Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera almost certainly qualifies as a candidate for the title of the least-read novel whose story is best-known. Thanks to a never-ending supply of adaptations into other media, it would be almost impossible to find any person who can’t provide a basic summary of the book’s plot. Adaptations of the story range from actual operas, to silent movies, to parodies—running the gamut from Brian DePalma’s sublime rock musical Phantom of the Paradise to a stage version that mashes up Leroux’s outline with Star Wars characters (called Phantom of the Empire).
Finding anyone who has actually read the book all the way through, however, would be a difficult task. Proving that sometimes the original or source material gets completely lost as part of its own legacy, between 1987 and 1992 alone there seven different movies based on Leroux’s novel, including a cartoon version starring the Chipmunks. The Phantom of the Opera has also inspired a number of radio dramas, dozens of short stories, novels, comic books, orchestral compositions, heavy metal songs, and ska-punk covers of songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation. The Webber adaptation has remained the longest-running musical of all time on Broadway since 2005. In addition, the titular character has been directly referenced on The Simpsons at least half a dozen times.
What has been unfairly overlooked amidst all that inspirational influence is the source material itself. Gaston Leroux was inspired to write the book as a result of a tour of the Paris Opera House in which he was invited to explore the fascinating elements located beneath the foundation. It was during this tour that Leroux was exposed to the enormous and sophisticated flooding control mechanism that took shape as the subterranean canal, which would eventually become one of the highlights in the long history of Broadway set design. Leroux also heard of an incident upstairs in which a magnificent chandelier lost one of its counterweights to gravity, resulting in the death of one person and injury to many others.
This inspiration from the real world remained intact through the creative process, resulting in the completed manuscript of The Phantom of the Opera. Leroux crafts from this realistic underpinning an inescapably macabre tale that touches on such literary antecedents as the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld, and the show business tale of Svengali. Perhaps the strangest aspect of The Phantom of the Opera in its original prose form is that Leroux utilizes a variety of journalistic techniques, including the introduction of letters and other documentary evidence, flashbacks, and shifting perspectives into the otherwise straightforward narrative for one singularly bizarre purpose.
Upon first being published, Gaston Leroux made extravagant claims to the effect that The Phantom of the Opera was actually a work of non-fiction rather than a very successful example of gothic fiction like Frankenstein or Dracula, alongside which it belongs.