Like many musical theater fans, the first time Olivia Haynes, ’18, saw Phantom of the Opera, she fell in love with the musical’s story. She wasn’t content to simply listen to the cast album, however; she wanted to learn more, and began researching the production’s source material.
Phantom of the Opera is based on a novel by Gaston Leroux and there have been many film adaptations of it over the years, in addition to the musical. “I watched the 1925 silent movie version with Lon Chaney, which was considered to be the first American horror film, and then other films, and discovered how different each interpretation of the original story was,” Haynes said. “I realized that the adaptations could have almost completely different plots and be totally different stories, and I wanted to know why that was.”
For two years in high school, Haynes researched her theory that looking at different versions of Phantom of the Opera through a historical and social lens might explain some of the changes between the versions. “I wanted to look at how attitudes toward women, people with disabilities, and criminals have changed over time and if that would explain some of the changes between the versions,” she said. “Two of the main characters are Christine, who is a woman, and the Phantom, who is a criminal, and a representation of a disabled person because he has facial disfigurement, and I thought that if I looked at those historical trends, it would help explain some of the differences.”
Haynes set her research aside when she came to Richmond, but she was inspired to pick it up again after taking English and film studies courses that built her skills in visual and literary analysis. “I knew I could go a lot deeper into the research I had previously done; there were lots of things I wanted to change,” she said. “I dropped the category of the criminal because there wasn’t enough change across the 20th century to be able to make a compelling argument for that, and I really wanted to go deeper with the disability studies and the feminist work.”
Haynes read or viewed and analyzed the original novel, three movie versions, the stage musical, and a TV mini-series, all from different periods of the 20th century. She then supplemented her analysis with research written about the original novel or its adaptations. But the majority of her time was devoted to understanding the historical periods of each version. “I was looking at legislation about women getting the right to vote, legislation about people with disabilities, key Supreme Court cases focused on disability rights, all to illustrate the societal changes that were taking place, to see if the adaptations reflected them,” she said.
She also wanted to ground her work in ideological engagement, which led her to books about disability studies and key feminist thinkers like Betty Friedan and Simone de Bouvoir.
Haynes found that while the adaptations of Phantom of the Opera often reflected societal changes, the correlations are complex.
“The adaptations tend to reflect or react to, or sometimes both, some of the ideological changes going on toward women, and toward people with disabilities throughout the 20th century; with some of the later versions, you can really see them becoming more progressive in some key areas,” she said. By comparing the earlier adaptations and the later versions, Haynes could see disabled people being portrayed as more than just monsters or figures to make fun of, and that later versions have stronger female characters.
“While the versions tend to become more politically correct as time goes on, it’s not a straight slope upward in progress,” she said.
When she saw the musical again last fall on Broadway during the Undergraduate Humanities Fellows Program trip to New York City, Haynes watched it with a fresh perspective. “I got to look at it through a whole new lens having conducted all of this research, and it helped me think through how this project has changed and grown,” she said.
Haynes’ final step in her project is her own film adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, a documentary that highlights her research findings. She is currently working on the script and plans to film it over the next year.