Victor Hugo and the Joker

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.

Victor and the Joker
French writer, Victor Hugo and American villain, the Joker

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.

Joker - Man who laughs
Inspiration for the Joker’s look: a drawing of a playing card and Conrad Veidt

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…

*Images: All images from Wikipedia

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What does Victor Hugo have to do with the Joker?
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Margo Lestz


  1. Hi. Aren’t you doing some sort of event with Lisa Anselmo in early June? She and I and another friend/co-worker are coming for it! I also arrive tomorrow for a week in Nice on business and would be lovely to see you if there’s time! Hope all is well. A

  2. If I’m not mistaken, in the Batman movie with Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker, he tells the story of how he got his “grin.” The story is the same sort of mutilation story you wrote about, except it was his own father or step-father that did it to him. You’re right, there’s nothing new under the sun.

    1. That could be. I’m not a Batman fan, but I read that the Joker supposedly fell into a vat of chemicals that turned his face white, his hair green, and his lips red. I also read that because of his mental instability, he often changes his background story, so who knows.

  3. Absolutely fascinating Margo. You find the most interesting things to research. A footnote to the comment of Julia Allen: Heath Ledger, the young Australian actor (from Perth) who played The Joker in the Batman movie, died before its release from an accidental mixture of prescription drugs (not illegal drugs) he was taking for an influenza type illness. An important lesson for all of us in the dangers of common medications like paracetamol and aspirin.

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