It was recently announced that Gaumont, the French production company behind Netflix shows like Narcos, plans to adapt the Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera into a six-part miniseries. Anthony Horowitz, the popular author and creator of shows like Foyle's War, will provide the screenplay in what has been described as a "reimagining" of the classic tale. While Leroux's 1910 novel has been adapted countless times over the past century, the chances are that you best know the story from Andrew Lloyd Webber's wildly popular musical. Indeed, that version of the tale has become so overwhelmingly popular that it has, in many ways, succeeded the source material in terms of ubiquity. If you’ve seen or read any adaptation or reimagining of Phantom written after 1986 then the chances are that it’s more influenced by Lloyd Webber than Leroux.
As someone who is a huge fan of all things Phantom, to the point where I have a literal shelf in my house dedicated to all of my books and related material on the story, I have high expectations for any and all adaptations of this book. I’ve seen most of the film and television versions made of Phantom from the 1920s onwards and have written about the best, worst, and weirdest ones for this here website. In short, I know what I want from my Phantom stories.
While details on this new miniseries are scant, it sounds like Gaumont and Horowitz intend to stick closer to the novel than any surrounding adaptation. Deadline's report on the news made comparisons to the recent BBC/PBS adaptation of Les Misérables, which stuck extremely closely to Victor Hugo's novel. That's all well and good, but there's a glaring difference between these two books: length. Les Mis is, depending on the edition, around 1500 pages, while Phantom is a sliver of that in comparison. The edition I own (well, one of three I own) is a mere 250 pages. Changes will inevitably be made in the new adaptation, be it the addition of subplots, expansion of backstory, or just some good old-fashioned fanfiction-style diversions. With that in mind, and with my endless Phantom FANGRRLism in need of release, here are some of the things we want to see from this new miniseries of The Phantom of the Opera.
Don't make it a romance
Is The Phantom of the Opera a romance? Not really but kind of? Leroux’s book is more a pulp crime thriller than a gothic romance but the elements are certainly there. It’s not hard to see why so many adaptations of the story focus on that aspect over the core mystery. Believe me, I totally get the appeal. I doubt that the musical would be as successful as it is if it didn’t have the passionate love triangle between a noble f**kboi, a beleaguered opera singer, and an incel trash man with a solid sense of décor.
Still, that default setting to romance with this story does it a disservice. At its heart, the actions of Erik are pretty horrifying and something that will feel eerily familiar to many women. Think about it: You’re an orphaned young girl who finds herself in a scary new environment in a completely different country. You’re alone and mourning and highly religious, so you find solace in your faith. Then a voice emerges from the ether, a beautiful voice unlike anything you’ve ever heard in your life, and it tells you that he’s a literal angel who has been sent to earth by your late father to teach you how to sing. This angel provides you with comfort and companionship until you’re an adult and have been elevated to the level of top soprano through the power of your talents and also the occasional gaslighting of your rival. Then, your angel reveals himself to you, and… well, he’s a 50-something man with severe emotional and mental problems who wants to keep you captive as his singing toy and will blackmail you into submission.
Wouldn’t that scar you for life? Isn’t that the most abhorrent possible outcome for a young woman, to have her faith stripped from her by a predator who has manipulated you for your entire adolescence? All that AND your actual boyfriend is a total a**hole? I can think of few things scarier. It’s sad that more adaptations haven’t tapped into the novel’s central terror, and a miniseries would be the perfect way to tease out that tale and give it the necessary room to breathe.
Don't forget the Persian
One thing that has bound together practically every adaptation of Phantom is the absence of the Persian. Not given a name in the book, the character is an integral part of the story, with the second half of the narrative being told mostly from his point-of-view. It is the Persian who reveals to Raoul and the reader the tragic backstory of Erik and with whom he has the closest relationship, even more so than Christine. The Persian met Erik while he served the Shah of Persia as his chief of police, and the Phantom worked as an architect, magician, and occasional assassin for the ruler. After he helped Erik to escape Persia, the Shah stripped him of his titles and forced him into exile, and he comes to be known to the opera as that random Persian guy who occasionally wanders around backstage and does as he pleases. As video essayist Lindsay Ellis noted in her study on the character, the Persian is a remarkably well fleshed-out and empathetically drawn figure in the novel and stands as one of the era's more progressive depictions of a Middle Eastern character.
Ellis also notes that the Persian is absent from basically all adaptations of Phantom bar notable exceptions like Susan Kay’s Phantom, a book that influenced a whole generation of Phantom fanfic and is wonderfully awful (and also mega-racist). Instead, his role in the story is either omitted entirely or given to other characters who are conveniently white. It’s yet another example of how whitewashing is perpetuated through pop culture, with whiteness asserted time and time again as the default mode, even when the source material says otherwise. It’s 2020 now. To make yet another Phantom adaptation without the Persian wouldn’t just be insulting; it would be lazy as all hell.
Don't overlook Christine
Given her crucial involvement in the story and her status as one of the novel’s main protagonists, a whole lot of Phantom adaptations do Christine Daae dirty. When she’s not depicted as a helpless ditz who’s treated like dirt by practically every man she comes into contact with, she ends up being a curious non-entity in the wider narrative. Even the best Phantom movies, like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, leave her on the sidelines of the real action. It doesn’t help that the book itself is told through the points-of-view of men, including Raoul who, as any good Phantom FANGRRL will tell you, is the absolute worst.
You can’t de-center Christine from her own story like that, and frankly, the overall narrative is way less interesting without her. Let’s see how these terrifying and deeply confusing events unfold from her perspective as the woman who nobody listens to but everyone fetishizes.
Do Erik — and the moral of the story — justice
The eponymous phantom is arguably the reason why the novel remains so enduringly popular. Through a combination of pulpy horror, gothic thriller, and Victorian morality tale, Leroux teases out a unique character whose monstrous nature is shown to be the result of societal neglect. Given the seeming frivolity of the book, The Phantom of the Opera is a remarkably sophisticated story of how the cruelty of the world and its smothering ideals of goodness and beauty help to breed evil and wrongdoing. Erik is "the bad guy" because he has been denied love and respect from birth, but that also, as the novel makes clear, doesn't give him a free pass to abuse and manipulate others. His ending—to die alone having finally understood true human love and realized that humanity is not his to command—remains potent in its emotional thrall to this day.
Of course, it’s also something a lot of Phantom adaptations miss the point of. Many choose to have their Erik be a hot dude who gets scarred then goes crazy, which robs the narrative of that moral center. Others simply make him a scary guy in the shadows which can be effective but is also reductive to the character. And then, inevitably, there are all the happy-ever-after rewrites that give Erik everything he wants without him learning anything (we’re looking at you, Love Never Dies!). Phantom is supposed to be a story of regret, of cycles of abuse, and of a 50-something man emotionally maturing for the first time since childhood. Without that, it’s just another scary guy in a mask story and the 1980s gave us a whole era of slasher movies with that setup.
Dear God, please don't modernize it
The core tenets of Phantom aren’t specific to its Victorian setting but the aesthetic, setting, and stylistic approach to the material are very much of their time. Sure, you probably could modernize it somehow but why would you bother? Why strip Phantom of its baroque high romance feel or its chandelier-swinging glory? The emotions of the story are heightened to match that era of storytelling. Besides, do we really want a 2020 version of Phantom where Erik is some tortured rocker or Broadway star who spends all his time skulking around the basement of some banging club while his Christine belts out power ballads? It simply wouldn’t work. It would be too much like parody and the story deserves better than that.
Although, not gonna lie, I would watch the Phantom movie where Channing Tatum plays a hunky scarred EDM DJ who drops the chandelier AND the beats. Call me, Mr. Horowitz!