How Victor Hugo Inspired Batman’s foe the Joker

Written by on June 11, 2017 in Culture & Language, Guest Blogs

When you think of French writer, Victor Hugo, you probably think of his classic works, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Notre Dame de Paris) or Les Miserable. You probably wouldn’t associate him with the Joker, that mad supervillain with the maniacal laugh who is Batman’s adversary.

The Book

However, it seems that Victor Hugo might have had an indirect influence in the creation of the Joker’s eerie ever-smiling face. In 1869, Hugo published L’Homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs). It’s set at the end of seventeenth century in England and is about a young man named Gwynplaine. He was the son of an English lord but was kidnapped as a child by a group that stole children then mutilated or disfigured them in some way in order to exploit them. The children would be put on the street to beg or sold to a circus. (It’s not a jolly tale.) In Gwynplaine’s case, his face is formed into a permanent ear-to-ear grin.

Several years after his abduction, he’s abandoned by his kidnappers and ends up performing in a theater production that travels around to county fairs. During most of the show, the lower half of his face is covered. At the end, when his frozen smile is revealed, the audience bursts into laughter.

As an adult, Gwynplaine discovers that he’s the legitimate son of Lord Clancharlie, and he takes his deceased father’s seat in the House of Lords. When he tries to talk about serious issues, his fixed grin makes it hard for the other lords to take him seriously. At the end of this tragic tale, Gwynplaine commits suicide because his facial deformity was more than he could bear. (I warned you… No happy ending here.)

The Journal

Victor Hugo, however, didn’t invent Gwynplaine’s permanently smiling face. He took his inspiration from an earlier work, the Journal de Barbier, published in 1857. Barbier lived in Paris and recorded his observations of the eighteenth-century city. He mentioned the fixed-grin mutilation as fact and Hugo used it in his work of fiction.

When Hugo’s book, L’Homme Qui Rit, was published, it wasn’t very well received. The writer had tried to make it a political, philosophical, and social work and had filled it with allegories and metaphors. People just had to work too hard to read it, and it wasn’t a success.

The Film

Even though the book wasn’t a best-seller, it was adapted several times into film. In one 1928 silent film, The Man Who Laughs, Conrad Veidt played the ever-smiling Gwynplaine. It was Veidt’s portrayal that inspired the Joker’s face – and only his face, because the two characters have nothing in common but their looks.

The Cartoon

That old film and Conrad Veidt’s made-up face resurfaced in 1940 when Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson came together to create an evil adversary for their Batman comic book character. They needed a distinctive look that would fit the character they had created. Robinson produced a sketch of a Joker playing card and Finger pulled out an image of Conrad Veidt in makeup from the film, The Man Who Laughs. They looked very similar, and the picture of Veidt (without the jester costume) became the face of the crazy criminal.

Who would have thought that one of the greatest nineteenth-century French poets would have anything to do with a twentieth-century American cartoon villain? This just goes to show that there are no new ideas. One man’s mention in a journal entry inspires another man’s fictional hero. Someone else turns the story into a film, and an image from the film sparks the idea for a cartoon character who goes on to TV and film. And the creative circle continues…

Margo Lestz blogs at curiousrambler.com and is the author of Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions and Curious Histories of Provence – available from: curiousrambler.com/margos-books

Related Articles

Maintaining a House in France From Afar

Buying a house in France is the dream of many but what if you live on the other side of the globe and have never even set foot in France? This describes Annette Charlton who made her dream come true and now lives between her homes in Newcastle, Australia and Brittany, France. So, is the […]

Continue Reading

French Lessons | Mastering verbs

A French shop assistant in Antibes’ old town asked me for the translation of a French word the other afternoon. We’d become bosom buddies in her quiet swimsuit store, but I was glad for the conversational distraction.  I hated swimsuit shopping. It brought out all my insecurities. As my new friend rang up my purchase, she complimented […]

Continue Reading

The pros and cons of taking your dog to France from the US

The first time I took my long-haired mini-dachshund, Ellie, to France, we spent two months traveling from Paris to Brittany and Normandy. Our last stop was the seaside resort of Agon-Coutainville, on the Cotentin peninsula which juts into the English Channel. There Ellie feasted on raw milk Camembert and prė-salė lamb. When we returned to […]

Continue Reading

Going to the butcher’s shop in France

A French town without a baker – it’s unthinkable – everyone would move away! A butcher is almost as important to French village life as a baker. The butcher sells the usual roasts and chops and chickens, as well as a variety of prepared foods. My wife Val and I live part of the year […]

Continue Reading

Dealing with administrative offices in France

Life isn’t all sitting around eating cheese and quaffing wine for expats in France. There’s the tricky issue of everyday life and administration to deal with too! Never annoy a Fonctionaire… I read somewhere that 20% of the French population work for the government. If you buy a home in France, you will eventually come […]

Continue Reading

Subscribe

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed

Comments are closed.

Top