time with Christine and the Phantom, the 1990 series expands on their backstories. Christine is the daughter of a poor violinist who once worked for Raoul’s family. She and Raoul were friends, but became too close, causing Christine’s father to lose his job. She eventually meets Raoul again at a country fair, and although he doesn’t recognize her, he promises to get her singing classes in Paris. The Phantom, meanwhile, is the son of a promising singer and a poor stagehand. His mother loved the stagehand, who was perpetually confused at why she wanted to be with him. This insecurity drove his mother slightly manic, and she tried to kill herself and miscarry, which led to the Phantom’s scars. Although he never really knew his mother, he remembers her voice and has a portrait of her, both of which are strikingly similar to Christine. This similarity is where the adaptation gets a bit weird.

In the original text, Christine believes that the Phantom is the Angel of Music, sent by her father, and she often discusses the Angel as though he were her father. The Phantom uses this assumption against her, even playing her father’s violin to make her feel safe. The 1990 adaptation reverses this slightly, as Christine is the exact image of the Phantom’s dead mother, Polo plays both, and although the Phantom is unconscious of this similarity, his father is not. The stagehand survives and becomes the opera manager, essentially raising the Phantom without telling him that he is his father. The ex-stagehand realizes that the Phantom’s fixation with Christine is a direct response to his traumatic childhood. Christine therefore becomes the Angel in this version, rather than the Phantom. The fact that this Angel status is interchangeable between adaptations further suggests that the Phantom and Christine both wear masks which allow them to switch between personalities. Both have ambition, and both use masks to shield and move towards that goal.

I’d thought about being buried in my lagoon. Then I thought, no, float up and scare some poor child downstream.

The 1990 adaptation was the first Leroux inspired work which could film inside the Palais Garnier, where the original novel takes place. It is in English, and only features one French opera- Faust – but it tries to be somewhat historically accurate. Perhaps that makes up for its ‘inaccurate’ adaptation model, although I don’t particularly mind the departures in this work.

Seeing as this is my last Phantom post, at least for a while, I want to end things with some final thoughts. One thing I’ve learned about Gaston’s legacy is that it is always putting on a new mask. It is never the same for two creators. The characters in the novel are afraid of the Phantom because he brings out the worst in them, they project onto his mysterious mask, making it far worse than it could ever be. This projection model continues in the very structure of later adaptations, as everyone uses the Phantom story to either say something about themselves, the current decade, or something about other adaptations. Ultimately, I believe that these adaptations work best together, it is not a competition. They form this fantastic network of different cultural anxieties, some of which are very era specific, and others which are longstanding. My hope is that people spend more time with these adaptations, and the original novel, rather than simply focusing on one Broadway production. I genuinely believe these projects work best together, as that approach allows you to witness how they operate differently and why. I love certain elements from the 1990 version, but I also love elements from the 1989, and certainly the 1974 Phantom of the Paradise. These radically different works and approaches overlap in the best possible way. The Phantom, and even Christine, are not single figures. They wear masks and change in each work, especially in this 1990 work, where Christine grows from an ambitious country girl to opera star. I believe that people watch these adaptations because Christine and the Phantom are always adjusting their masks. You could watch just one adaptation, but where is the fun in that?