He has been portrayed by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, and, as some kind of tattooed Hot Topic casualty in the upcoming Suicide Squad, by Jared Leto. But, as suggested by Eric Grundhauser in an article at Atlas Obscura, the Clown Prince Of Crime has his roots in 19th-century French literature. Fans may know that the look of the famous villain was inspired by Paul Leni’s 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs, in which the always-grinning title character is portrayed by German actor Conrad Veidt. Fewer may know that the movie was, in turn, adapted from an 1869 novel by Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Grundhauser says that the 1869 book, the woeful tale of a man whose strange deformity (he always looks like he’s smiling) makes it impossible for him to be taken seriously, “never quite made it into Hugo’s canon of classics,” possibly because “it is a pretty astounding downer.” The film was adapted for the screen despite, rather than because of, its reputation.
While Hugo’s book was a tale of romance and politics, Leni’s film turns the material into a horror story, dark and disturbing even by the standards of the genre. Despite the movie’s tacked-on happy ending, Conrad Veidt’s performance remained the stuff of nightmares. Twelve years later, when it was time to give the character of Batman his own eponymous comic book, a spin-off from Detective Comics, the creative team of Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, and Bill Finger drew upon The Man Who Laughs in crafting a new villain for the Caped Crusader to face. In fact, The Joker’s very first appearance in Batman #1 is a direct lift from The Man Who Laughs. Decades later, talking about The Joker’s origins, Bob Kane was upfront about swiping the character from Paul Leni and Conrad Veidt:
Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. That’s the way I sum it up. But he looks like Conrad Veidt—you know, the actor in ‘The Man Who Laughs’…So Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s the Joker.’”
Victor Hugo’s part in all of this, however, went unmentioned.