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 most well-known. Thanks to a never-ending supply of adaptations into other media ranging from actual operas to silent movies(!) and 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, it would be almost impossible to find any person with access to a cinema, television or computer who can’t provide a basic summary of the book’s plot.
Finding anyone who has actually read the book all the way through, on the other hand, would be an equitably 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 to one degree or another upon 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 and comic books, orchestral compositions, heavy metal songs and ska-punk covers of songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation which has remained the longest-running musical of all time on Broadway since 2005. In addition, the title character has been directly referenced on The Simpsons at least half a dozen times and probably twice as often indirectly.
What has been unfairly overlooked amongst all that inspirational influence is the source material itself. As far as inspiration Gaston Leroux himself, that came about as a result of a tour of the Paris Opera House in which he was invited to explore the vastly more fascinating elements located beneath the foundation rather than those above. It was during this tour that Leroux was exposed to the enormous and sophisticated flooding control mechanism which took shape as the subterranean canal which would eventually become one of the highlights in the long history of Broadway set design. Leroux also took properly creative note 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 which touches upon such literary antecedents as the mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld and the prior show business tale of Svengali. Macabre his plot may be, but 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.