Inspiration behind Joker film was written in island

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BOX OFFICE smash film Joker – starring Hollywood star Joaquin Phoenix – was inspired by a Victor Hugo story written in Guernsey.

The Man Who Laughs: L’Homme qui rit was written in 1869 while Hugo was living at Hauteville House, in St Peter Port.

‘Joker as a character would not exist without TMWL,’ said Dinah Bott, chairwoman of the Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society.

Gwynplaine, the main character, has fascinated audiences with his mutilated Chelsea smile.

‘The 1928 silent film was reasonably successful, giving market to the grotesque, leading to the 1931 Dracula film,’ said the Hugo expert.

‘Mark Twain parodied TMWL, as did JD Salinger – one of his best nine short stories.’

In Hugo’s book it is later revealed Gwynplaine is named Fermain Clancharlie, the legitimate heir of a lord.

At two years old he was sold by the King to Comprachicos, children disfigurers who force their victims into carnival servitude.

‘It is very much a Guernsey book. [Clancharlie] house is named Hunkerville House, with secret passages and marble described such as at Hauteville,’ she said.


‘There’s a whole section describing the Casquets Lighthouse in Alderney.’

Hugo’s initial inspiration has gone on to inspire countless literary works and films.

‘A Bristol musical named the Grinning Man became a West End hit. Many theatrical interpretations have run across Europe recently, as it was the 150th anniversary of the novel’s publication last year.

‘In turn this inspired an award-winning Korean production featuring a famous K-Pop star,’ she added.


DC Comics adapted Gwynplaine’s persona while creating the character of the Joker, who has featured in numerous Hollywood films over the years, most recently with Phoenix taking the starring role in Joker.

The screenwriters of Joker announced at last year’s Venice Film Festival that it was the 1928 film which inspired Joker’s origin story.

‘The Joker character has been different in all Batman films, some you can tell draw exactly from TMWL,’ said Ms Bott.

‘Victor Hugo knew psychology. Gwynplaine was a horrific freak, but once people were no longer fearful they would start laughing, until he restored his dukedom and people became fearful again.’

Outsiders are a common theme to Hugo, who was exiled and ridiculed for his forward-thinking, socially inclusive political beliefs.

‘Theatre and the circus is about the outsider,’ Ms Bott said, ‘special rules were in play in the theatre, you could say or do things you couldn’t in normal life.’

The popularity and influence of TMWL has grown since first publication.

‘This shows the enduring life of TMWL. As a philosophical novel, Hugo gave every line meaning,’ she said.

‘Toilers of the Sea was met with a confused reception and again people did not find the point.

‘His message was so complicated for the time of writing.’

Hugo was well acquainted with horror.

‘Gothic themes suit our modern tastes, we are used to reading horrible content,’ said Ms Bott. ‘Hugo outlived all of his children, excluding Adele, who lost her sanity. Hugo’s brother was schizophrenic and died in an asylum very young.’

All of this underpins Joker’s mentality.

‘Victor Hugo’s writing is about him. His texts are an autobiography. Outsiders reoccur as a theme due to his exile,’ Ms Bott said.

‘He was theatrical, as you can see where each room in Hauteville House is like its own scene.’


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